Has Brexit wrecked my life’s work?

Image by Anthea Bareham

“You may buy from us in English … but you must sell to us in my language!”

This much-quoted maxim highlights the importance of language skills to international trade. What German Chancellor Willy Brandt actually said in the early 1970s was: “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen!” (“then you need to speak German!”). Years later, in 2010, the Chartered Institute for IT stated: “Businesses are three times more likely to buy when addressed in their native language.”

Reacting to Brandt’s statement, the British Overseas Trade Board (BOTB) report of 1978 expressed the view that language teaching in schools was not practical enough to enhance the UK’s ability to trade with other countries. This had a huge impact on my teaching career from an early stage, in my work as a senior examiner and text-book author, and my involvement in language-teaching policy.

Brandt was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize; another Nobel Peace Prize winner, Nelson Mandela, a native speaker of Xhosa, once said: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
This illustrates the root meaning of ‘communication’: making two people ‘as one’ and understanding what makes the other person tick – their culture, which was the other principle that influenced developments in language teaching from the late 1970s.

Willy Brandt and Nelson Mandela

No doubt my multicultural background and heritage were an asset in my school language learning. Having innate cultural empathy through birth allowed me to acquire familiarity with new cultures as well as new languages. Language and culture are interdependent, but to explain how and why is beyond the scope of this article! It was not the same for many of my school friends: one said that he couldn’t bring himself to pronounce a foreign language; and another: “I’ve never liked the French” – hardly a good start to acquiring competence in another language and empathy with another culture!

In 1969–70, I spent the third year of my languages’ degree on an assistantship in Spain. Attempting to explain to Spanish teenagers the irrational relationship between written English and its pronunciation showed me how difficult it can be for most people to learn a foreign language. However, in late-60s Spain, the motivation to learn English was abundant, as proclaimed by posters in the school corridors: “¡Aprende inglés, lengua universal!” I suspect that the popularity of English pop-music may have had something to do with it!

During my post-graduate teacher-training year, my two placement schools were in villages in north Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. Few pupils shared the motivation to learn languages that I had observed in Spain – except that for some kids in these two mining villages (one with a 25 per cent unemployment rate), education was the passport to escape from their deprived environment. They were very well-motivated, including in language learning.

When I started my first teaching post in the early 70s, language teaching was changing rapidly, with a growing awareness of the need to impart communication skills and cultural awareness. The BOTB’s reaction to Brandt’s statement boosted subsequent developments in language teaching and examining from the late 70s.

In the mid-80s I joined fellow heads of language departments in neighbouring schools to produce our own ‘graded tests’ scheme, as the graded tests movement was gaining momentum around the country. The idea was to motivate kids via short-term achievable objectives – learning practical language to perform useful, mostly transactional, functions – and, as in music, levels and certificates were awarded. In the space of a couple of years, in my school, the uptake of language courses up to age 16 doubled from around 40 to 80 per cent.

As for cultural experiences, school trips abroad were invaluable. On one of our day-trips to Boulogne with a large group of 12–13-year-olds, one said: “I asked for an ice-cream in French … and it worked!” Another said: “I really enjoyed the trip to France, but I didn’t see the Eiffel Tower!” On a school trip to Spain, visiting the Alhambra: “I want to bring mum and dad here one day!”

As for A Level classes, one had to fight with school management if numbers were deemed too low to be viable. Given the positive effects of graded tests, we enthusiastically developed a new non-A Level course for students wanting to develop practical language skills but not wanting an academic A Level course. The BOTB and the London Chamber of Commerce developed the template and awards for Foreign Languages at Work (FLAW). Our course enabled students to study business language and foreign trade, and we arranged visits to the likes of British Aerospace, GKN and Birmingham Airport customs and immigration. All this was supported by our local chamber of commerce, whose motto was “Wolverhampton, Workshop to the World!”

In the late 80s, the more practical approach informed the development of GCSE language exams; these tested useful skills, based on material intended for native-speakers. For me, as a senior examiner, the future of language teaching looked bright. The icing on the cake came in 1989: I was invited to be the Hispanist on the modern foreign languages working group for the national curriculum (MFLWG). Many months of meetings ensued, with the 15 or so specialists in European and community languages, and representatives of educational organisations and industry, pooling their knowledge and experience. We considered evidence from bodies as diverse as the British Deaf Association, the Royal National Institute of Blind People and the House of Lords – much reason for optimism!

Our report, published in 1990, recommended that children should start language study at primary level, and should study a language for five years to GCSE. Every school was to offer a range of languages from the 19 designated, including community languages. To fulfil this aspiration, the country would need 3,000 additional modern language teachers. The first disappointment came when the government reduced that figure to 1,500 – ironic, because language teacher supply continued to be, and still is, a major problem.

At an international language teachers’ conference later in 1990, as the only British delegate who had been a member of the MFLWG, I had a copy of the report with the ink still wet. Foreign colleagues wanted to hear about this major development in the UK. However, they were disappointed that we were introducing languages only at age eight, when many countries did so at six. They were even more disappointed that our pupils were to study just one language for five years; in most European countries pupils learnt two.

The document resulting from our work, Modern Foreign Languages in the National Curriculum, was published in November 1991. This policy had hardly become established in schools when the requirement to study languages up to age 16 was dropped in the late 90s; the compensation was supposedly going to be better provision for language study at primary level. It’s hardly surprising that since then many pupils have left school without a useful language qualification, and this poor outcome has never been addressed adequately, in spite of the good intentions of the 2013 national curriculum.

National curriculum in England: languages programmes of study, 2013

“Learning a foreign language is a liberation from insularity and provides an opening to other cultures. A high-quality languages education should foster pupils’ curiosity and deepen their understanding of the world. Language teaching should provide the foundation for learning further languages, equipping pupils to study and work in other countries.”

This situation is articulated clearly by an experienced language teacher, Ellie Baker, in her blog article in SecEd, a ‘voice’ for teachers in secondary education.

So, where are we now? The Brexit campaign generated and exploited the latent xenophobia of many voters to such an extent that, as well as physical assaults on ‘forriners’, people just speaking a foreign language, or even speaking English with a foreign accent, have been attacked verbally. This includes acquaintances of mine in Exeter, a very local example.

Brexit has undone much of the good work done by language teachers. As a tutor on the post-graduate certificate in education(PGCE), the teacher training course in languages, during my last few working years, we emphasised the need to impart tolerance and cultural awareness. ‘Trevor’, our notional unsympathetic Devon pupil, was only interested in his father’s cows and tractor. He’d never been further than Exeter, and saw no point in learning languages; we worked hard to remedy such insular attitudes. Since Brexit, pupils have been heard to say: “What’s the point doing languages after Brexit?” No wonder there is a high turnover of language teachers, given the stress of swimming against the Brexit tide.

The benefits of the Erasmus scheme in the university sector is well-known, and its loss is one of the tragic consequences of Brexit. Our neighbours’ daughter, studying biochemistry with Spanish, was to have spent her third year at a Spanish university, but that cannot now happen. Less well-known was the element of the Erasmus scheme that fostered school links and exchanges; it now becomes more difficult to arrange school visits to EU countries on our doorstep with the removal of the UK from Erasmus. Another tragic loss to UK school pupils studying languages.

In addition, thanks to Brexit, fewer EU youngsters will come to the UK to study English at language schools in our region, now having the expense of acquiring passports rather than using their ID cards to enter the UK; host families in the south west will lose this source of income and the unquantifiable pleasure of the interaction; the availability of au-pair positions here and in EU countries will dry up; language schools in EU countries can no longer recruit young UK teachers wanting to gain experience in the country of the language they are studying; and UK students can no longer work in EU ski-resorts. So, who has lost freedom of movement? OUR young people.

As for the supply of language teachers, something was very noticeable during my school visits as an oral examiner and as a PGCE tutor visiting my trainees during their school placements: the large number of language teachers who are EU nationals, often married to UK citizens. In 2010 I attended a conference organised by the Training and Development Agency for Schools (TDA) at which graduate schools of education and teacher-training colleges were encouraged to recruit EU teachers of shortage subjects, like maths and science, who could also teach their language in our schools.

TDA – Languages in training, 2010

“The Agency is working with the Department to develop a marketing and recruitment strategy to encourage more people to become language teachers.”

It was ironic (tragic?) that the incoming secretary of state for education then was Michael Gove. In his welcome to delegates, the head of the TDA told us how Gove had been convinced that students of teaching spent no time in schools, but all their time in their institutions being indoctrinated by ‘lefty tutors’. I have been a lot of things in my time, but that has never been one of them! This was the same Gove who ruined public exams to the extent that language A Levels, already one of the most difficult subjects, were made even more demanding, with the inevitable reduction of ‘bums on seats’ in language classrooms. This is the man who doesn’t believe in experts (or exports, seemingly!).

Now the crisis in supply of language teachers is about to get worse. On Thursday 4 February 2021, The Times featured a report from UCAS, the university admissions service: there are 3,830 modern language acceptances, more than a third lower than in 2011. Inevitably, fewer university students reading languages means fewer future language teachers. But then, “What’s the point doing languages after Brexit anyway?” I’ve made the point already and it was spelled out in 2017 by the New Statesman: a ‘successful Brexit’ will rely on language skills to sell UK plc to new customers around the world!

New Statesman, 28 November 2017

“The government today would be wise to listen to (Willy Brandt’s) advice and act on it quickly if they are serious about becoming a leader in global free trade post-Brexit. It’s a myth that everyone around the world speaks English and companies are finding to their cost that building export growth is up against a big barrier in the form of the United Kingdom’s languages deficit. Why, then, did the recent government green paper on Industrial Strategy make no mention of language skills?

“There is strong evidence to show that the UK’s lack of language skills – and the consequent under-exploitation of language skills by UK businesses – has held back efforts to boost exports and attract inward investment.”

So, has Brexit negated the positive progress in language teaching over the last 50 years? The government clearly needs to introduce supportive measures and to ensure teacher supply if the recent decline is to be arrested.

Where can we glean some hope? Even though Brexit has turned the clock back 50 years or more, we have to rely on the younger generation, those who did NOT vote for, what that great patriot John Le Carré called, “the greatest act of stupidity perpetrated by the United Kingdom”, as I reported in John Le Carré: Traitor or patriot?

The overwhelming majority of students I have taught and examined in the last 20 or so years have had positive attitudes to the EU, its member countries, their people, their languages and cultures. This generation with its outward-looking attitude will surely repair the damage done by those who would put this country behind a Brexit ‘iron curtain’.