Language Show Live 2016: The UK Will Need Many More Linguists After Brexit:

img_0816How many languages do you speak? Anyone reading the Spanish version of this article and living in Britain, is likely to have at least two – their own and English, as well as probably being able to maintain a conversation in Portuguese and Italian. According to the British Council’s (BC) “Language Trends Survey” published in April, however, that’s not generally the situation across much of the country.

As the BC points out, the number of pupils in British schools taking A-level exams in languages continues to fall, which means that “fewer than one in every 26 students learns a foreign language beyond a basic standard”. Entries in French are down by 10% and in German by 11%, although – as Francesca Washtell, City AM’s Industrial Reporter, has noted – Spanish has defied this trend with a rise of 14%.  Research conducted by the Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA), highlighted in the Guardian on 27th October by its Education Correspondent, Sally Weale, indicates  that “Over a third of colleges (39%) have axed courses in modern foreign languages, including A-levels in German, French and Italian”.

The BC survey also refers to a British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) report that the extent of the language deficit in the UK is “truly serious”: up to 96% of those questioned have no foreign language ability for the markets with which they trade, and that this is especially the case with the fastest-developing markets.

Mark Herbert, the BC’s Head of Schools Programmes, has emphasized that if the UK is to remain competitive on the international stage “we need far more young people, not fewer, to be learning languages in schools”. He estimates that the country’s current shortage of language skills is costing the economy tens of billions in missed trade and business opportunities every year: “More than that, the benefits of learning a language are huge – from boosting jobs prospects to acquiring the ability to understand and better connect with other cultures”.

Although the BC acknowledges the strength of English as “the first foreign language of choice for most non-Anglophone countries”, it also warns against complacency in assuming that it will indefinitely maintain its global predominance and competitive advantage. The “Top Ten” on the BC’s list of the most important languages for the UK’s future are: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. Around 75% of the UK public, the BC concludes “Are unable to speak any of these well enough to hold a conversation”.

This scenario has caused considerable alarm among MPs on the “All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages”. The BBC’s education commentator. Judith Burns, on 17th October cited the APPG’s view that the UK Government must plan now to avoid a post-Brexit language crisis. In particular, the MPs fear the loss of European language skills if EU nationals already living in the UK are not guaranteed residency status post- Brexit because the country currently “relies on them to help negotiate trade deals”. After leaving the EU, the UK will require more of its own citizens to possess the linguistic skills which are “vital for our exports, education, public services and diplomacy”.

The Guardian journalist, Lucy Pawle, has quoted Nick Brown, CEO of Nikwax, a cleaning & waterproofing products manufacturer, as declaring that “English is fine if you want to buy goods, but it’s not the right language if you want to sell them”. He admits that although he tries to ensure his export and sales staff are linguists, not knowing some languages has damaged his company’s business opportunities: “We’re well aware that we’re behind in China because we don’t have a Mandarin speaker”.

The BC’s “Languages For The Future” publication thus strongly recommends that “Government and business should work together to develop educational policy relating to languages and international skills, as these have a direct impact on the UK’s prosperity and international influence”. It is also insistent that the 75% of UK adults unable to hold a conversation in any of the ten key languages “should make efforts to learn the basics of at least one new language”.

Patrick Cheek, the manager of the Language Show Live (Olympia, London 14-16 October), similarly stressed – in the official guide to the event – the importance of “not only maintaining language learning but also of increasing it across all ages, especially after the UK’s vote to leave the European Union”. The LSL’s advance publicity heralded the Show as “a chance to join thousands of language learners, teachers, translators, interpreters, linguists and job seekers in an incredible celebration of language”. It anticipated that 40% of those attending would be teachers, 14% language professionals, the average age range 20-49, of whom 70% would be female and 30% male.

There were 124 Exhibition Stands – 43 of them offering Spanish courses either in the UK (among them, the Instituto Cervantes in London, the Universities of Essex, Cardiff, Leeds and Surrey) or in Spain – such as the Universidad de Alicante, the Barcelona Inla Centre, the Associacion Espanol en Andalucia, and the Don Quijote organization, which also has schools in Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. French was the next most available language (36 exhibitors), followed by German (32), Italian (24), Russian (18),Japanese, Mandarin and Arabic (16 each), Portuguese (15), Polish (13), Korean and Turkish (8 each).

There were several stands catering for people with a special interest in, for example, Shona, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Nepalese, Kurdish, Czech or Catalan, although the title to Aberystwyth University’s brochure about Welsh courses (“Cwrs Haf Cymraeg Dwys”) was a little daunting for even the most adventurous language learner. In a different category from all the others, the Terra Academy proposed to teach sign language to anyone wishing to “communicate from afar without shouting”.

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Filed under: Society, Travel | Posted on November 1st, 2016 by Colin D Gordon

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