During the second world war, my late father-in-law was conscripted into the army and forced to fight for Nazi Germany. My mother was a young girl in London, running to air raid shelters and seeing local streets destroyed by the blitz.
A first meeting of the in-laws might have been awkward but Albert had been captured and taken as a prisoner of war to Scotland. Waiting to be repatriated, he had made friends with local people and acquired fluent English. When my mother came from Britain to meet him, he delighted in reminiscing and swapping stories from Scotland.
Sharing a language did not just smooth over potential tension, it gave two people then in their seventies a rare opportunity to ask questions of each other with a perspective that could not be more different on the most formative time in their lives.As a nation of proud monoglots, we’ve never much minded that foreign language study has been declining in the UK for years – even though our lack of languages is estimated to cost the economy around £48bn a year. Few people objected when schoolchildren were relieved of compulsory foreign language lessons; being a linguist in the UK can feel like belonging to a minority.
So the potentially damaging impact of Brexit on learning, teaching and using modern foreign languages in the UK is unlikely to cause many sleepless nights.
However, for those of us who have studied French, Spanish, German and other languages, used them at work abroad – and in the UK – and whose lives have been enriched immeasurably by being able to access other cultures and perspectives via another language, the risk of these opportunities shrinking further for us and our children in a post-Brexit Britain is not just depressing but downright scary.
How would Brexit impact on language learning in the UK? The education secretary, Nicky Morgan, has warned that native language speakers who assist at schools or teach in language centres could find it more difficult to live in the UK. No one yet knows how Brexit would affect travel to continental Europe or school exchange schemes, but both might become more costly and complicated.
Could Brexit deliver a fatal blow to foreign language study, which has been on and off the education agenda for years? The Labour government ended compulsory language lessons for 14-16 year-olds in 2004 and, to reverse the decline, the coalition government introduced the English Baccalaureate but the uptake has been slow. In 1998, 85.5% of all candidates took a GCSE in a foreign language – by 2015, this had fallen to 47.6%.
The picture is even worse for A-Level study of languages, with students discouraged from taking them in favour of subjects they are told make it easier to achieve higher grades for university entrance [pdf].
So far, around 200,000 students and 20,000 university staff have spent time abroad through Erasmus, the EU-funded scheme for study, travel and traineeships for young people, which is set to give the UK €1bn over seven years. Those funds are unlikely to be replaced if Britain leaves the EU, depriving British students of not just immersion in foreign languages but mind-broadening, life-enriching connections to other cultures and people.
Studying or speaking a foreign language is necessarily a humbling experience, forcing the speaker to listen and adapt their perspective, chipping away at those philosophical or political certainties that can be limiting, removing barriers and nurturing curiosity. Moreover, in our globalized world, it is a more essential skill than ever, not just for economic success but all trade and negotiation. Acquiring the languages of our European neighbours ought to be the easy bit – crack Spanish at school and you already are on the way to mastering Mandarin, since each additional language is easier to learn after the first.
While the Leave campaign seem to say, you can have boring old Europe, we’ll take the rest of the world, this may not be quite so easy if we’ve lost the ability to speak other languages – and perhaps fewer people may be interested in learning ours.
As Europe has grown closer over the past 20 or so years, so a European sensibility has emerged. This is not just a liking for cheap mini-breaks or familiarity with the menu in an Italian restaurant, but an active engagement with different perspectives and cultures that is rooted in understanding others’ languages. For many educated Europeans, this is simply taken for granted.
For many Britons who share this sensibility, Brexit threatens a retreat to a narrow, monoglot world view and rejection of the expansionist inspiration that has come from closer integration within the EU, whos