How to Make Languages Relevant in the UK after Brexit

This post is about the future of language learning in a post-Brexit United Kingdom. It discusses why language learning and cultural skills will be relevant to a post-Brexit UK and concludes with some ideas about how to succeed in teaching British residents foreign language skills and cultural awareness skills. It is meant only to open a dialogue on how to make culture and language relevant and interesting for those growing up in the UK.

At the Language Show Live, at the Olympia in London on Friday the 14th of October, there was a special invitation-only event titled Speaking to a Global Future: Languages Post-Brexit. Rosie Goldsmith of the BBC hosted the symposium.

The argument is that post-Brexit, foreign languages will become more relevant to the United Kingdom rather than less relevant. The reason is that till now, the UK has been relying on a lot of talented multi-lingual people from other European Union countries to take on the role of negotiating trade deals. This is because as a part of the EU, the UK rides along on such trade agreements and negotiations. Once the UK leaves the EU, it will have to go in alone.

Hence English alone is not enough and the UK will benefit from having local multilingual talent to help it with international trade and negotiations. This means the onus will fall on the curriculum of the English Baccalaureate (EBACC) to deliver the foreign language skills required in a post-Brexit UK.

Since there are already one million children in the UK school system who speak a language other than English, this is a starting point. Effective teaching and figuring out a way to benefit from the languages already spoken by UK schoolchildren will become an ever more important imperative in for a post-Brexit UK. In addition, building cultural awareness skills that can translate into solid cross-cultural negotiation skills and cross-cultural team-building skills will also be of value. The British Council recognises this need and urges Brits to learn a foreign language.

Since learning a new language will be vital for UK’s success in global trade, the question is asked about some of the ways that the UK school system can effectively tap into the linguistic and cultural knowledge of these one million children.

Is it reasonable to target certain languages as the key to success for a post-Brexit UK and to gather support around the children who know these languages to work with the education system to allow such students to share their linguistic and cultural knowledge with their classmates? Or would it be better to simply find out which children speak which languages in a certain school and gather around those particular languages as a way to build up an interest even in more obscure languages that may be of less interest to the UK’s success in international trade of goods and services?

As I walked through the exhibitor space at the Language Show Live, one of the exhibitors that caught my attention in the area of helping children gain cultural and language skills was lingoo.com, an exchange programme in which students can enjoy a home stay where they have the opportunity to practice their target language and be tutored in that language. Another one, but specific for exchanges to France, Germany and Spain, was adolesco.org, with exchanges of three weeks to three months.

Personally, one of the methods that I’ve done to help me improve a couple of my target languages is the Add One Challenge. With the Add One Challenge, for 90 days, a community draws together online and is able to support one another as they have accountability and rewards for making improvements in their target languages. The winner at the end of a 90-day period wins a round-trip ticket to a country where their target language is spoken.

There are other online challenges with community support as well, such as BliuBliu.com which groups a community in a specific language together for 30 days. The idea behind this challenge is to build habits that will last in one’s language-learning journey.

Perhaps these language challenges can provide a model that can be introduced into the UK school system to help make learning another language fun, interesting, and relevant. It is important to also build up cultural awareness skills. This can help avoid the dangers of bullying and violence towards people who speak with a foreign accent or in a foreign language. Since the Brexit vote, such incidents have been on the rise in the UK.

In an article, the BBC’s education reporter Judith Burns quoted the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages. co-chair The Baroness Coussins from the House of Lords, as saying ‘Brexit must make the UK’s language skills a top policy issue…Language skills are vital for our exports, education, public services and diplomacy.’ Hence there is a check-list to:

  1. guarantee residency status for EU nationals already living in the UK
  2. continue full participation in Erasmus+
  3. set up a national plan to boost language education from primary school through to post-graduate level

The following can all help achieve point three on the checklist: 1) benefit from the existing pool of foreign language speakers, 2) create language challenges such as the Add One Challenge for all school children in the UK and 3) encourage exchanges such as those available via lingoo.com.

What suggestions do you feel would help a post-Brexit UK to make language learning fun, interesting and relevant to students? Without success in foreign languages. post-Brexit UK risks running adrift from its goals to market its products and services abroad. Without intercultural and language skills, the UK may end up paying a high economic and cultural price and increased isolation.

This post was originally published on LinkedIn by Dimitris Polychronopoulos, who enjoys writing in his eight strongest languages on yozzi.com. He encourages guest posts from those who also wish to write in their target languages. You can also read this post in Italian about his thoughts and experiences at Language Show Live regarding the European Commission and his musings about an experience at an Italian Cafe in Hyde Park the day after the Language Show Live event.