Britain could not have picked a worse time to give up learning languages | David Cannadine

Brexit looming, we must wake up to the huge educational, cultural and psychological benefits of multilingualism

National myths play a central role in the story of a country, and the UK is no exception. Over the centuries, we Britons have come to believe that we are naturally proficient – exceptional, even – in certain pursuits. These include engineering, literature, the classics, pop music, geography and football. As the country that gave the world Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Beatles, and the beautiful game, perhaps we have a point. To be British, we understand, is to excel in these areas, and this tacit understanding powers us on to ever greater achievements.

But it is instructive, when thinking about the UK and Britishness and what might lie in store for us in the future, to consider the pursuits about which we do not feel so confident. Of these, by far the most significant – and the most worrying – is other languages.

At some point in our history, we seem to have accepted the idea that we do not need to learn languages and that we are not very good at them anyway. This is curious, given that we are an island nation that needs to trade to survive.

As the BBC reported this week, language learning in the UK is in dire straits. A-level entries are down by a third in 10 years – the number of students who took German A-level in England dropped 16% on 2017, while entries for French fell by 8% in the same period. And, as recent analysis by the British Academy shows, this is having a knock-on effect at university level. Between 2007-08 and 2017-18, the number of students studying languages at university has fallen by over half. With fewer students applying, at least 10 modern languages departments have closed in the last decade, and a further nine have significantly downsized.

This simply cannot go on. With Brexit just around the corner, it is critical we start to value languages and wake up to the enormous advantages multilingualism can bring.

Languages are essential for trade, business and the economy. Alarmingly, the economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance – in terms of lost trade and investment – has been estimated at up to £48bn per year, or 3.5% of GDP.

Languages are also vital to national security, diplomacy and soft power. At the reopening of the Foreign Office’s language centre in September 2013, the then foreign secretary, William Hague, said: “The ability to speak, read, listen and write in a foreign language is one of the fundamental skills of our diplomats. Without it, they cannot get under the skin of a country and really understand its people.” These skills will prove vital to post-Brexit Britain, as we look to forge new relationships across the globe and strengthen ties within Europe.

But the benefits of language learning extend well beyond simply being able to communicate with our global neighbours. Research shows that language learning at school boosts overall literacy, which is a major predictor of children’s attainment in science and maths. We know too that the ability to switch between languages develops cognitive flexibility and improves multitasking and creativity.

More than half (58%) of UK adults wish they hadn’t let the language skills they learned at school slip, 77% agree that language skills increase employability and just over half (53%) regret not having made the most of studying languages when they had the chance. Clearly we are a nation that values language learning, even if we have not always rushed to do it.

But there are signs that this is changing. Duolingo, a hugely popular free language-learning app, claims to have millions of UK users who practise a range of languages, from Spanish and French to Japanese, Chinese and Russian.

The UK has the potential to become a linguistic powerhouse; and with the right policies, political will and cross-sector support, we can create hundreds of thousands of linguists – and transform the UK into a more prosperous, productive, influential nation. Embracing multilingualism would enrich us culturally and economically, improve social cohesion and enhance our wellbeing.

Languages can no longer be regarded as an optional extra. Britain must meet this challenge head-on and prove to the world that it is, after all, an outward-looking, global nation.

• David Cannadine is president of the British Academy which, with the backing of all the national academies, is calling on the government to implement a national strategy for languages


David Cannadine

The GuardianTramp

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