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What’s Brexit got to do with language learning? Turns out a lot.

Last updated: Jul 10th, 2019

Just when you thought you’d heard enough about Brexit, it’s made the headlines again. And this time it’s our beloved languages that are being hit.

A recent survey published by the British Council cites Brexit as one of the reasons that pupils are becoming disengaged with foreign language learning. According to a third of secondary teachers, a common consensus among students is that studying a language is seen of little value if the UK leaves the European Union.

The British Council has also reported that ‘Brexit is causing poorer children to fall further behind in learning foreign languages’ as parents are declaring to teachers that modern foreign languages will be less valuable after Brexit.

Without the support, encouragement and backing of parents, is it inevitable that maintaining language student numbers will become even more testing?

Shortage of language teachers

Sadly the struggles don’t end there. It’s not only the lack of uptake from students that’s putting a strain on languages, but the provision of teachers too. Geoff Barton from the Association of School and College Leaders said that

‘Schools are also struggling with a severe shortage of language teachers and Brexit could worsen this situation because many of our language teachers come from EU countries.’

With Britain’s decision to leave the EU still very much up in the air, it remains unclear whether support for language learning will continue to dwindle and whether language teachers from EU countries will be impacted upon.

Exam stress

Whilst the matter of Brexit doesn’t seem to be helping the case for language learning in schools, it’s not the only reason students are being put off. Many deem languages to be too challenging with GCSE and A Level exams frequently being cited as ‘too difficult’ or ‘more testing’ than other subjects.

When surveyed, 71% of state secondary teachers indicated that exam content was of concern.

Geoff Barton further backs up this statistic by stating,

‘As the British Council survey shows, the government has not helped by introducing tougher GCSEs and A Levels which are discouraging pupils from taking up subjects which were already perceived as difficult.’


Vicky Gough, the Schools Adviser at the British Council, said:

‘Everyone should have the chance to learn a language but teachers report that many pupils – particularly the most disadvantaged – are being put off by the difficulty of exams and a sense that languages just aren’t for them.’

In response to concerns raised, Ofqual has indicated that they’re reviewing the grading in GCSE French, German and Spanish. A spokesperson for Ofqual has said,

‘We take seriously concerns about the perceived difficulty of MFL subjects and continue to look at this issue in detail’.

International opportunities

Additionally, international experiences being offered to primary and secondary students are becoming less frequent, highlights Vicky Gough.

There are countless educational, cultural, social and personal benefits to giving students the opportunity to take part in an international trip. Not least pupils putting their language skills into practice in real-life scenarios, sparking their enthusiasm for language learning and its importance.

However, with an increasing strain being put upon teachers and schools over modern foreign language provision, is it understandable that focus has shifted away from extra-curricular activities?

A fresh approach?

Whilst the situation may seem pretty bleak, Geoff Barton offers his advice for a way forward:

‘It is clear that we need a new approach which is founded not on school performance tables and the perceived benefits of more rigorous exams but on encouraging a love of languages, and which is backed up by sufficient funding and teachers.

‘We need a national strategy to ensure not only that we have the linguists we will need for trade and international relations, but that we are an outward-looking global country.’

Any linguist will understand the benefits of learning a language and the opportunities it’s brought them: a way to communicate and connect; an opening into different cultures and ways of life; new friendships; an opportunity to seek out new adventures; a deeper understanding of the world around us.

So, let’s spread the word that language learning is not only a vital skill, but also a mindset that brings with it a curiosity about the world around us.

Let’s not be discouraged and disheartened by the bad press and do what we set out to do – inspire the linguists of the future!