Lost in Translation

Sue Woodroofe | The Grammar School at Leeds | Summer 2017
As the UK prepares to leave the EU, not enough attention is being placed on the importance of language learning post-Brexit. Sue Woodroofe, Principal of The Grammar School at Leeds, explains.
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If I'm selling to you, I speak your language. If I'm buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen!

This quote from Willy Brandt, the former German Chancellor, has never seemed more prescient than it is today, as we face a future outside of the EU. As he so succinctly put it, he may be happy to sell to you in your language, but he wants to buy in his own.

As a nation we are notoriously monolingual but now – more than ever – we need to give serious consideration to the importance of language learning if our country is to flourish on the international stage. In recent years, the falling numbers of students learning a language in schools has left us exposed and, as such, we face an uncertain future post-Brexit. In the independent sector however, where our schools have continued to offer languages at all levels, pupils will be better placed than most to take advantage of the new opportunities that speaking someone else's language offers.

The benefits of learning a language are huge and should never be underestimated. The numbers taking a foreign language at GCSE dropped dramatically after the Labour government ended compulsory language lessons for 14-16 year-olds in 2004. I believe the situation in this country is now dire. Despite the subsequent government overturning this decision, and its introduction of the EBacc with a language learning element, it would seem that the damage was already done. Language learning has almost halved: in 1998, 85.5 per cent of all candidates took a GCSE in a foreign language but by 2015, this had fallen to 47.6 per cent, with a knock-on effect at A-level and degree standard.

Higher Education Statistics Agency data released in 2015 also showed that entries to modern foreign language degree courses had dropped by 16 per cent between 2007 and 2014. Unsurprisingly, some universities have already cut their language provision while others continue to review the situation. As a result, it is fair to say, students from independent schools are playing a crucial role in keeping language courses alive in our universities. These worrying trends show how a weak supply of language skills is pushing down demand and creating a vicious circle of monolingualism.

We must do all that we can to reverse this trend. In the independent sector, we are certainly better placed to effect a change with our strong tradition of language teaching. By making a language compulsory for pupils at GCSE, we are able to demonstrate to young people the benefits that studying a second language can bring. Children who grow up learning about languages develop empathy for others and a curiosity about different places and ideas. As well as linguistic benefits, there are cognitive benefits to be gained. Language students display a greater ability in a range of skills including problem solving, critical thinking, multi-tasking, enhanced memory function and better creativity. Bilingual children have also been shown to have higher maths skills and a better understanding of their own language. Ultimately, languages offer a competitive edge in the workforce.

But our sector also needs to be doing all it can to ensure that this is not just a privilege offered to the lucky few. We need to share our good practice on language learning by opening our doors to colleagues in the state sector and help them reverse the decline in students studying a language to GCSE. Many schools already issue invitations to neighbouring schools to join pupils for the fun and games of a language day, or welcome older pupils to a bilingual debate. There are other initiatives too that are simple to implement, like sharing our schemes of work, or the expertise of specialist language teachers, or the powerful apps that are available as effective learning tools for children who are using technology in the classroom.

It is estimated that our inability to speak a second language costs the UK economy £48bn a year. According to research by the British Council, just a quarter of adults can hold a basic conversation with someone in a language other than English. To get round this skills shortage, we have relied on other EU nationals to plug the gap and act as our translators when it comes to negotiating deals – or expected everyone else to speak English. We can't depend on this goodwill for ever however, and there is an urgent need for the Government to re-think its policies on language learning if we are to survive outside the EU.

With the triggering of Article 50, and during the negotiations regarding the terms of our withdrawal from the EU, we remain a full member with all the rights and obligations that derive from this. This process is expected to take just two years to complete. I believe we are ill-prepared to face the daily challenges of overseas trade, public services, diplomacy and security if we can't communicate in any language except English. Even before Brexit, our ability to communicate in other languages was causing concern. In 2013, the British Council published a report, Languages for the Future, which identified a severe shortage in the number of UK people able to speak the ten most important languages for our country's future. At the same time, the British Academy published its report, Lost for Words, an inquiry into the Government's language capacity in the fields of diplomacy, international relations and security. In an increasingly diverse and interconnected world, the report noted that language skills were gaining, rather than losing, their relevance.

As this issue becomes even more pressing, it is reassuring to see the work being carried out by a cross-party group of MPs and peers, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages. Their report last year called on the Government to set up a national plan to boost language learning from primary schools through to post-graduate level. They also urged for continued full participation with the invaluable Erasmus+ programme, which enables exchange students to live and study abroad. And finally, a call to guarantee the residency status for EU nationals already living in the UK, many of whom fulfil a vital role as language teachers.

I believe it is essential that education challenges as well as teaches. So learning a language should be about more than just being able to speak to someone in their own tongue. It should be about understanding and appreciating other cultures which, in turn, builds mutual understanding and cooperation. This is what unites, rather than divides, us. It is crucial that all of us – both schools and parents – get this message across to our children. If we don't, we risk their view of life shrinking. For me, the ethos of looking outwards, rather than inwards, is summed up perfectly in a Chinese proverb which we would do well to heed: To learn a language is to have one more window from which to look at the world.

Sue Woodroofe is the Principal of The Grammar School at Leeds and a former Principal of the British School of Brussels.

This article first appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Attain.

About The Author

Sue Woodroofe

Sue Woodroofe is the Principal of The Grammar School at Leeds, a coeducational school for pupils aged 3 to 18. It enjoys the heritage of both Leeds Grammar School and Leeds Girls’ High and a long history of academic excellence.

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