Britain under Brexit: The decline of the polyglots

As Brits, we are most definitely not recognised for our abilities when it comes to speaking or teaching other languages. As proud monoglots, the stereotypical Brit generally switches off when a subtitled documentary is broadcast on the TV and definitely doesn’t make any serious attempt to improve linguistic or cultural knowledge. Of course, I am speaking in very general terms, however, British polyglots are without a doubt a minority (a relatively unrecognised one at that). I think that sometimes we forget how many people in the UK hold some kind of formal language qualification. The familiar term “Brits abroad” hasn’t been coined without reason, but comes as a result of our tendencies to travel to our favourite parts of Europe without so much as opening a phrase book. There is an assumption that everybody will speak English and tailor everything to British needs.

As a student of Modern Languages who chose to major in Spanish and Portuguese, alongside feelings of angst and fear with regards to future job prospects, I am in fact feeling some sense of relief. Knowing that I can use both of these languages in a South American context (or further afield), whether it be work or travel abroad, or working with these countries from within the UK, has calmed my nerves (slightly). However, for students of languages that are spoken predominantly in Europe, there is a grave sense of uncertainty. Having spoken to some of my undergraduate classmates who have found themselves in this situation within a year of graduating, the idea of getting out of the UK and moving to other European countries to work or study before we officially leave the EU, is crucial.

Of course, I am not saying that language decline was not already in motion before issues arose surrounding our EU membership, but it is evident that in terms of cultural immersion and assimilation, languages will suffer. Learning a language in a classroom is one thing, but living that language for a year is another. More than 200,000 students have taken part in the Erasmus exchange programme during their time at university. However, as it is a EU-funded scheme, it is unlikely that this number is going to be increasing over the coming years. The brakes are very much on. For staff and students in the humanities in general, and Modern Languages more specifically, lack of funding and recognition is all too familiar. With very little funding being offered within these departments it is unsurprising that there is a low number of students enrolled on their postgraduate programs. Although most funding is directed towards the sciences I have been very lucky during my time in higher education- I received funding during my undergraduate degree, my year at the Universidad de Cádiz (Spain) was funded by the Erasmus scheme, and my current Master’s degree is fully funded by an institute which aims to promote the study of Portuguese and Portuguese culture and history. I know for a fact that the three funding opportunities that I have been awarded during my time are all reliant on me being a UK citizen and the UK forming part of the European Union. Without this funding I would not have been able to move onto higher education and I fear that this will become the case for prospective students.

Foreign language education is what opens our eyes to other parts of the word and fuels our natural curiosity. Not only does it take incredible skill and dedication over a long period of time to reach a decent level of fluency in a language, it is also a skill that is invaluable to the societies in which we live. Language and communication play an essential role in terms of trade, negotiation and relationships with both EU and non-EU member states. With the numbers of language students falling even before the referendum result, we can only imagine how much further they are going to drop. Brexit ultimately puts us at risk of becoming a nation of monoglots with a similarly narrow view when it comes to the rest of the world. EU institutions have always prioritised and facilitated cultural exchange and cross-cultural communication, however, in leaving the EU we are not only endangering these crucial links but also distancing ourselves and rejecting expansionist ideas.   The UK and its role as a global force in the future seems very questionable under Brexit.


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