Column Road Comment

Britain, Brexit and bilingualism

By Karis Pearson

Is the English education system failing to offer sufficient foreign language education, or is it the responsibility of individuals to learn the skill if we want to?

While Modern Foreign Languages featured somewhat in my primary and secondary education, there was never any requirement to study them and to be honest, to my own detriment, I never took it all that seriously myself. I found it difficult and tiresome and eventually would merely memorise the phrases I needed to pass GCSE French, rather than try to properly understand the language.

I highly commend and admire those around me who do take it upon themselves to become bi or multi-lingual, but I am definitely not alone in the lack of effort I have put in myself. Why is learning another language not a priority for so many students, both in England but also across the UK?

English is the most commonly spoken world language, recognised and spoken in at least 51 countries. While there are other common languages too, including French, Arabic and Spanish, Brits tend to assume that English is on top and perhaps they are right. I have scarcely been anywhere in the world where I was unable to communicate in English (even if I needed to use hand gestures as well). Whilst in Europe, multilingualism in the rule rather than the exception, in Britain, particularly England, this is far less the case.

One possibility for Brits’ lack of language skills, when compared with our European neighbours, is a sense of superiority. Brexit highlighted a strongly held feeling across the UK that we are better off out of all that European stuff. Perhaps nostalgia filled ideas of a dominant UK are reflected in our lack of desire to learn French, Spanish or German. Additionally, there seems to be a tendency among Brits to complain about migrants who arrive in the country without perfect English. This, I believe, is wildly hypocritical; how many holidays do Brits take each year with, at most, a handful of native phrases in their pocket?

More likely, I feel, is that most of us just can’t be bothered. Learning a language, especially post-childhood when our brains are no longer sponging everything up, requires discipline and hard work. The incentive is lower for those of us who are happy we possess a firm enough grasp of English, a language we can be confident will stand us in good stead wherever we go in the world.

There are many reasons however why those of us who feel this way are missing out. Languages have the potential to broaden our horizons, as to be fluent in a language implies at least some knowledge of the culture associated with it. If you’re a fluent Spanish speaker you can visit Spain and immerse yourself more fully in the culture, conversing with locals in their native tongue, experiencing Spanish life in a way that would most likely not be possible if you approached it in English. The benefits to learning languages are vast. Undeniably speaking a second or even third language broadens your eligibility for employment abroad and, according to NewScientist, “speaking a second language is one of the most effective forms of ‘brain training’ available.”

It is a concern that post-Brexit, language skills among Brits will decline further. Brexit fuelled a resentment towards ‘others’ who are not recognised as a part of Britain and ‘British culture’ and an inherent distaste towards multiculturalism, a phenomenon closely linked with multilingualism. It is possible that once the UK has become more politically distant from its European neighbours, this will also distance us culturally and lingually.

Amid all this finger pointing at the UK, let me not forget to recognise that Wales’ position on language is unique to the English setting from which I write my own experience. In Wales, the English language is just one of the two official languages spoken across the country, the second of which is of course Welsh. In Wales, a proudly bilingual country, Cymraeg, or Welsh as it is known in English, is a crucial part the culture. While not every Welsh individual can speak the language, it has a long and rich history and the maintenance of the language is very important to many.

In the 16th century the language of Welsh was largely banned when Henry VIII’s Act of Union gave England sovereignty over Wales. If you look back through history, it is England who are the main adversaries to the Welsh language, continuing to complain about it in parliament today. As an English person myself, who was born and raised in South-East England in a constituency which voted strongly for Brexit, I feel that there’s truth in saying that the English typically do not like what they do not understand. The England-centric view prevalent within the UK faces less threat if the English language reigns without interference, across the United Kingdom. Considering this, it isn’t necessarily surprising that Westminster don’t exactly fight for the Welsh language.

A commonly heard criticism of maintaining Welsh is that it is an expensive venture with little gain. Well, look at it this way, the Welsh language is a part of the rich culture that makes Wales unique, arguably how many people in the UK feel about the Royal Family. Now, I am not a Royalist (far from it), but if you’re going to criticise the cost of upholding Welsh, you might want to take a look at how much is paid to the Royals, which far exceeds the former. The benefits to being bilingual, as previously mentioned, are vast and learning one second language can make it easier to learn another.

Last year, the Queen of controversy and click bait, Katie Hopkins, made headlines after criticising Welsh-medium schools because they, as she put it, “ban the use of English”. This attack was a perfect example of an ignorance which prevails in England and spurs on the failure to respect a language that is deemed ‘unnecessary’. It is not the responsibility of a monarch or parliamentarian sitting in England to decide the fate of a language even they cannot speak. In Wales, almost everyone can speak English, but according to the 2011 census, the Welsh language is only spoken by around 19% of the population. Seemingly Hopkins got it quite wrong, if any language is at risk of oblivion in Wales it certainly won’t be English.

At the end of the day, I think that as individuals we will only begin to appreciate the breadth of opportunities that languages has the power to give, through fostering the skill as a requirement in UK schools. Due to the pure convenience of English, left to our own devices, many people just don’t bother with languages.

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