What does Brexit have to do with language learning – if anything? Ursula Lanvers (University of York) analysed the claim that Britons’ reluctance to learn foreign languages is fundamentally xenophobic, and found no evidence for it. Rather, people thinking ‘English is enough’ is a more likely explanation for our poor language learning record. Journalism that talks down Britons’ capacity for language learning can be harmful, she argues.
Like all linguists I know, my immediate reaction to the Brexit referendum was a mixture of outrage and despondency. Once semi-emerged (never fully) from this, I was struck by one observation in particular: newspapers and online media had started to speculate that language learning would further decline in a post-Brexit UK. Some argued that our unwillingness to learn languages, and Leave voting, all came from the same ideological corner – that of xenophobia. Others still claim that now we finally have a reason to learn languages: post-Brexit, we can’t rely on our trading partners being super-proficient in English, right?
Is there any evidence for these claims? What links – if any – between Brexit and language learning can we make? Is the way these discussions could be helpful in addressing the UK language learning crisis?
Hannah Doughty, Amy Thompson and I set out to address these questions, looking at the public discussion in the immediate aftermath of the referendum (June-November 2016). The UK language crisis does not just mean that we don’t learn enough languages, and not well enough: the fewer and fewer who do come from increasingly privileged backgrounds (Coffey 2016; Lanvers 2017a&b). UK language competencies demonstrably fall well behind those of our European neighbours, but how do we account for this? If our unwillingness to learn languages is indeed linked to some form of Euroscepticism and/or xenophobia, why do we not see a similar ‘language-phobia’ in the other corners of Europe where Euroscepticism and xenophobia also abound? The global dominance of English, making us too lazy to learn other languages, is an alternative explanation.
Across the UK, we could find no links between the referendum vote outcome and any language learning data (e.g. language learning policies), and even the most inward-looking European countries (lacking ‘international openness’, see Eurobarometer 2012) had better language competencies than the UK. Conversely, all Anglophone countries currently suffer similar language learning crises similar to the UK’s (Lanvers 2017b); moreover, our poor learning outcomes, compared to other European countries, can be explained by systemic educational differences: fewer language lessons, and less demanding curricula. In a word, the ‘English is enough’ explanation is underpinned by evidence, the xenophobia/Europhobia argument is not. How is this expressed in public discourse?
Discourse analysis of public debates on Brexit and language learning
We used critical discourse analysis to analyse 33 public texts (online and in journalistic publications) on Brexit and language learning that appeared immediately after the referendum results. Most were written by academics, some by journalists, politicians, and commercial language learning providers. We found that some texts ‘essentialise’ the British as inherently incapable of learning languages, with an accusatory undertone. Such texts also linked Brexit-voting/Europhobia generally to unwillingness to learn languages, despite little evidence to underpin this link. Such texts harbour the danger of further discouraging those already demotivated to learn any languages. Pupils from less advantaged backgrounds are very much underrepresented in language study at GCSE, A-level, and university, and such texts might further undermine learner confidence in learners from such backgrounds.
A smaller amount of texts took a positive, can-do stance, seeing Brexit as an opportunity to rejuvenate language learning, and perhaps learn different sets of languages. Commercial providers, but also some journalists, emphasise the heightened need for languages post-Brexit, as well as novel, accessible and practical ways to acquire language skills. Finally, politicians also refrained from blaming the British for their lack of language learning, but make very clear political demands to safeguard learning opportunities post-Brexit, such as in school exchanges with Europe.
Why does it matter how we talk about language learning? It matters very much how we frame (lack of) opportunities for language learning post- Brexit, as new evidence shows that pupils’ already poor motivation to learn languages has already declined further since the referendum. This decline was more noticeable in schools with pupils from predominantly less advantaged backgrounds. Thus, texts which ‘essentialise’ the British as poor linguists not only rely on intangible links between Brexit votes and attitudes to language learning, but risk reinforcing the social divide in language learning. ‘Opportunistic texts’, by contrast, could offer a much-needed confidence boost in language learning.
Finally, this study is based on 33 texts only, all of which emerged within six months of the referendum. The findings thus represent a snapshot of the public thinking on the issue at that time.
This post represents the views of the author and not those of the Brexit blog, nor the LSE. It is based on Lanvers, U., Doughty, H., & Thompson, A. S. (2018). Brexit as Linguistic Symptom of Britain Retreating into its Shell? Brexit‐Induced Politicization of Language Learning. The Modern Language Journal, 102(4), 775-796.
Coffey, S. (2016). Choosing to Study Modern Foreign Languages: Discourses of Value as Forms of Cultural Capital. Applied Linguistics, amw019. DOI: 10.1093/applin/amw019.
Lanvers, U. (2017a) Elitism in language learning in the UK. In (eds D. Rivers & K. Kotzmann) Isms in language education. Berlin: De Gruyter (pp. 50–73).
Lanvers, U. (2017b) Contradictory Others and the Habitus of Languages: Surveying the L2 Motivation Landscape in the United Kingdom. The Modern Language Journal 101(3), 517–532.