The attitude towards language learning in continental Europe is markedly different from that of the UK. While foreign languages became non-mandatory at GCSE in 2002, most European countries have been promoting multilingualism as an essential component of European education and identity since the mind-00s. In the context of Brexit, it is interesting (and for the majority of us at Struck Fluent who have benefitted hugely from EU citizenship, saddening) to consider the effect of this attitude on the British sense of identity and our understanding of and relationship with the Continent. Below, we discuss some of the key differences between UK and continental European approaches to the teaching and learning of foreign languages, and their effect on both British and European identity.
The EU stresses the importance of introducing children to a foreign language at an early age. This means that our continental neighbours are already being introduced to another language (usually English) in Kindergarten. In the UK, meanwhile, second-language education is a lottery. At Struck Fluent, we encounter forward-thinking nurseries and schools in the private sector who provide excellent foreign language exposure in the early years which morphs into more formal teaching as the children get older. We also love working with parents to deliver bespoke foreign language playgroups in their homes. However, we recognise that many people cannot afford such options and that as such their children often miss out on opportunities for language learning, especially as state schools are not required to deliver any foreign language education until Key Stage 2. The only stipulated goal for this is that it must adequately prepare children for secondary school language learning, which is open to very broad interpretation. There is also no requirement to space out the teaching throughout Juniors. In practice, this often means that children do not have any significant exposure to a foreign language until Year Six, learning from teachers who may not have a good grasp of the language themselves and are more focused on increased pressure to get their classes through the SATS. By this age, we often find that children have internalised the message that languages are hard and scary, and ‘everyone speaks English anyway.’ As ‘tweenagers’ they are also likely losing the unselfconsciousness of younger children and will be more scared of ‘getting it wrong’ than they would have been aged, say 5 or 6.
At secondary school, it has long been possible to give up a foreign language at the end of Year Nine. Throughout Europe meanwhile, it is mandatory to continue with at least one foreign language until the age of 18 and a second language is strongly encouraged. This divergence has put a whole generation of British children at a huge disadvantage to their European peers: as well as access to education and employment outside our small island, they lack the many holistic benefits of language learning that make for a more rounded individual perspective and ultimately a more tolerant society: a deeper understanding of other cultures, of ways of thinking and being, and a contingent sense of respect and unity between these cultures.
Access to education and employment
In the days before Brexit, as part of my degree I spent a year at University in France on the ERASMUS programme. As an EU citizen, this guaranteed me a grant of €300 per month to cover my living expenses (France had no tuition fees at that time). All my continental European friends were well aware of the ERASMUS programme and its benefits, whereas my British university peers had almost all never heard of it unless they read Modern Foreign Languages. My fellow ERASMUS students came from all over the EU and in addition to being French learners, they also spoke excellent English. Even those who proclaimed to have ‘only school English’ were far more proficient in my mother tongue than I had been in either French or German after completing A-Levels in each. This speaks to the seriousness with which competency in English is taken not only in Europe but worldwide. If you want to attend the world’s best universities (all in the US and UK) you need to pass a seriously befuddling English test whether your intended course of study is Sculpture, Computer Science or English Literature. Much academic literature is also now only available in English. Decent English is also expected of employees at any company doing business outside their home country as it has become the go-to lingua franca. However, over the last decade in particular, the EU has also been actively promoting the learning of other European languages in order to encourage the free movement of talented individuals between countries, universities and companies across the continent. Since my ERASMUS days, programmes have been established to encourage EU citizens into apprenticeships, traineeships and a wide variety of study placements across different countries. This reflects a cohesive European identity at odds with the UK’s increasingly isolationist position: having always been somewhat ambivalent re: the free movement principle, our country seems lately to have emerged as wholly against it. Is there a link between this isolationism and our devaluing of language learning? Below, we look more closely at the split between European and British identity and how it can be illustrated by our attitudes to the importance of multilingualism.
Multilingualism and identity
The English language has historically been a tool of oppression both within and without the UK, used to actively wipe out other languages and suppress cultural identities. As such, institutional disregard for the learning of other languages and the ‘everyone speaks English anyway’ attitude feels at best narrow-minded and at worst dangerous. Meanwhile, the EC’s 2008 document ‘Multiligualism: an asset for Europe and a shared commitment’ promotes the learning of two European languages with the specific intent of creating social cohesion, international and intercultural dialogue. Between 2010 and 2015 in particular, the EU has reported a huge increase in the learning of two European languages to a high standard across the continent. This reflects the idea that language learning is crucial to European identity, breaking down the narrow bonds of national identity in favour of a larger, continental sense of belonging. As discussed above, free movement across countries is encouraged for students and employees alike, and the majority of the current young generation enjoy the ability to share in their neighbours’ cultures and languages. For me, this is a stark illustration of how far Britain has drifted from the Continent and illustrates our reluctance to fully commit to European identity. It is a vicious circle: locked out of the languages and cultures of our closest neighbours and often unaware of the advantages – or even the existence – of programmes like ERASMUS, they become ever more ‘other’ and the prospect of language learning and intercultural exchange becomes ever more daunting and/or undesirable.
Have you benefitted from studying or working in Europe? Or maybe you feel you’ve missed out on learning a foreign language? Or maybe you disagree completely with our position! Let us know your thoughts in any case – we love a good debate!
Lucy McCormick is Head of Client Services at Struck Fluent, a community of tutors specialising in Modern Foreign Languages and ESL. She has extensive experience as a teacher and tutor of French and ESL in the UK, China, Korea, Vietnam and India. When not teaching or language geeking, you can generally find her in the company of a book, a gin or (preferably) both.