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Linguaphobia Letters from the Canary Islands by Barrie Mahoney

'Writing Inspired by an Island in the Atlantic'

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Linguaphobia

Linguaphobia

Do you suffer from ‘Linguaphobia’? If you are an expat reading this, I suspect not, since most expats recognise the need to make an attempt at speaking the language of their host countries. Challenging it may be, but learning a new language does not only help expats to feel part of their adopted country, but it also helps to keep the brain active and alert, and hopefully will help to keep dementia at bay.

Sadly, it seems that all is not well in foreign language learning, according to a recent study, where experts report that Britain will be further isolated from its European partners after Brexit, because of attitudes to learning foreign languages. Apparently, following the EU referendum, many British people have become even more ‘linguaphobic’, relying upon a false belief that everyone across the world can speak English.

Apparently, Britain has relied for too long upon the idea that English is the world’s most important language. It may come as a shock to many, but only 6 per cent of the world’s population are native English speakers, with around 75 per cent of the world population unable to speak any English at all. Interestingly, 75 per cent of UK residents can only speak English, which probably explains quite a lot about issues surrounding community integration.

Over the years, I have become increasingly aware of British schools significantly reducing the amount of language teaching on their timetables. The situation has worsened in recent years, particularly since the financial crisis, and has never returned to pre-crisis levels. Britain has long been behind other European countries when it comes to language learning.

In 2004, the British Government made the decision for language teaching to become optional once students reached the age of fourteen. This led to a reduction of GCSE courses, dropping from 80 per cent to around 50 per cent of their previous levels. This, in turn, had a negative impact upon language teachers employed by schools, as well as students studying modern foreign languages at university dropping by nearly 60 per cent over the last ten years. Conversely, it is interesting to note that around 94 per cent of students in Europe are learning English, with more than 50 per cent studying two or more foreign languages.

I have often maintained that the ability to speak English, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese would ensure that our young people are in a good position to work and communicate throughout the world. I am beginning to think that my suggestions are far too modest, since the British Council announced in 2017 that the ability to speak Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, German, French and Arabic are now necessary requirements for the UK to work and trade effectively in a post Brexit world.

There are warnings too that following Brexit, there will be a shortfall of European citizens to assist with language translation and interpreter services, which the UK heavily relies upon, and is currently a billion-pound industry.

Even more worrying is a forthcoming survey of 700 modern language teachers in England commissioned by the British Council, which reports a negative attitude among both pupils and their parents towards learning foreign languages in school following the referendum to leave the European Union. There is a warning that the UK faces additional isolation following Brexit unless the country adopts a more positive attitude to learning foreign languages. The danger is that economic opportunities and bridge building across the world will suffer and result in a deterioration in economic benefits.

There are also concerns that Brexit has led to ‘anti-foreigner’ attitudes, with the view that once the UK leaves the European Union, foreign languages will no longer be needed; instead, exactly the opposite will be the case.

Whatever happens post Brexit, the ability to communicate with our European neighbours, as well as those further afield, will be essential for the UK to prosper and flourish. Let us hope that ‘Linguaphobia’ does not become the norm, and that the importance of learning a language is recognised by the wider community and not only by those living and working outside the UK.

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