Brexit: telling stories

Ursula Lanvers considers ‘fake news’ and the danger of talking ourselves out of language learning

Anyone who still needs convincing of the deeply political nature of language policies need look no further than Northern Ireland: a parliament in deadlock, deeply divided over the position, importance and visibility of the Irish language. Language policy, how we learn languages and for what reason, has a habit of being politicised, especially at moments of seismic political importance. An example is 9/11: after the event, the US rationales for language learning shifted significantly as languages became increasingly instrumentalised for the purpose of national security.

Arguably, Brexit is another seismic political event, so perhaps it should have come as no surprise when, within days of the referendum, newspapers and media websites published articles linking anti-Europe feelings to Britain’s unwillingness to learn languages. I asked myself what links these writers were making between modern foreign language (MFL) learning in the UK and the Brexit vote – and whether they stood up to scrutiny.

Motivation to learn languages, including uptake at GCSE, A level and university, has been spiralling downwards among young people for some decades. As a researcher in language-learning motivation in UK contexts, I am familiar with the systemic problems associated with learning and teaching languages in UK schools. Can we link negative attitudes to MFL in a school environment to the Europhobia (and arguably also xenophobia) expressed in the Brexit vote? What evidence would we need to support this?

With a group of researchers, I set out to gather relevant publicly accessible websites and journalistic texts that appeared in the immediate aftermath (six months) of the referendum.1 We found 33 texts, mostly written by academics, with some by journalists, politicians and commercial language-learning providers, and submitted these to a thematic analysis. The results revealed no clear link between Brexit voting behaviour per UK region or nation and commitment to language learning, regardless of whether we assessed this commitment via learning uptake statistics or specific language policies in each UK nation.

However, we found that a large number of the texts ‘essentialised’ the British as inherently incapable of learning languages, with an accusatory undertone. Such texts linked Brexit voting/Europhobia in general to an unwillingness to learn languages, despite little evidence to underpin this assumption. This might do harm by further discouraging those already demotivated to learn languages. As pupils from less advantaged backgrounds are very much underrepresented in language study in the UK, this detrimental effect would mainly undermine confidence in students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

A smaller number 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, along with some journalists, emphasised the heightened need for languages post-Brexit, as well as novel, accessible and practical ways to acquire language skills. Texts by politicians also refrained from blaming the British for their lack of language learning, instead making clear, pragmatic demands to safeguard learning opportunities post-Brexit, such as the Erasmus programme and school exchanges with Europe. 


Rhetoric vs reality

So what to do? Nothing much can disguise the UK’s demonstrably poor record of language learning, but much can be done to disentangle rhetoric from reality. Evidence suggests that our language education policy, and undemanding, poorly designed curricula, are the main factors for our poor learner outcomes.2 The outcome is often related to what we put in – a fact that gets sidelined too often in the debates on our language-learning crisis. In 2004, for example, the UK spent just €36 per pupil on MFL education, compared to €138 in France.3

Granted, in the age of Global English, motivating people to learn any language other than English represents a challenge, so Anglophone countries face the greatest challenge. A promising way forward is to open the (socially conditioned) blinkered views of English monolinguals to the rich multilingual world outside their sphere.4 To this end, an overhaul of language pedagogy, explicit teaching of the differences between linguistic systems and concepts, and awareness of the ubiquity of multilingualism are much needed.

Two current initiatives are aiming for precisely this: the National Centre for Excellence in Language Pedagogy and the Committee for Linguistics in Education. The first is a government-funded initiative to promote effective, research-led MFL teaching. Led by the University of York, it follows the Bauckham review of MFL pedagogy,5 which promotes research-informed pedagogy. The second is a joint effort between teachers of MFL and English to raise linguistic awareness and knowledge.

Let us hope that these research-informed initiatives will carry enough weight to impact on policymakers and make a real difference – not only to MFL learning outcomes but, more crucially, to students’ motivation and attitudes, regardless of their social background.



1 Lanvers, U, Doughty, H & Thompson, AS (2018) ‘Brexit as Linguistic Symptom of Britain Retreating into its Shell? Brexit‐induced politicization of language learning’. In  The Modern Language Journal, 102(4), 775-796

2 Gruber, A & Tonkyn, A (2017) ‘Writing in French in Secondary Schools in England and Germany: Are the British really “bad language learners”?’ In The Language Learning Journal, 45(3), 316-335; Milton, J & Meara, P (1998) ‘Are the British Really Bad at Learning Foreign Languages?’ In The Language Learning Journal, 18(1), 68-76

3 Grin, F (2005) L’Enseignement des langues étrangères comme politique publique, Paris: Haut Conseil de l’Evaluation de l’Ecole, Rapport 19, 131

4 See, e.g, Special Edition (2017) Modern Language Journal

5 Bauckham, I (2016) ‘Modern Foreign Languages Pedagogy Review’. Teaching Schools Council 

Dr Ursula Lanvers is Programme Leader for the PhD Programme in Applied Linguistics at the University of York. Her main research interests are the psychology of language learning, language education policy, and Global English and its effect on language learning.