With English being the language that dominates the institutions of the European Union, what will the consequences be for the language following Brexit?
Brexit - what are the consequences for the English language?
By Olivia Godron
When the British referendum result became clear, the left-wing MEP and French presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon tweeted: ‘L'anglais ne peut plus être la troisième langue de travail du parlement européen’ [‘English cannot be the third working language of the European Parliament’].
So what effect will Brexit have on the place of the English language in the EU? Might British people now become adept in other languages – or are we increasingly at risk of becoming linguistically isolated?
We asked six Oxford Modern Languages experts for their opinions.
“English is certain to remain an official EU language”
Catriona Kelly is Professor of Russian at New College
‘I am deeply annoyed and frustrated by this [referendum] result, which was based on a great deal of ignorance about the EU and on a misplaced inflation of the UK's role in the world. It has also given encouragement to the worst forces in local politics, as witnessed by the spate of xenophobic attacks. Many of my European friends are extremely distressed and wondering whether to stay (the same applies to the partners of European friends).
‘As for languages, English is certain to remain an official EU language, because Ireland is not about to pull out. So that anxiety is misplaced. In addition, English must be the most widely spoken second language in Europe. But if the UK's global role in business and finance becomes less important, then it seems inevitable there will be less interest in English. All of that is some way off, however. In the meantime, given the extremely high 'remain' vote among young people, the hope is we might actually see a rise in European solidarity.
‘The interest in non-EU languages, if Russian is anything to go by, has different inspirations - it's often to do with a general enthusiasm for the culture, particularly the literature, and is associated with the desire to do 'something different'. So I can't really see that's going to change. The whole Brexit affair has been widely reported in Russia and people are fascinated by it without understanding a whole lot. Some see it as like the breakup of the Soviet Union, but there is really no resemblance, as that was an only notional federal sovereign state, not a loose confederation of sovereign states.’
“The ‘Euro-English’ language will evolve”
Iweta Kalinowska (Balliol 2013) is an undergraduate reading English and French
‘Brexit does not mean that English will be sidelined in European institutions, but it could have unparalleled consequences on the type of English which is spoken there. In choosing not be a part of the European project, native speakers of English have, to a certain degree, given up their prime role in the way this language is shaped and used in the European Union. As a lingua franca, the particular type of Euro-English used is already rife with many quirks and inaccuracies, and being used predominantly by second-language speakers has the potential to further alter standard English and simplify complex linguistic features.
‘Unfortunately, I believe that the adverse effects on English are much more likely than any sort of revival of modern foreign languages in Britain, as the already diminishing interest in language teaching in British schools cannot be helped by this display of Euroscepticism and nationalism. The English language is an incredibly important communication tool not only in the European Union, but also worldwide, and will remain so regardless of the referendum results - therefore I do not think that Brexit will force those previously uninterested in foreign and European languages to take them more seriously.’
“We mustn’t become isolated”
Simon Kemp is Associate Professor of French at Somerville College
‘If people are starting to think more about learning Mandarin and Japanese that has to be a good thing – language learning in this country is very low compared to other countries. 9% of British teenagers can talk another language compared to 42% of average European teenagers; we’re a long way behind.
‘But of course we’re still going to be engaged with Europe - it’s still going to be a major trading partner and our nearest neighbor so I don’t think cultural exchange with Europe should get any smaller. Even beyond Europe, European languages are all global languages and I don’t think there’ll be any loss of focus on them because we’re not part of the EU.
‘English is so much the global language now that it can’t really be shifted from this position. It really is more important now than ever that people should learn other languages in order that we don’t turn into this isolated little England, but I don’t think that Brexit, of itself, will encourage that. It’s up to people like me to make sure Britain does stay an open country, interested in other parts of the world, and doesn’t turn in on itself.’
“Polarised reactions might cancel each other out”
Annelie Fitzgerald (LMH, 1990) read French and German at Oxford and is now a lecturer in English Literature and Language at the University of Toulouse
‘[Brexit] could swing the pendulum in both directions and might have a net effect of not very much change at all. If the status of English is downgraded within the new-look EU, that could indeed encourage more young people in the UK to learn European languages as there would possibly be a greater need for translators of key Eurozone recommendations and other texts and for our future interactions - of every type - with the EU from without. On the other hand as the general trend seems to be for the UK to turn away from Europe and look towards the US instead, European languages may be - wrongly in my view - perceived as increasingly irrelevant in a UK outside the EU.
‘Overall, then, probably the status quo. Of course, I'd very muchlike Brexit to result in an increase in young people in the UK studying European languages but I'm really not convinced that that will be the case given the current dire state of foreign language uptake in the UK's education system. I really don't think Brexit is going to help remedy that!
‘On the other side of the Channel, I can't imagine that the UK leaving the EU will have a negative impact on the number of students choosing English as a foreign language option at the university where I work in France.’
“We need better language teaching in our schools”
Professor Ian Watson is tutorial fellow in French and Linguistics at Christ Church College, and, from October, Chair of the Modern Languages Faculty Board
‘We must ensure that the future of Modern Languages in Britain is better than its present and immediate past. The decision not to require 16-year olds to do a language at GCSE has diminished the numbers taking languages markedly, with a serious knock-on effect at A-level and at universities. The frankly uninspiring nature of current A-level courses, along with the acknowledged unreliability of their marking, has done further damage. Here at Oxford we continue to get excellent candidates, but other Language departments around the country are downsizing or closing. This trend must be reversed. The requirement to do a language in the English Baccalaureate may help, as may the forthcoming changes to A-level syllabuses, but more needs to be done.
‘Quite apart from the intellectual and cultural benefits conferred by learning foreign languages, language teaching is viewed as strategically important both by the government and by industrial leaders, so it is something of a mystery that it should have been allowed to slip so much at school level. It is difficult to assess at the moment whether Brexit will make the need for language proficiency even greater. I doubt that English will be replaced as a major EU language any time soon; too many people know it and they won't stop knowing it (or learning it) even after we have left (whatever form the leaving takes). On the other hand, if we move from straightforward membership of the single market to one or more specifically negotiated trading agreements, it seems very likely that the country will need a greater percentage of its workforce to be linguistically sophisticated.
‘Given that the UK will have to continue to have strong links of various sorts with Europe, I think it likely that the need for the teaching of European languages will increase rather than decrease. Bear in mind that these languages also give access to considerable parts of other continents, notably the whole of Latin America. This does not preclude, however, a growth in the need for knowledge of non-European languages. People often cite Mandarin and Arabic as examples but they are only two of the important ones. Of course, these are already available in some universities. Oxford currently teaches a range of Oriental languages, including the two I've mentioned, at the Oriental Institute, and it's been possible for some time to combine a European Language with a Middle Eastern one to degree level.
‘So, we have gone through a period of retrenchment for Modern Languages in the UK, but I hope we are coming to the end of it. Exactly how the next few years will go is difficult to predict, both because of political uncertainties and because we don't know what will happen in schools. However these things turn out, we will all be doing what we can to roll back the (largely unplanned and unintended) decline of recent years.’
The Taylor Institution, the Oxford University library dedicated to the study of the European Languages.
“Foreign language learning could become a form of protest post-Brexit”
Emily Cunningham (Brasenose, 2013) is an undergraduate reading French and German
‘At the moment [in schools] we are seeing an increasing turn away from learning languages altogether. German and Russian have already been sidelined in the curriculum as they tend to be considered difficult and schools are focusing on promoting science and mathematics instead. A significant problem in Britain is the mentality towards language learning. We are in the simultaneously fortunate and unfortunate position of being brought up speaking the language of global communication, and I think that this makes us complacent. We have a very Anglo-centric approach when it comes to language and culture, which is a shame as there is so much wonderful cultural content being produced across the channel that we often do not have the chance to enjoy. On the subject of whether the EU could sideline the English language, I think that this is unlikely, given that English is a major part of the curriculum in most EU countries, whereas French, for example, might not be.
‘In view of this, I am not sure that the EU referendum result will have a direct impact on language learning in the UK We are already witnessing the demise of language learning, which could even be seen as a contributing factor to the Brexit vote: the feeling that Britain should stick with Anglophone countries rather than making the effort to reach out to its European neighbours. This said, in a post-Brexit Britain there could be a movement towards language learning as a form of protest, especially for disillusioned young voters, the majority of whom were in favour of the EU. Young people might start learning European languages and seeking opportunities abroad; as they begin to realise what they have lost, they might want to engage more openly with Europe.
‘I think that the study of Modern Languages, such as the degree course I am doing at Oxford, will remain strong. People studying literature and language do so for the love of cultural variety, and not purely as a means to an end. I still think that graduates with Modern Languages degrees will have good prospects in the job market, precisely because being able to speak more than one language is a reasonably unusual skill in Britain.
‘Having spent nine months in Germany for my year abroad, I have come to realise just how different the UK is from other European nations in terms of language learning. In Germany, it is unusual not to have a reasonably good level of spoken English or French. I have also realised just how little access we have to European cultural content in the UK, which is unlikely to change. If you look in our bookshops and cinemas you can see the extent to which our culture is already turned towards, and indeed dominated by, the USA, whereas in Germany there is more of a European focus.
‘My concern is that Brexit is going to promote an island mentality on a national level, but hopefully on an individual level it will bring into greater relief the need to learn languages in order to foster greater cultural understanding and to help us to see ourselves as part of a vibrant international community. I would love to see the learning of languages, both European and non-European, flourish in the UK. We would benefit greatly from engaging more with a wider variety of languages and cultures.’