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Britain´s Brexit hangover cure: Start learning languages

9 June 2019 (Shout Out UK)

Britain has a terrible attitude towards learning languages, and consequently, we are one of the least likely countries in Europe to be able to speak another foreign language; following only Hungary and Italy. In 2015, 9 per cent of 15-year-olds in the UK were competent in another language, compared with 42 per cent of Europeans.

Unsurprisingly, languages are not on Westminster´s agenda. However, if we want to better understand ourselves and our culture, a new language-based education system can be the policy to provide the modernizing cultural shift Britain requires.

The benefits of learning a second language are huge. Cognitive studies reveal a link between learning a language and fighting off the onset of dementia. For Brits, it will improve our employability and boost economic growth. Estimates say that the UK loses £50bn a year over its poor language skills: Put that on the side of a bus.

Yet, it is more than just about economics. It is about attitudes and what sort of country we want to be. Our poor language skills facilitate the worst types of Britishness. It is the fuel to our engine of superiority. The vote to leave the EU was a break from the anxieties that Britishness comes with, and it is no surprise that the other two European countries with the worst language skills are plagued by far-right populists.

However, it is important to be aware that language is bound to privilege. For many, learning another language is a form of elitism, reserved only for the few, and to impose language learning insensitively would be dangerous. Crucially, it is an agenda that needs the support of time, and protection from the threat of a new government legislating differently. We must be aware that to work, the policy will require a deep cultural change in Britain.

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