Learn a language or be lost in translation post-Brexit

Tuesday 2 May 2017

Learn to speak another language or risk isolation after Brexit.  This is the stark warning from a Yorkshire school principal as young people continue to turn their backs on language learning.

Sue Woodroofe, principal of The Grammar School at Leeds (GSAL), is calling on educators and the government to act now if the UK is to flourish on the international stage post-Brexit.

Writing in the latest edition of Attain, a magazine for independent school parents, heads and teachers, she warns that the falling numbers of students learning a language in schools has left the country exposed and facing an uncertain future in the world of business, diplomacy and security.

According to the British Council just a quarter of adults can hold a basic conversation with someone in a language other than English and it is estimated that this inability to speak a second language costs the UK economy £48bn a year.

“To get round this skills shortage we have relied on other EU nationals to plug the gap and act as our translators when it comes to negotiating deals, or expected everyone else to speak English,” said Mrs Woodroofe, who joined GSAL in April 2016 after 10 years at the British School of Brussels.

“However we can’t depend on this goodwill for ever and there is an urgent need for the government to rethink its policies on language learning in schools if we are to survive outside the EU.”

Mrs Woodroofe believes that education should challenge as well as teach, so learning a language should also be about understanding and appreciating other cultures to build mutual understanding and cooperation.

She said: “This is what unites, rather than divides, us. It is crucial that all of us – both schools and parents – get this message across to our children. If we don’t, we risk their view of life shrinking.”

Language learning has almost halved since just before the millennium; in 1998, 85.5% of all candidates took a GCSE in a foreign language but by 2015, numbers had fallen to 47.65%.

Mrs Woodroofe believes that in the independent education sector, where languages have continued to be offered at all levels, students will be better placed than most to take advantage of the new opportunities that speaking someone else’s language offers.

However this should not be a privilege offered to the lucky few; she said: “It’s beholden on all schools to encourage language learning and to share good practice.”

Photo: GSAL Principal Sue Woodroofe is pictured during a recent French Day for Year 5 pupils from local schools, hosted at GSAL Junior School.

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