25, August, 2016

Post-Brexit, we need modern foreign languages more than ever

By Prof Suzanne Graham, Institute of Education, University of Reading

The latest statistics could make for bleak reading. Following today’s GCSE results, entry levels for languages at GCSE have fallen again to more than half of entries in 2000.

The news is disappointing but not all that surprising.

Learning a foreign language brings many benefits – not only for communicating with speakers of other languages, with 75% of the world’s population speaking no English at all – but also for the cognitive and social development of young people.

These benefits include improved cognitive and executive functioning, as well as social and communication skills. They also have the potential to help people see other people’s perspectives more easily, and can help people be more broadminded and tolerant, offering ‘a liberation from insularity’ in the words of the National Curriculum for foreign languages.

Hate crimes

This is especially important in the post-Brexit climate.

What we have seen instead has been an increase in hate crimes since the Referendum, with many words written and comments expressed.

The continuing decline in learning modern foreign languages comes as no great shock, and what the latest entry stats show is that it is something that can’t be addressed simply through measures such as the English Baccalaureate.


We know from research conducted at the University of Reading over the last 15 years or so that the key to increasing foreign language take-up is to develop an intrinsic motivation in learners. Young people who stick with language learning do so because their teachers have developed in them a real interest in the subject – that goes beyond seeing languages as useful for career purposes.

They also need to feel that their school experiences equip them with the tools to actually communicate in and understand language of a more authentic kind than they typically encounter in the classroom. Unfortunately, curriculum, examination and policy developments haven’t really taken account of these issues sufficiently, if at all.


We need to find out more about alternative approaches to language learning to help learners become more intrinsically motivated to carry on with language study, not just more proficient at language learning.

The University of Reading are part of a new research project looking at “Linguistic creativity in language learning” – looking at alternatives to the prevalent emphasis on language learning purely for functional purposes.

We are going to be investigating whether creative approaches to learning a language will motivate and better equip foreign-language learners in the UK, both within schools and beyond.

Ultimately, the project will help teachers find ways of giving learners a much more positive experience in the language classroom.


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