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Brexit debate presents opportunity to tackle the UK’s language learning “crisis”

Posted on 15 October 2018

A new study suggests debate sparked by Brexit offers an opportunity to rejuvenate language learning in the UK.

The study analysed the reasons behind the UK’s language skills deficit.

As the UK’s ability to negotiate with other nations increases in importance in a post-Brexit landscape, the research team are calling on educational policy makers to ensure all young people are given the chance to learn languages to a high standard.

The study, led by researchers at the University of York, analysed the reasons behind the UK’s language skills deficit and examined public debate surrounding the issue in the immediate aftermath of the EU Referendum in June 2016.

Social divide 

UK levels of proficiency in modern foreign languages (MFL) are reported to be the second worst (after Ireland) in Europe, with 57% of students in upper secondary education currently opting not to study a language.

The majority of students who do choose to carry on learning a language past the compulsory age of 14 come from more advantaged backgrounds. At university level, MFL subjects are some of the most “elite” on offer – with 28% of applicants coming from private schools compared with 10% across all subjects.

Lead author of the study, Dr Ursula Lanvers from the Department of Education at the University of York, said: “Our study suggests that it is the education system and policy issues rather than the attitudes or abilities of learners themselves that explain the UK’s language lag.”

“The current political dimension of language learning in the context of Brexit offers an opportunity to revitalise language learning, and challenge patterns of social divide in language uptake.”


The researchers examined public texts published after the EU Referendum that discussed the post-Brexit future of language learning in the UK. The texts included news articles from tabloids and broadsheets and articles from universities and commercial language providers.

Many of the texts resorted to a blaming rhetoric, citing Euroscepticism, and lack of learner ability as reasons for the UK’s disinterest in MFL study – an approach which the researchers warn risks reinforcing social segregation, and further discouraging those already disengaged from language learning.


Dr Lanvers added: “As our ability to negotiate with other nations becomes increasingly important in a post-Brexit UK, standards of MFL education should be raised across the school system and language educators and academic linguists should use positive public discourse to promote and encourage language learning.

“It is time for policy makers to realise that English alone is not enough, and make sure that all students have opportunities to learn languages to an advanced level, including those that are becoming increasingly important, such as Chinese and Arabic.

“With global English moving away from native speaker norms, monolinguals are at a disadvantage as other nations become increasingly multilingual and global in their outlook. Learning a language makes you a better communicator with people of different backgrounds.”

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About this research

Brexit as Linguistic Symptom of Britain Retreating into its Shell? Brexit‐Induced Politicization of Language Learning is published in the Modern Language Journal. 

The study was carried out in collaboration with colleagues at West Virginia University in the U.S. and the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow.

Explore our research.