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We need a Chief Government Linguist to promote modern languages

4 min read

If the UK is to talk – and be heard – around the world in the post-Brexit era we need a voice in government that is dedicated to modern languages, says Stephen Kinnock MP.  

Languages are a vital part of our society and economy and yet their importance is neglected and overlooked.

Being able to speak directly to those we deal with is an essential part of being a global citizen. But in the United Kingdom, the number studying a language is declining year after year.

The highly developed intercultural skills that come with learning another language are absolutely vital for successful trade and diplomacy, peace-making and peacekeeping. But the subject has no dedicated advocate in government.  

Despite their importance, it's a sad fact that modern languages continue to face a major threat in the UK, with numbers across educational sectors in decline.

In summer 2018 just 3,000 students sat German A-levels, which represents a drop of 16 per cent on last year and a 45 per cent fall since 2010. French, which is traditionally the most popular language in schools, has also suffered a steep decline.

It is a tragic situation that we cannot allow to continue, otherwise we face the very real prospect of losing these skills just at the time when they are more essential than ever.

The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in a report released this month, Educating for Business, singled out the need to get language teaching “right” as essential to achieving the government’s ambition for a Global Britain.

I believe that we need a Chief Government Linguist to take control of the situation: a civil service role that can coordinate and support policy in relation to languages. They will be a recognisable ‘go to’ position identified with languages with the ability to influence policy; someone who can think strategically and work across departments.

Currently, despite many positive initiatives to boost languages, policy relating to languages appears fractured and needs someone to guide it at a central level.

All too often languages are pigeon-holed as being the responsibility of the Department for Education, when in fact the ability to communicate effectively across the globe is vital in many departments, from the Ministry of Defence to the Department for International Development.

We need someone who can provide that overview and help Britain enjoy the remarkable benefits of better language skills.

Research work funded by Government through the £16million Open World Research Initiative managed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) will explore the way learning languages has the power to improve our society – and even our health.

For example, studies have shown that there are significant cognitive benefits to speaking more than one language. There is clear evidence that bilingualism can stall dementia for around four years and can dramatically improve stroke recovery. Evidence is also beginning to emerge that learning and practising a language later in life can also bring important cognitive benefits.

And yet there is still no UK-wide languages policy, as language is a devolved matter. 

At a time when the UK is arguably at its most multicultural, and multilingual, we need to harness the language skills that exist on our doorstep and at the same time recognise that modern languages have a value and importance in our contemporary society, helping social cohesion and developing cultural awareness.

The world is changing, fast. The 21st-century economy will provide opportunities for curious, culturally aware citizens with broad communication skills.

An appreciation of modern languages can help underpin that outward-looking mentality. But we need to act now, as it’s hard to turn the tap on when languages infrastructure disappears. Linguists are not made overnight.

I am asking my fellow Parliamentarians to give some thought to the value of languages, and what the UK would lose if they disappear.

We can take action and for a modest investment ensure there is someone that makes sure issues around languages are better supported at an official level. 

I will be sponsoring an event on Wednesday 28th in the Jubilee Room between 4-5pm showcasing modern languages research, and discussing issues facing languages in the UK. I would encourage parliamentary colleagues to come along and learn more from a range of researchers and stakeholders.

Stephen Kinnock is Labour MP for Aberavon 

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