From Brexit to Scandi-noir: The Importance of Modern Foreign Languages

Many of us will be familiar with the sight of groups of young language students in UK cities over the summer months. Their excitement at being abroad away from their parents often for the first time is obvious. In 2016, he International Association of Language Centres (IALC) reported that there were 2.28 million language students travelling abroad each year, with English language travel making up around 61% of this market.

Photo of Prof Wendy Ayres-Bennett

About Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett

Wendy Ayres-Bennett is Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge, and Principal Investigator on one of the four major projects funded by the AHRC under its Open World Research Initiative: Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies. Prof Ayres-Bennett studied French and German as an undergraduate, and then researched the history of the standardisation and codification of the French language for her DPhil, focussing on the seventeenth century. She has continued to work on the history of ideas on language, and is currently co-editing a volume on women in the history of linguistics. She has also written extensively on the history of French, with a particular focus on the extent to which it is possible to reconstruct variation in the past. Prof Ayres-Bennett has become fascinated by contemporary language policy, both as a researcher and as a campaigner for languages.

Whilst these language-learners only represented 0.25% of second language learners across the entire globe, most travelled to English-speaking countries to learn English. If the motivation for learning English in our increasing globalised world is clear, the British often struggle to appreciate the reasons for learning another language.

“The headline news for Modern Languages recently has not been good, with decreasing numbers of entrants at A-level and a number of university departments under threat of closure or severe contraction", said Wendy Ayres-Bennett, Professor of French Philology and Linguistics from the University of Cambridge.

In response to this national concern and its global implications, the AHRC has committed £16m to research in modern foreign languages (MFL) in its Open World Research Initiative (OWRI) project. Its aim is to explore and understand the language learning landscape of the UK, and how it might be transformed.

As part of OWRI, the AHRC has invested in four major research programmes, one of which is Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS). Alongside her responsibilities at Cambridge, Prof Ayres-Bennett is Principal Investigator for the MEITS project.

From Brexit to Scandi-noir

“I think that in the current political climate of Brexit and of extensive migration, the need to learn modern foreign languages has arguably never been more important", says Prof Ayres-Bennett.

“I believe that there are huge benefits from being able to step outside a single language, culture and mode of thought", explains Prof Ayres-Bennett. "It enables you to see the world through other people’s eyes".

Prof Ayres-Bennett argues that the ability to speak another language is valuable to many different areas of society. "Whether we think of international relations, diplomacy, security and defence, or areas such as conflict-resolution and peace-building, or, crucially today, business, international trade, and social cohesion, all of these have languages at their heart."

Image of a soldier speaking with some children
Prof Ayres-Bennett discusses how the British military became champions for language learning in her article in The Conversation

Linguists are needed to provide vital translation and interpreting services. However, the need for direct communication between parties was well demonstrated by the experience of the British military in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Prof Ayres-Bennett also thinks that through reading literature in the language in which it was written, we can begin to see the world through the linguistic categories and worldview of its speakers.

"The gradual opening up of new worlds and the move from incomprehension to being able to make sense of another language and culture can be truly magical ”, says Prof Ayres-Bennett.

Scandi noir dramas have become very popular and one of the biggest hits of the year has been the Spanish language song 'Despacito'. Many young people in Europe improve their English through listening to music and watching films in English so that they no longer need to depend on subtitles.“TV and the internet increasingly provide opportunities for people to view foreign language material and to learn about other cultures.”

Poster for the TV show The Bridge
Over 1 million UK-based viewers tuned-in to watch BBC4's first airing of the Scandinavian thriller 'The Bridge' in 2012.

“The current state of affairs for MFL is a matter of concern, but there are also some promising signs of opportunity”, explains Prof Ayres-Bennett. “The launch of the AHRC's OWRI project is a prime example - this is a substantial financial commitment to fostering research in Modern Languages, which will impact language-learning policy and practice”.

Back to School

But learning languages has to begin in the classroom, and there have been fears that, in recent years, the numbers opting to take MFL in schools has been dwindling. Prof Ayres-Bennett, however, believes that this is also changing.

“Language teaching is becoming more firmly embedded in the primary school curriculum, and it’s really encouraging to see more children being exposed to the fun of language learning at an early age. But there are still issues of disparity of provision and a need for greater support and training for primary school teachers."

Clearly it will take a generation of new language learners to form the next generation of language teachers.

The word cow in different languages
Exposing children to other languages at an early stage is crucial.

“There are some signs that EBacc measures are stimulating increased take-up of languages at GCSE, even though there are challenges and uncertainties over the introduction of new specifications. We want to focus particularly on improving the transition points – so when a child moves from primary to secondary school, then from GCSE to A-Level, and later from school to university”.

There is also a wider cultural issue around learning languages in a seemingly reluctant UK.

“We also need to counter the commonly held belief that somehow the British are poor at learning languages. This is why two of our research strands are focussing on how to encourage successful language learning. We are looking at when it is best to learn a language and whether some languages are easier to learn than others. We expect these research findings to have important implications for policymakers and practitioners."

The Benefits of Language Learning

Alongside informing policy on language learning in schools, the MEITS project also aims to show how languages are important to key issues of our time.

“One of our six research strands is working with external partners in Northern Ireland to explore how to reduce the sense of alienation felt by loyalist communities towards Irish language and culture”.

“Another key area is our work on the cognitive benefits of language learning for the elderly, an area where we are beginning to see exciting results. There is emerging evidence that bilingual patients develop dementia four or five years later than monolinguals”.

Image of an elderly man laughing
Research suggests that if a patient develops dementia, bilingual patients are likely to develop the condition four or five years later than monolinguals.

At a time when there are real concerns about funding the care of an increasingly aging population, Prof Ayres-Bennett says this finding has important implications, not just for the individual but for society as a whole in caring for the elderly and those with dementia. The MEITS project is already beginning to highlight new reasons for developing language learning in the UK. But how does this research evidence make its way into the public sphere and decision making?

“We are working with our Policy Fellow from the Department of Communities and Local Government to prepare a policy workshop in December on the subject of languages and social cohesion”.

The MEITS project has also recently launched a new online policy journal. The journal publishes high-quality peer-reviewed language research in accessible and non-technical language to promote policy engagement, and provide expertise to policy makers, journalists and stakeholders in education, health, business and elsewhere. On top of a busy schedule of academic conferences, workshops and publications, the MEITS project team has a number of public engagement events planned.

“We’ll be running drop-in interactive games, talks and activities on the theme of ‘Different languages, different perspectives’ at the Cambridge Festival of Ideas in October. We’ll also be launching a photograph competition and exhibition, which will illustrate languages in the community as part of the Being Human Festival in November."

“I’m really excited about these events because they’re stepping-stones towards our proposed pop-up museum of languages which will tour the four partner cities – Cambridge, Nottingham, Belfast and Edinburgh – in 2019."

“We’ve also launched a funding call to bring in other researchers to work with us on our research themes. We’re very much looking forward to reading the proposals!"

add alternative text here
Infographic from EuroStat

Return to features