Deal or no deal: Why Brexit makes learning German more important than ever

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“By definition, though, cultural and educational exchange is not a one-way street. In its own vital interest, the UK must make the development of language skills and cultural exchange a policy priority in its plans for life after Brexit.”  

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We are all familiar with the mantra that Britain is a nation of complacent monoglots, which needs a workforce skilled in foreign languages in order to flourish in the global economy. In the case of German, the facts have long spoken for themselves: Germany is Europe’s largest economy, the UK’s most important trading partner, and the political powerhouse of the EU. Graduates with German-language skills are therefore consistently the most sought-after languages graduates by major UK employers. 

In light of these realities, encouraging knowledge of German, the mother tongue of over 100 million Europeans, ought to be a top priority for both government and the business community. And there has been no lack of government initiatives and rhetoric emphasising the practical importance of learning modern languages. Yet there has been a steep decline in the number of students taking A-level German – down almost 40% between 2002 (6,367 entries) and 2016 (3,842). 

This is no criticism of dedicated schoolteachers, who must teach to often uninspiring syllabi which tend to regard German as little more than a practical tool. The more languages are taught primarily as a useful practical skill, a process often accompanied by a downplaying of the immense personal, intellectual and emotional benefits of language-learning, the less they will appeal to students who choose subjects because they enjoy them. 

German as an academic subject needs to engage the passions as well as the ambitions of the young. In John le Carré’s recent words, teachers of German need to address “this country’s most precious asset: the enlightened young, who – Brexit or no Brexit – see Europe as their natural home, Germany as their natural partner, and shared language as their natural bond”. As well as being taught the practical skills required to learn the language, students need to be awakened to – and enthused by – German as the language of some of Europe’s greatest writers, scientists, musicians and philosophers as well as of its most heinous villains. And in the process they will learn a great deal about themselves and their own language and culture. As Goethe, perhaps the greatest German writer, once observed: “Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.”

There are signs that Brexit may, paradoxically, strengthen the UK’s ties with its European partners, particularly Germany, in whatever new political and economic order may emerge from the negotiations. Germans are more dismayed than angry at Britain’s decision to leave the EU. The German government is determined to maintain and strengthen cultural and educational ties with the UK after Brexit, through its well-funded ‘soft power’ agencies, such as the Goethe-Institut and the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). Among a host of other activities, the DAAD continues to support the University of Birmingham’s Institute for German Studies, as it has done for the past 23 years. The German Embassy in London is consolidating its eleven regional networks in the UK, including the Midlands German Network, which promote the teaching of German at all levels and foster links with local and national employers.

By definition, though, cultural and educational exchange is not a one-way street. In its own vital interest, the UK must make the development of language skills and cultural exchange a policy priority in its plans for life after Brexit. In a recent paper entitled “Brexit & Languages”, an All-Party Parliamentary Group has called for “a national plan to ensure the UK produces the linguists we need to become a world leader in global free trade and on the international stage”. 

By redoubling and rethinking their efforts to teach modern languages, universities and schools will have a vital role to play in this at once practical and humanising process of (re-)building economic and cultural bridges.

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  • Matt Storr
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    1. At 12:41PM on 31 October 2018, wrote

    Dear Sir,

    Greetings from Bristol. Very interested to read your comments. I graduated from Warwick 2002, having spent a wonderful year out translating at SAP near Heidelberg. It is my understanding now that many people who provide freelance language services in the UK are losing contracts with some of the big companies as a consequence of current events? Future remittance arrangements are unclear, as is the wider legal climate for provision of such services. A more general point too - for technical document writing at a place like Lufthansa or SAP, it is essential to have spent time on-site with developers, technicians etc. before you even contemplate translating into the English language. So, step one is under very serious threat from leaving the EU, as is step two: setting up your own consultancy. Interestingly, I see that the new Universal Credit regulations make it very much more difficult for self-employed people too who may be opting to work part time due to family commitments or health restrictions. Far from being the party of enterprise, I would suggest that this government is feeding languages and self employed language specialists to the dogs. I understand from talking to staff at Warwick that individual departments no longer exist and have been subsumed by a single (less substantial) entity. If people imagine that the only future is learning mandarin Chinese then they did not pay enough attention in history class. Best wishes to you, very troubling times and it is good to know people like yourself are fighting to keep language skills alive. The proposition that machine translation is imperfect should not require further explanation, nor should the need to translate into your mother tongue, I do hope that people do not take the line of least resistance and assume that AI can do it all, that is emphatically not the case, I can think of very good examples where machine translation falls flat on its face. Matt Storr 01179650922

  • Rosalind Leveridge
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    2. At 11:45AM on 08 November 2018, Rosalind Leveridge wrote

    I read this whilst searching for an inspirational quotation to offer students at Launceston College tonight whilst presenting the modern languages cup at their awards evening. This school has a very enlightened approach to languages, viewing them as a useful tool by which their young people can make their way in the global workplace.

    I began teaching languages 40 years ago and spent 5 years promoting them in schools as part of the government funded Routes into Languages project. This marvellous initiative links universities with local schools and provides talks, workshops, and activities for young students. The speaking competitions were wonderful celebrations of their love of languages and a showcase for our young linguists. HEFCE Funding for Routes into Languages came to an end after 10 years in 2016, just when it had become a well established means of promoting the take up of languages in schools. Unless we have joined-up thinking and consistent funding,the situation will not change. There is no reason why we cannot learn other languages in this country, but plenty of reasons it seems why we do not.

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