Lost in Brexit Translation: Brexit and the Role of the English Language

Lost in Brexit Translation: Brexit and the Role of the English Language

Nazza Ahmed examines the importance of the English language and its relationship to the 2016 EU Referendum

I got an A in French at GCSE,  and I can hardly speak a word of it. “Bonjour” and “un café avec du lait et du sucre” are as far as it goes really. But let’s be honest, do I really care? Not as much as I probably should. After all, I can speak English – the most influential and commercialised language in the entire world. Why would I need to speak any other language?

This personal ignorance of mine resonates with the thinking and rhetoric of some Brexiteers. It gives a sense of why some people are Little Englanders, still clinging on to the notion of Britain as an island nation – one that is isolationist and wishes to distance itself from Europe and the European Union.

We live in a nation where most of the population cannot speak a language other than English. A study by the British Council found that three-quarters of UK adults cannot speak a foreign language. This differs from the rest of the world, where many people can speak English as a primary or secondary language. There are three hundred and sixty million native English speakers and half a billion who speak it as their second language. Throughout history the English language has been grounded in its influence around the world,  a precedent still seen today and likely to take us well into the future.

The English language is an underrated, yet important, factor in understanding the result of the 2016 EU Referendum. One of the most common arguments of the Vote Leave campaign referred to the idea that the European Union needed Britain more than Britain needed them. This accords with the sentiment that European nations need to speak English more than we need to speak, for instance, the languages of France, Germany, or Poland. After all, 22 out of the 26 participants in the Eurovision 2017 final sang their songs in English. Thus, the superiority of the English language almost subconsciously feeds into the narrative of Britain being a superior nation. Britain has its language which has its global reach,  past and present. It doesn’t need European languages, Europe itself or the European Union.

As someone who only speaks English and attends University in London, I find it incredibly frustrating that the chances of speaking another language are limited. Attempts to teach languages in British schools, both primary and secondary, are generally quite poor. Students are taught how to pass exams rather than use a language in real life situations.

Another related issue is that those who can speak multiple languages in Britain, and in other parts of the English-speaking world, are often seen as gifted or talented. However, bilingualism is often the result of having foreign parents or a privileged education. In Britain, this discourse needs to be broken. We need to live in a Britain that adequately teaches all children from a young age at least one globally influential language. It is part of the reason some Brexiteers feel as though globalisation is a process that has not worked for them. It has worked for immigrants, who can speak English, but not for them, who cannot speak a language other than English.

If you can understand a language besides English, you are instantly more employable across the globe. But language is more than just the highlight of your CV. It goes beyond the superficial boundary of words. It is a chance to access cultures, to integrate into otherwise foreign countries and to generally be more open-minded and tolerant of other nations. This was why London, as a global, multicultural, diverse city with people speaking a whole range of other languages was such a marked exception to the Brexit vote, with a strong Remain majority.

What does this ultimately mean for Britain post-Brexit? It means that we need to stray away from isolationist sentiment. We should ideally teach young people and encourage older people to speak other languages. Of course, this doesn’t solve the issue of Brexit. It certainly doesn’t mean that people voted for Brexit based solely on the role of the English language. Yet it is a small, but important, part of a wider theme of Little England nationalism. Such nationalism was, to some effect, damaging to the nature of the 2016 EU Referendum. Learning languages is thus a step in the right direction – one where Britain is a truly global nation, in interest and in outlook. In this sense, Britain can feel closer to, not just Europe and the European Union, but the world as a whole.

Featured image: Dave Kellam, Flickr

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