When the U.K. shocked the world by voting to leave the European Union in June 2016, many in the U.S. saw it as a foreshadowing of how the upcoming November election could also defy certain expectations and assumptions people held about their countries. Namely, that cosmopolitanism would always win in the end. Or that foreign language learning would always be broadly supported and encouraged.
One and a half years after the United Kingdom voted to break up with the European Union, the fallout is still, well, falling out. The U.K. doesn’t actually split with the EU until March 2019, but that hasn’t stopped the wave of speculation regarding the potential impact of this move — nor has it stopped the wave of actual consequences that are already underway. And when it comes to language use in Europe, Brexit could be kind of a big deal.
Among the predictions: the end of English as an official EU language, or at least the end of a guaranteed English translation in official EU meetings. Some have pointed out that English is too widely spoken to be dropped from use in the EU, but with more hurdles to living and working in the U.K., plus strained economic ties resulting from a possible premium on British goods, the incentive to learn English might not be as strong. For now, according to recent commentary from BBC Europe editor Katya Adler, the EU will continue using English — “much to France’s chagrin.”
Over here in the U.S., the wave of nationalism and isolationism following the 2016 presidential election is having slightly different ramifications. In addition to shifting cultural attitudes toward foreign language learning, many ESL programs around the country have reported sharp drops in attendance, largely due to deportation fears.
Here at Babbel, we analyzed over 15 million user registrations throughout the course of these two historical events. In the U.K. and Europe, we gauged interest in language learning by comparing user registrations over 12-month time periods directly before and after the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016. In the U.S., we compared user registrations in the 12 months leading up to the 2016 presidential election on November 8, 2016. Though it’s still too early to draw any definite conclusions, the data contains some interesting suggestions about the effect of Brexit and Trump on language learning. Here’s a closer look at the status of language learning in the U.S. and the U.K. — and an educated guess regarding where it’s all headed.
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Brits Are Already Behind In Bilingualism
Brexit could threaten the state of language-learning in a part of the world where monolingualism already reigns supreme. Of those living in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, over 98 percent speak English. The United Kingdom is also tied for third least-likely in Europe to speak a foreign language.
According to The Guardian, three-quarters of U.K. residents can’t hold a conversation in any language other than English. But among students in the European Union, 51 percent study two or more foreign languages, according to 2014 data. This number reaches 99 percent in Finland, France, Romania and Slovakia, and even 100 percent in Luxembourg. In Britain, only 5 percent of students are studying two or more foreign languages.
English UK, the national association of accredited English language centers in the United Kingdom, told the Financial Times that it experienced “a significant drop in bookings” during the referendum campaign. One worry at the time was that the government would impose visa restrictions on language students coming to study in the U.K. from the EU, who accounted for 60 percent of the class of 2015.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages came up with a checklist for government negotiators and officials to help counter this language shortfall throughout the Brexit process. Among their objectives: protecting the ability for EU nationals to live in the U.K., continuing the U.K.’s participation in the Erasmus+ (student exchange) program, and a post-Brexit education plan that will help ensure that the U.K. keeps producing a sufficient number of linguists to stay competitive on the international stage.
Right now, it appears that any EU citizen already living and working in the U.K. should be able to continue doing so after Brexit, and EU citizens will be able to move to work in the U.K. post-Brexit during a two-year “transition” phase. What happens after that is still up in the air, but many expect a work permit system.
However, it does seem as though the U.K. will actively try to curb immigration. Prime Minister Theresa May has said that bringing net migration to a “sustainable” level will be a focus of negotiations. Already, Britain’s population growth has been slowing. According to the BBC, annual net migration has fallen by approximately one-third between the time of the referendum and September 2017.
Dr. Robert Lawson, a Senior Lecturer in sociolinguistics at Birmingham City University, is in charge of the linguistics arm of the school’s Centre for Brexit Studies. In his opinion, foreign-language learning will probably continue to decline in the U.K.
“Even though younger speakers might have been majority-against the vote, their learning is set by governmental bodies, and guidelines will depend partly on who is in charge,” he told Babbel. “Many learners still report issues with confidence, subject knowledge, mastery, fluency and more in relation to speaking a foreign language, and opportunities to use/practice their language learning skills are usually constrained to an hour a week, at least at primary school level. So even though kids might enjoy learning a language, it’s unlikely that they’d be confident enough to pursue it at higher levels.”
Our Data: How Brexit Impacted Interest In Language Learning
It’s still too early to draw definitive conclusions about any of this, but Babbel data shows some interesting discrepancies between pre- and post-Brexit trends.
We looked at Babbel user registrations in the U.K., Germany, Italy, Spain and France, and compared data from the year before the referendum vote (June 2015 – 2016) to the period one year after the referendum (June 2016 – 2017).
Perhaps the most significant takeaway of all was that within the U.K., the number of non-English speakers interested in learning English increased at a highly disproportionate rate to those interested in learning other languages (up 1.5 absolute percent points). Though English natives account for a much larger proportion of overall signups, it does appear as though there’s a disproportionately higher impetus on U.K. residents to assimilate to English.
Among the latter group (non-English-speakers outside of the U.K.), there were 1.2 percent fewer leads for English, whereas languages like Danish, French, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Spanish and Turkish all grabbed a greater percentage of overall leads.
The relative decline in French, German and Spanish studies in Britain is not a recent trend, however. The number of young people studying these languages at A-level has dropped by 22 percent in the past 14 years, with German declining by 45 percent on its own. We can’t blame Brexit for everything, but it’s worth noting some of the starker shifts that have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the vote.
“At the moment, it’s still probably too early to tell whether Brexit is having an effect on language-learning trends, and disentangling the historical downward trend of language learning from current events is pretty difficult,” said Lawson. “What Brexit probably has done, though, is raise the profile of (foreign) languages more generally, so it might be that this encourages at least some students to pursue new directions.”
Over in the U.S., Trumpism has led to the creation of an environment that’s arguably even more hostile to foreign language education.
The U.S., like the U.K., suffers from poor marks in second language learning. The Atlantic points out that less than 1 percent of American adults are proficient in a foreign language that they studied in a U.S. classroom, which is staggering when you consider that 93 percent of high schools offered foreign language classes in 2008.
To be fair, language education was getting the short stick in terms of federal funding long before Trump was elected. The number of enrollments in higher education language classes fell by 111,000 spots between 2009 and 2013, dropping for the first time since 1995 and leaving only 7 percent of U.S. college students enrolled in language classes.
But Trump’s agenda is merely speeding up this process. The proposed 2018 budget would have enacted major cuts in public school funding, including a number of programs that funded the arts; foreign-language learning; science, technology, engineering and math; and much more. The more recent 2019 proposal isn’t much better — it eliminates programs in international education and cuts $72 million in programs to develop experts in foreign languages and international studies.
Culturally, Trumpism has encouraged the spread of xenophobia and a furthering of the “English-only” attitude that was already bubbling up before his rise.
Kaitlin Thomas, a foreign language educator, attests to the change she’s witnessed in student attitudes. One morning last spring, as the school year was wrapping up, she recounted her experience with walking into her classroom and seeing the words “Speak American or GTFO” written on her chalkboard. That America has no official language notwithstanding, she notes that this was just one of many examples that have occurred in the wake of the 2016 election.
“The current political climate has created a paradoxical conundrum for instructors of foreign language and culture,” Thomas wrote. “Since June 2015, this jingoist resistance to global awareness or understanding has surged in the classroom as misplaced defiance and fueled by bogus social conspiracy theories and false threat narrative propagation. It bleeds hostile toxicity into learning that depends on student inquisitiveness, participation, and, ultimately, tolerance.”
And while some American students are becoming more resistant to foreign languages, immigrants learning English are ironically becoming more afraid to show up to class due to deportation threats. ESL programs across the country have reported startling drops in attendance. As of March 2017, Louisiana Delta Community College saw less than a quarter of its 200 enrolled students show up to class, and at Linn-Benton Community College in Oregon, no one had enrolled in the ESL program since January 2017, even though there were usually five or six new students on most weeks. Of course, the opposite is true in some communities. Some localities are reporting increases in ESL students due to an increased sense of urgency.
One effect of Trumpism that no one expected, though? That his simple, childlike vocabulary and grammar is actually helping people in other countries grasp their English basics.
Our Data: How Trump Has Impacted Interest In Language Learning
For our analysis, we looked at Babbel user registrations in North America and compared data from the year before the 2016 U.S. presidential election vote (November 2015 – 2016) to the period one year after the election (November 2016 – 2017).
In the U.S., non-English speakers are, perhaps unsurprisingly, more motivated than ever to learn English. English was the only learning language that grew in registrations, by 4 absolute percentage points.
Among English speakers in the U.S., Spanish did claim an outsized number of leads, however, growing 4.7 percent in proportion to other languages. Interestingly, French sharply declined, while Russian showed a slight uptick in interest.
It does not seem as though recent political developments have discouraged Spanish speakers in Mexico from wanting to learn English. If anything, it’s done the opposite. English grabbed a significantly larger share of the pie in terms of registrations. In Canada, many residents are already well-versed in either English and French (or both), so their interest in learning Spanish seems logical. There was a slight increase in learning Russian and Norwegian, as well.
If we’re to draw any conclusions from this, it’s that non-English speakers in the U.S. and Mexico are more interested, or perhaps feeling more pressured, to learn English these days, whereas people in Canada are increasingly drawn toward Spanish — perhaps as it welcomes the immigrants the U.S. has rejected. However, that’s not stopping English speakers here from wanting to learn the language of their neighbors. Even if politics paints a different picture, we still appear to be interested in meeting each other halfway.