The number of students studying modern languages is plummeting, The Sunday Times says today. ‘The number of pupils studying German has fallen below 2,200 with French also on a downward trend — amid fears students are becoming little Englanders.’ It shows a graph suggesting, rather absurdly, that Brexit is linked to the drop. Really? Little Englanders because they don’t want to learn German? My hunch is that today’s young are more globally-minded than any generation that came before, and this is reflective of a Britain that voted in 2016 not to move away from Europe but to strengthen ties with the wider world.
When I was at school, we were told that Maastricht changes in 1992 would change our world: we were hearing of a European future – culturally and economically – which would be best exploited by those who spoke French, German, Spanish. Or all three. To my Cold War generation – and to me especially – this was welcome, even thrilling news. Technology, cheap travel and democratic trends certainly made the world (and Britain especially) more international – but the trends were more global than European. The idea of ‘Europe = Rest of the World’ soon became dated.
Today’s teenagers would struggle to be Little Englanders given that about a quarter of them will have an immigrant mum (in London, it’s just over half). Many will speak a foreign language at home (as my kids do) and it’s far more likely to be Polish, Panjabi or Urdu than French or German. So it is a more global world, rather than a more European one. Every tenth British child is brought up in a Muslim household. The Britain that young people grow up in is a fusion of ethnicities, languages and faith – and they’ll be comfortable with that.
Culturally, the young now live in a globalised digital world.