For many decades, visits, homestays and courses abroad in the country of the ‘target language’ have been considered essential to the study of a foreign language, both for UK young people going abroad and for young EU nationals coming to the UK. Indeed, this is nothing new: human beings have always travelled, mixed with and learnt from other peoples and other cultures. In past centuries, the ‘Grand Tour’, undertaken mostly by the wealthy, made a vital contribution to the intellectual and cultural development of the greatest writers, artists and musicians, producing in turn the burgeoning of cultural richness in our country in every element.
Cultural contact produces cultural empathy, which consequently leads to ‘cultural osmosis’. One only needs to trace the development and spread of, for example, the sonnet from its origins in 13th-century Sicily to its being a major element of the work of the greatest English dramatists and poets. This sort of cultural influence was and always has been two-way traffic, with ideas and trends emanating from these islands carried to the rest of Europe and the world and vice versa … until now. A feature of Brexit that was not on the ballot paper is the Brexit government’s apparent determination to bring about the cultural isolation of the UK, not least in respect of the modern manifestations of the ‘Grand Tour’, which have been available for so long to young people of all backgrounds.
Brexit, study of modern languages and foreign travel
WCB has published much in recent months about one negative effect of Brexit: the loss of opportunities for British young people of school and university age to travel, study and live in other countries on their own continent. Such educational opportunities have been very much reciprocal since at least the 1960s, just as British youngsters have enjoyed access to EU countries, the UK has been popular with young Europeans. Such opportunities have arisen from, for example:
- The ‘foreign language assistants’ in UK schools imparting conversation practice in their language to generations of British schoolkids;
- students from European countries studying at universities in this country;
- groups of schoolchildren on language or cultural visits to the UK; and, of course,
- school-aged European students furthering their English in the hundreds of language schools and academies in the UK.
Conor Niall O’Luby’s companion article, “English language teaching: a troubled future?“, describes the double-whammy effect on these of both Brexit and the coronavirus pandemic …
The fallout from Brexit’s impact on language schools
Language schools have for decades been an important feature of the economic activity of university towns and of holiday towns along the south coast. As well as providing work for specialist TEFL teachers, they have contributed in many other ways to the local economy, wherever located, as Conor mentions in his article. The most obvious group involved with students at language schools is the host families, with most such students being accommodated by homestays. My own mother, widowed and with a young son to raise, earned useful extra income for many years providing accommodation for foreign students. In more recent times, our neighbours in Totnes hosted group leaders. Elsewhere in the town, a Spanish teacher friend of ours doing an English course locally gained additional English practice and experience of British culture living with his host family. So many families will no longer benefit from all this.
During my own working life, a school I taught at during the 1970s boosted its finances by providing accommodation and staff for a summer language school. Many of the local host families also happened to have children learning the language of foreign pupils they were hosting; both their children and their guests benefited from sharing daily life. When my children were very young, I often earned extra cash teaching English to the Spanish, French and Italian children hosted by my school, organising events and excursions, and liaising with host families. This sort of arrangement will probably no longer be available to benefit schools financially, at a time when schools are severely underfunded.
As an aside, it should be recognised here that Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) has been very influential in recent decades in the teaching of Modern Foreign Languages (MFL): language teaching has borrowed techniques and methodologies from TEFL that revolutionised language teaching in the UK during the course of my teaching career.
The impact of Brexit on student travel and university courses in the EU
For various reasons, school visits to European countries will be hit hard by the Brexit effect. Organising a school visit abroad is already a major administrative and logistical task. Additional layers of administration and bureaucracy will add to the burden, and make school visits less attractive. Already, the matter of visas now being required is a problem for a particular group of UK young people: as we write, in late August, many language students due to spend a year in an EU country are still uncertain as to whether they can begin their courses in a few weeks’ time. One student reports: “Documents have to be translated and go through a legal process called a Hague apostille to verify them for international use.” She says it has cost hundreds of pounds but she feels no nearer to her dream of studying in Spain. “So many times I’ve been tempted to just say I’m not going,” she says.
The EU’s Erasmus scheme allowed British university students to study part of their degree in an EU university; WCB has covered the loss to British students of the Erasmus Scheme in several previous articles:
- Geneviève Talon’s Adieu Erasmus. Bonjour Turing? A French perspective
- Alan Butt Philip’s Goodbye Erasmus – hello nothing?
- Professor Paul James Cardwell’s The Turing scheme – does it address the loss of Erasmus?
In short, the Turing scheme is a very poor substitute for Erasmus, not least because in most cases students will have to pay university fees, which was not the case with Erasmus … AND their living expenses on top of that. As with so much in BrexiTory Britain, the wealthy will have opportunities henceforth denied to the less well off.
The Brexit slippery slope
Generations of British students have benefited enormously from visits to European countries. Now even the ski trips popular in many schools are becoming difficult, and for an unexpected reason. The Guardian reports:
“The extra cost of permission for British temporary staff to work in resorts is likely to be prohibitive for firms; school skiing trips that rely on British personnel to staff their EU winter camps could be wiped out by Brexit after it emerged they are facing the same obstacles as the music and theatre sectors.”
This problem will also affect sailing, climbing and other such activity trips that rely on having UK-based leaders and instructors.
As we have said, all this educational activity has been two-way traffic in the past. In June, the Guardian reported on the likely reduction in the market for school visits from EU countries TO the UK:
“Tougher post-Brexit entry requirements are likely to cut the number of young Europeans visiting Britain by half.”
“We’ve already seen a big fall-off in interest,” said Edward Hisbergues, the sales manager of a leading French operator, PG Trips. “My business was 90 per cent UK, 10 per cent Ireland; now it’s all about Ireland. Schools are inquiring about visits to the Netherlands or Malta.”
This corresponds exactly to the statement from a language school director in Conor’s article. Indeed, Ireland has always been a popular destination for Spanish families who prefer to send their children to study English in a Catholic country!
School trip organisers in European countries state that: “School trips foster intercultural understanding and reduce prejudice”. They also say that new border restrictions could inflict broader and longer-term damage to Britain’s relations with Europe.
The negative publicity of the ‘hostile environment’
Over the past few months, there have been several reports on young Europeans encountering the impact of the ‘hostile environment’, with some having their phones and medication confiscated and having to spend time incommunicado in detention centres while their cases are being investigated. Of course, these incidents have not gone unnoticed in the European press, such as those described in my article on the ‘hostile environment’.
Here is another, more recent, case from the daily online journal French Morning on June 10: “Venue voir son petit ami anglais, une Française finit sept jours en centre de retention” (“Coming to visit her English boyfriend, a French girl ends up spending seven days in a detention centre”). Traumatised, Annabelle said when this happened at Gatwick Airport in February: “Je me demande encore ce que j’ai pu faire de mal”, (“I’m still wondering what I could have done wrong”).
Naturally, many young Europeans and their families may think twice about travelling into the UK ‘hostile environment’. Some have already had problems with visas and, more widely, the well-documented, less-than-welcoming attitude of UK border officials, as experienced even by acquaintances of ours. Conor refers in his article to the fact that few young EU citizens have a passport because they are unnecessary for their travels within the Schengen area. The expense of acquiring a passport added to that of the visit or language course is potentially prohibitive, leading many to choose a non-UK English-speaking country, as Conor mentions.
Cultural osmosis? Cultural isolation, more like!
The UK government would perhaps suggest that post Brexit, British youngsters will be able to travel more widely across the globe. That has always been possible anyway! As with so much else, the government has not put enough thought into this suggestion. Realistically, parents prefer to have their children visit neighbouring countries, at arms’ length from the UK, rather than countries on the opposite side of the globe, especially considering the ease and affordability of travel within our own continent. As is being seen in all of the sectors described above, it seems logical and inevitable that the impact of Brexit will be to deny the benefits of foreign travel to all but the most privileged young people.
Cultural isolation? Yes, because engagement with different cultures within home communities is being stifled in so many ways, adding to a general feeling among many British schoolchildren, as observed by some MFL teachers: “There’s no point studying languages now that we’ve got Brexit.” Far from the truth, as explained in my article, Has Brexit wrecked my life’s work?
Cultural isolation? Yes, because of the reduction in opportunities to meet new friends from neighbouring countries, via pupil exchanges, or studying at EU universities; this will have a greater impact on those from less well-off homes.
Cultural isolation? Yes, because the UK’s ‘hostile environment’ reinforces national isolation, and the attitude driving it devalues the cultures of our immediate European neighbours.
What a huge loss to the generations of our children and grandchildren … in this sense, the ‘Grand Tour’ will once again become the preserve of the wealthy and ‘entitled’, making this yet another example of the myth of ‘levelling up’.