Attitudes towards language learning in Britain need to change

Our young blogger Charlotte writes on attitudes to young people studying languages at university.

Quel dommage! Over the past few months, I have been rather alarmed to see various panic-stricken articles lamenting the inevitable death of language-learning in Britain, including this one from BBC News about avoiding a “post-Brexit languages crisis”.

Having recently applied to several universities to study English and French, this was something which naturally worried me. Being told that your chosen field of study is about to be plunged into catastrophe is not a pleasant experience. But it also got me thinking about the general attitude towards language learning in Britain – and about how thousands more young linguists must be in the same predicament. The British are notoriously terrible at languages, and with the rise of online translation services it is very easy to feel like we are fighting a losing battle. The view that learning languages is pointless and a waste of time seems to be widespread, even in education. Whilst applying to university, advice came pouring in from everybody I spoke to, and – although most of the people I spoke to were very supportive and helpful – there remained a small minority who reacted to my choices of English and French with a mixture of bemusement and pity.

Science is a safe, tidy career path. If you tell your granny you would like to study medicine, she will tell everybody how clever you are and that you are going to make lots of money. “My granddaughter wants to be a doctor, you know.” But if you tell her you would like to study English, her answer is never “How wonderful!”. It is always “Ooh. What are you going to do with that, then?”

Then you say you would like to be a writer. Again, never: “How brilliant! My granddaughter is going to be the next JK Rowling!” It’s always: “Ooh. Have you thought about getting a proper job to keep yourself afloat while you’re trying to make it as a writer?”

I think I probably speak for a lot of young people in my situation when I implore everybody who has ever said this to me, or is secretly thinking it: give me a break. Please note that if everybody were to study what was going to safely guarantee them a job at the end of university, the world would be a painfully boring place. I am perfectly aware that science is an extremely important aspect of the world and how it functions, but I have no interest in it. I love words, reading, music, the ability of language to shape the way we think. Without language there is nothing. Without artists there would be no colour in the world, and everything would be the insipid dishwater grey of spreadsheets, reports, and surveys.

One of my relatives is simply unable to grasp the concept that I am interested in the arts. The idea is completely alien to them. Every time we visit, I am treated to a lecture about how jobs in the medical and technological professions are the way forward, and how robots will soon be writing novels. Their utter failure to at least pretend to be interested in the path my life is taking has often made me wonder if I should have forced myself to find inspiration in a conical flask, or learned how to program a computer. In this world of robot translators and the post-Brexit wasteland of foreign language learning, what would be the point in doing anything else?

Answer: because I’d be rubbish at it, and bored to tears. I love language, and I can’t do anything but embrace it. To my fellow young people who are in the same situation – do what you want to do, and not what your peers think you should do. To those who love science, do science! To those who love the arts, don’t sacrifice them for something you think will please others. To each their own – or, as the French say, à chacun son gout!