Brexit and Language Learning

English, like any other language, is a living thing. It is constantly growing, developing and transforming itself to adapt to the constant changes occurring in the wider world. Words and phrases that were once common have fallen into disuse and all-but disappeared. You might, for example, still hear someone describing something as ‘spiffing’ (excellent), but when was the last time you heard someone called a ‘coxcomb’ (a vain and conceited man), or referred to as a ‘dandiprat’ (a young, inexperienced or insignificant person)? At the same time, new vocabulary and expressions are continuously being incorporated into the language to keep up with modern life. These days something may now be called ‘droolworthy’ (extremely attractive or desirable). A woman may wear ‘jeggings’ (tight-fitting stretch trousers that look like jeans), or alternatively she may wear the famous ‘burkini’ – a word which has appeared in the dictionary as well as the headlines almost as soon as the garment first started to appear on Europe’s beaches.

In the years 2015 and 2016, one particular new creation has dominated the international news, and now needs no translation – the ubiquitous Brexit. The term was first used by European financiers back in 2012, in the form of Grexit, to refer to the possibility of Greece’s exit from the European Union after several financial rescues, but which so far has not become a reality. Brexit, on the other hand, is all too real after Britain’s historic vote to leave the Union on 23 June of this year.

Many Europhiles like myself still find it difficult to believe that the result on that fateful day was a very narrow ‘out’, but as a consequence of a nagging foreboding I had already determined to anticipate events with a precautionary measure, and decided to renounce my British citizenship. How so, I hear you ask. Well, as a British subject born in Northern Ireland (or ‘occupied territory’ as some might say) I have the right to dual nationality and can legally hold both Irish and British passports at the same time. Apart from my very first passport, which was Irish, I have always held a British one since I was resident for many years in England. That was up until a few months before the Brexit vote when I applied for and received a new 10 year Irish passport (incidentally much cheaper and much more quickly issued than the UK equivalent, but disappointingly with only a black and white photo!).

So why did I take this initiative? Partly I think it was some kind of personal protest on my part at what I felt was a monumentally retrograde, totally egocentric and downright nonsensical decision. Unconsciously, I think it also had to do with undefined and perhaps unfounded fears over possible future difficulties in crossing European frontiers with a UK passport, or perhaps unknown complications with work-permits, bank accounts, tax, pensions and a host of other bureaucratic nightmares. A touch of paranoia perhaps? Maybe so, but nobody really knows what the immediate and long-term effects of Brexit will be, and as human beings we usually tend to fear the unknown.

Undoubtedly, Britain’s long-feared (or longed for) exit from Europe will have tremendous repercussions on countless aspects of the UK’s relations with Europe and the rest of the world. Paradoxically, it comes at a time when many other countries are clamoring to join the Union. Indeed people in the Ukraine are fighting and dying for aspirations that include membership of the EU, while Turkey has had a long held objective to become a member, although recently its current president, Mr. Erdogan, seems to be trying to forge stronger political and military links with Russia. Such are the complexities and anomalies of the world we live in.

The British press in recent months has been awash with speculation about likely consequences, but the only firm consensus is that, in the post-Brexit era, there will be winners and losers. Clearly, the future of the UK economy will depend on the proportion of the former in relation to the latter. One positive example given has been Britain’s growing and flourishing wine-making industry which has expanded rapidly in the last decade or so. Analysts say that this foundling trade will soon be able to compete more and more with the French, Italians and Spanish on a global scale, and will benefit greatly from being unfettered by EU restrictions and quotas.

On the other hand, the future of the car industry is not so clear, and the data is often ambiguous. At the moment 1 in 3 cars sold in Britain are manufactured in Germany. At the same time there are more than 100 locations in the UK where German companies build cars or make car parts. Any change in the free movement of goods, or a significant depreciation in the value of the pound will have serious effects on this business. A fall in the pound makes exporting from Germany to Britain more expensive, while it boosts the profits on cars exported from Britain to Europe. So who will win and who will lose, or will one factor counterbalance the other? As we speculate about all this, one concrete development has already taken place. In two Opel factories in Germany, 5,000 workers have had their hours cut as a direct result of a drop in production due to the Brexit effect. Paradoxically, some of these workers are Britons who emigrated to Germany in search of more secure and better paid jobs there.

But let’s turn our attention now to the subject of language learning and language teaching. How will this area be affected by Britain’s divorce from Europe? Well, English will continue to be the predominant language throughout the world for finance, science and technology, computers, medicine, air traffic control etc. The United Nations, NATO, OPEC, and many other global organizations will still use English as their operating language, so on a global level it will probably be business as usual for language academies. Within Europe, all those bastions of the common infrastructure – Brussels, Frankfurt, Strasbourg – will function as before in English, and it’s impossible to escape the irony that soon Britain will no longer be taking an active part in them.

Spain’s bankers, politicians, high-speed rail engineers, airport developers, dam builders will all still need expert tuition in English for meetings, presentations and negotiations in order to perform abroad at a competitive level. Indeed, it may be the case that the demand for English may even increase as a result of Brexit. Recent articles in the London Times conclude that the exit from Europe will entail a long period of negotiations, that these talks will have to be conducted with each European country individually, and that optimum conditions for British business will have to be argued for sector by sector. The needs of the car industry will not be the same as those of the fishing industry. Pharmaceuticals will have different requirements to banking or tourism. Farmers and shoe-makers will have their own specific priorities. So that’s a lot of haggling hours ahead – hours spent communicating in English, since the British, of course, will not arrive at the negotiating table prepared to speak French, German, Italian or Spanish. This being the case, each European country will need to have at its disposal experienced personnel who are well-versed in their specialist fields, and who also have a great command of the English language. All these people will need to be trained.

It is likely, therefore, that the demand for English teachers in Spain will at least remain stable after Brexit, or it may even increase. However, there may well be some practical implications for British citizens who want to come and work here. It is probable that it will eventually be necessary to apply for some kind of resident’s permit and/or work permit (but then UK citizens already have to have a ‘residencia’, so nothing new there), but what about entitlement to health care? It seems logical that the Spanish authorities will not want to make it very complicated for English speaking teachers to work here, given the national need for English tuition mentioned before. But this could depend, to a large degree, on the future policies of the British government with regard to the immigration to Britain by EU citizens (one of the great fears among the UK population, and a pillar of the ‘out’ vote).

Let’s analyze for a moment the current situation with regard to the movement of people between Britain and Spain. Tourism is undoubtedly Spain’s most important industry accounting for 11% of GDP, and in 2015 there were 15 million tourists from Britain. It would be illogical for the Spanish government to jeopardize the income this provides by introducing over-complicated bureaucracy. At a future date, tourists may need a simple short-stay visa which they will probably be able to acquire when booking their holiday, or immediately on arrival at the airport. For those thousands of Britons who have retired to Spain and have bought apartments on the ‘costas’, the future is unclear with regard to

possible complications over receiving pensions, holding bank accounts, paying taxes, and to what extent they will have access to health care. Many of these uncertainties may also apply to teachers living here.

As I mentioned before, future British policy on immigration will be a key factor in this area. The Spanish authorities will almost certainly prefer not to ‘rock the boat’, but if Britain begins to restrict entry to the UK for Spanish nationals the temptation to retaliate may follow. Remember that, as part of most Spaniard’s life-long efforts to learn English, they usually spend a period of work or study in the UK, Ireland or the USA in order to cement their learning. So, what will happen if Britain restricts the number of Spaniards entering the country, or if they make it difficult or even impossible to obtain work-permits there? What about the huge number of Spanish citizens who have already emigrated to England during the crisis to work in the National Health Service as doctors and nurses, or those who have very easily found casual work in hotels and restaurants? Will they be allowed to stay, or will Britain embark on some kind of purge to expel foreigners or reduce their rights while living in the country? If the latter is the case, how will the Spanish government react? They may well decide to make life difficult too for English teachers working here in the estimated 6,000 private language schools that exist in Spain today, not counting those working in the state system. However, if such complications should arise, there would of course be a simple solution to the scenario – language schools could employ only Irish-born teachers! (Sorry, that’s just my little joke!).

But in all seriousness, conflicts between Britain and other European countries are already appearing. As a direct result of Brexit, France is already threatening to renege on an agreement with Britain by which French authorities have to maintain thousands of immigrants in camps near Calais because Britain will not permit them entry until their applications for asylum have been processed. Why should France sustain the effort and expense if Britain is no longer a member of the club? Logically, tensions of this kind may arise more and more in the near future.

The new European situation will also have an effect on language schools in Spain which offer programs for people who want to learn Spanish. Britons who want to enroll will probably have to go through the same procedure of applying for visas etc. as citizens from Japan or China. While this in itself may not be an insurmountable obstacle, what is true is that the relative value of the pound has plummeted since the Brexit vote, so the cost of a Spanish course in real terms will be significantly higher now than it was a year ago. In addition, those coming from Britain will lose out on the exchange rate when it comes to the spending money they need during the course here. What effect this will have on Spanish courses will only be clear with the passage of time.

Indeed, at the moment the full impact of Brexit can really only be a matter of speculation, but we can be sure that there will inevitably be significant consequences for language teaching and learning, as there will be in all aspects of international relations. Nevertheless, we can be fairly confident that, in fifty years from now, English will still be the predominant world language, but will anyone still remember then what Brexit was?

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