Monolingual Britain and the Heritage Language School Crisis
I remember the day I graduated from the Armenian school. My classmates and I were about 16 years old at the time. Pulling on our un-tucked white shirts, we rushed into a resounding room of applause at the community-hired West London High School to collect our certificates. Later, in a ceremonial lap, we insisted on performing an Armenian Genocide rap-metal song we wrote ourselves (“The Armo geno / 90 years ago / Do you think I’m lying, my brother? “)
Video footage I’m still not quite ready to share shows us guitars beating furiously as our rather traditional teachers clapped, wincing at the distortion. They probably would have preferred the traditional âcouture danceâ that we had been made to perform at the end of each previous summer term. They probably would have preferred it in Armenian as well.
Confusing expressions of heritage like this unfold on trestle tables in dusty church halls and half-used classrooms, on weekends and after school, across Britain. Supermarket-branded orange squash, quiz nights, raffles, and home-cooked national meals donated by parents fuel often voluntary efforts, on tight budgets, to keep the cultures of diaspora communities alive.
There is no formal national database, but around 3,000 “additional schools” are operating in England, many of which teach so-called “heritage languages” to children in the diaspora or religious minorities.
I remember feeling great solidarity with my âEnglish schoolâ comrades who also had to endure a few extra hours of class each week – whether at Gujurati Saturday School or Catholic Confirmation classes.
Last year, however, there was a “catastrophic drop” in the number of students obtaining qualifications for community languages, according to a new report called “Silenced Voices” by think tank Global Future.
As the pandemic disrupted exams, these students were forgotten. Their access to diplomas after years of study vanished overnight. Although community schools provide all education, students often register for exams in their regular schools. Over the past year, many of them failed to provide accreditation, predicted scores or oversight as Covid-19 resulted in exams being canceled.
“We told me [by my mainstream school] it was not possible because of Covid, and there was nothing they could do about it, âsaid Ria Isiksil, an 18-year-old Turkish student in east London, quoted in the Global Future report. âAll this learning was useless! It made me feel bad. I had spent years learning and weeks revising and it was all for nothing.
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Isiksil was predicted to have an A *, but had no alternative, and a teacher told him that a Turkish A level “wouldn’t make any difference to my UCAS form anyway.”
Last year, A-level enrollments for languages ââranging from Chinese, Bengali and Gujarati to Polish, Greek and Turkish fell by 41% and GCSE’s by 28%. Enrollment in Gujurati at A level fell by as much as 96%, and a ‘Brexit effect’ was also observed in the decline of some European languages ââ(Polish enrollments at A level fell by 54%; GCSE 48%) .
More than 12,000 fewer students obtained a qualification in their home language in 2020 compared to the previous year. For the context, the adoption of so-called modern languages ââremained stable during this period; there was even a 1 percent increase in Spanish qualifications, according to Global Future analysis.
This blind spot is important: 4.2 million people in the UK speak a language other than English at home, according to the last census in 2011.
At the Peace Arabic Language School in Brent, north-west London, which sees around 120 children each Saturday, 14 students were scheduled to take their Arabic GCSE last year – and none finished with a grade.
Fatima Khaled, who has run the school and has been teaching Arabic for 19 years, tells me that her students âwere very sad and angry – why weren’t our languages ââtaken into consideration?
For the exam season this year, the government agreed to offer grants of Â£ 200 per entry at examination centers, to allow private candidates – such as students of Community languages ââ- to receive a mark. Industry players are hoping this will prevent the drop in qualifications like they did last year.
However, some of the damage has already been done. Khaled tells me that only two of his students have enrolled in GCSE so far this year. She believes the problem is part of a wider trend of “discrimination” against community languages ââin mainstream education and government. Other factors are also at play, notably the rising costs of renting school premises.
âMonolingualism takes precedence over the curriculum,â says Khaled. âThe way they see these languages ââ- they call them ‘minority’, ‘extra’, ‘after school clubs’. While French and German are called “modern languages”.
âPsychologically, it plays in the state of mind of our learners; they begin to consider that their languages ââare not necessary, that English is sufficient.
I have already written in the New statesman about my gratitude as an adult for my long days at Armenian Sunday School, although I did not appreciate them back then as a restless teenager.
I have realized over the years that knowing another language is useful not only academically (bilingual students are expected to be better at math and English if they are fluent in their home language), but also culturally. As Khaled warns: âWe are going to lose this young generation, it will lose its identity, its roots. “
This connection to my family history has enriched my life in all kinds of ways: maintaining contact with my loved ones scattered around the world; develop a deeper understanding of Armenia’s charged history; to feel closer to my father after his death thanks to the facts and fables I had learned; laugh at my partner’s Lancastrian twang in Armenian when I teach him a phrase.
If Britain views its post-Brexit future as one of international openness and new business partnerships, it doesn’t make sense to undermine the future of its plethora of diaspora communities – especially since ‘there is a “state of crisis” in language learning in English schools in general, in the words of the British Council.
Overall, despite the rise of Spanish, languages ââare down to level A. In 2019, foreign language learning was at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium. At worst in England, GCSE adoption of ‘modern languages’ has fallen by 30-50% compared to 2013-19.
A grim irony of monolingual Britain is that for years the supply for people learning English as a second language has diminished. English for Speakers of Other Languages ââ(Esol) has been chronically underfunded since the austerity cuts in effect a decade ago: a 60% reduction in real terms between 2010 and 2016.
âIf we are serious about building a ‘Global Britain’, we have to stop neglecting community languages. With the right commitment, they could be an engine for our economy as well as for social justice, âsays Rowenna Davis, a London-based secondary school teacher who wrote theâ Silenced Voices âreport.
“Instead of worrying that students studying these languages ââare somehow ‘isolated’ from British culture, we should develop and celebrate their talent as part of what makes Britain great.”