Boris Johnson lacks Irish ambition on language learning, but you don’t need him – start learning a language anyway

Speaking in Dublin on Tuesday, Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he wants to see European languages taught in primary schools across Ireland. Full marks to Ireland for this. It is a great, positive step – and one that is long overdue in the UK too.

Indeed, this is the kind of ambition that a British Prime Minister should have had in the immediate aftermath of the 2016 EU referendum, whether the outcome had been Leave or Remain.

Why? Because in the wake of a Remain vote, it would have been the moment to throw the country finally onto the European path that is its destiny – and do so in a way that would have been about empowering people to make the most of the opportunities that EU citizenship affords you. It would have been the time to cast aside the cliché weighing us down, that we are lazy linguists largely unwilling to learn any of the tongues of our continental neighbours because “they all speak English anyway.”

But even in the face of a Leave vote – the one that actually happened – this should also have been the rallying cry. We are off, the message would have been, but we wish to throw ourselves into the world, not just sit and sulk on our island home. Global Britain, one might even have called it.

Instead – sadly, frustratingly but perhaps inevitably – there has instead been silence and inaction from the UK Government on this. Far from a cri de guerre to learn the lingua franca of our neighbours, we have seen the UK Government actively choosing to withdraw from Erasmus, stripping young people of the opportunity to spend time living and studying elsewhere in Europe. Added to that, a quick search for when Boris Johnson has spoken about language learning only brought up a story from 2019 where he complained about foreigners not speaking English.

But, frankly, who needs Boris Johnson? He is a Prime Minister who, since President Biden entered the White House, looks increasingly like a whale whose politics leave him beached by the changing tide of events. Few internationally have any interest in helping to refloat him.

British people have instead started learning foreign languages anyway. Apps like Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise and Busuu are enabling people to start learning a language in their own time.

Here at we are really enthusiastic about this and keen to promote language learning. We blogged recently about how learning a new language can be a great way to thumb a nose at Brexit. But we want this to be more positive than just expressing frustration at the UK’s exit from the EU. We are all about living European lives and asserting our identity as Europeans – and learning another European language is a great way to do that.

Whilst it would be great if the British PM was being as ambitious as the Taoiseach about language learning, we don’t need his or anybody else’s permission to set out on this path ourselves. If he won’t do it for the country as a whole, we can at least do it for ourselves.

So, whether it’s language learning apps, online evening classes or one-to-one tuition, or even informal arrangements with partners or friends, we hope you’re either learning now or thinking about starting. And we’ll be with you on the journey because language is going to be a big theme of what we blog about this year.

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