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Language learning needs to be protected from becoming a casualty of coronavirus (The i)

When learning a new language, you begin with the words you would normally need every day: words for meeting people, going to cafés and restaurants, asking for the way to the station. Now – in a world where a summer holiday, let alone living abroad, feels like a fading possibility – that rule seems ironic.

While terms like self-isolation and social distancing have become basic vocabulary in English, those classic foreign phrases have evoked a strange sort of wanderlust, tainted by a festering frustration.

With millions of pupils now staying at home until September at the earliest – language degrees and lessons could be among the most disrupted – and foreign travel affected for the foreseeable future, it is vital our ability to talk to the world does not turn into another casualty of coronavirus.

Languages, at their heart, are about people communicating freely with each other, so as school and university subjects, they rely on a level of social proximity that is currently not possible.

Languages teachers at all levels have gone to unbelievable lengths to make virtual lessons as interactive as they can, but both students and academics broadly agree that there’s no substitute for learning face to face.

“The issue with online learning is that our access to facial and bodily gestures and eye contact is affected,” according to Professor Dan McIntyre, a specialist in English language and linguistics at Huddersfield University.

“Understanding what someone is saying to us involves so much more than simply interpreting the meaning of words and sentence structures,” he tells me.

Languages also need regular practice – as much training as muscles. School pupils, in particular – two-thirds of whom have already missed several months of education, as per a report by the Sutton Trust – face an uphill struggle to catch up at a foundational stage of their language learning.

Even if the challenges of accessing quality language education went away, however, there’s a risk that coronavirus has removed many of the major incentives.

In normal times, the pitch is simple: languages are your passport for living, travelling and studying beyond borders. But what happens when the borders are shut?

“Having a precarious travel industry makes learning foreign languages seem less worthwhile,” says Harry Bartholomew, who graduated in French and German at Cambridge University last year and is now teaching himself Welsh. “Many of us had the ambition of going abroad, but reality has hit.”

The lack of opportunities to immerse yourself in a foreign language could be the reason why Welsh is now more popular than Mandarin in Britain on the language app Duolingo. (Snowdonia, you’d better watch out…)

Meanwhile, thousands of students have seen their work and study placements abroad cancelled – including those as far away as next spring – and some specialist language schools in Spain are asking the state for financial support after a drop-off in numbers visiting their (newly virtual) classrooms.

Whether or not you are optimistic about when the world will open back up, the biggest language lesson of lockdown is the fragility of the sector itself.

Language learning in the UK was already in danger of dying out. Only 32 per cent of Britons aged 15 to 30 can read and write in a second language, leaving us bottom of the Eurobarometer rankings. In the next lowest country, Hungary, it’s 71 per cent.

Lately, of course, coronavirus has taught us that the kind of human connection that languages encourage is not just life-affirming but, in fact, a life essential.

Despite the physical restrictions, the need for global cooperation to solve global issues, from today’s pandemic to the climate emergency of tomorrow, could not be greater – and that means understanding one another.

Languages take us beyond simply the ability to avoid Google Translate (though, trust me, that helps). They are also about escaping an Anglocentric view of the world that has contributed to so many of our problems, especially systemic racism.

While the virus lingers, it’s the perfect time to focus – finally – on domestic minority languages: Polish, Punjabi and Urdu, as well as Welsh. There may never have been a weirder time to learn a foreign language – but there has never been a more important one.

Published by The i.

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