I remember the day I graduated from Armenian school. My classmates and I were 16 or so at the time. Tugging at our untucked white shirts, we shuffled into a hall echoing with applause at the west London high school rented out by the community to collect our certificates. Later, in a twist of ceremonies, we insisted on performing a rap-metal song about the Armenian genocide we had written ourselves (“The Armo geno / 90 years ago / You think I’m lying, bro?”)
Video footage I’m still not quite prepared to share shows us furiously thrashing guitars as our rather traditional teachers clapped along, wincing at the distortion. They would probably have preferred the traditional “sewing dance” we had been made to perform at the end of each previous summer term. They would probably also have preferred it in Armenian.
Jumbled expressions of heritage such as this play out across trestle tables in dusty church halls and half-used classrooms, at weekends and after school, throughout Britain. Supermarket-brand orange squash, quiz nights, raffles and home-cooked national dishes donated by parents fuel what are often voluntary efforts, on shoestring budgets, to keep the cultures of diaspora communities alive.
There’s no formal national database, but an estimated 3,000 “supplementary schools” operate in England, many of which teach what are known as “heritage languages” to the children of diaspora or religious minorities.
I remember feeling a great solidarity with my “English school” peers who also had to endure an extra few hours of lessons each week – whether it was at Gujurati Saturday school or Catholic confirmation classes.
Last year, however, there was a “calamitous drop” in students achieving qualifications for community languages, according to a new report called “Silenced Voices” by the think tank Global Future.
As the pandemic disrupted exams, these students were forgotten. Their access to qualifications after years of study vanished overnight. Despite community schools doing all the teaching, students often register to sit the exams in their mainstream schools. Last year, many of these failed to provide accreditation, predicted grades or invigilation as Covid-19 led to exams being cancelled.
“I was told [by my mainstream school] it wasn’t possible because of Covid, and there was nothing they could do about it,” said Ria Isiksil, an 18-year-old east London Turkish A-level student quoted in Global Future’s report. “All that learning was pointless! It made me feel awful. I had spent years learning and weeks revising and it was all for nothing.”
Isiksil was predicted an A*, yet was given no alternatives, and told by one teacher that a Turkish A-level wouldn’t “make any difference to my UCAS form anyway”.
A-level entries for languages ranging from Chinese, Bengali and Gujarati to Polish, Greek and Turkish dropped 41 per cent, and GCSE 28 per cent, last year. Gujurati A-level entries fell by as much as 96 per cent, and a “Brexit effect” was also observed in the decline of certain European languages (Polish A-level entries fell 54 per cent; GCSEs 48 per cent).
Over 12,000 fewer students achieved a qualification in their heritage language in 2020 than the year before. For context, take-up of so-called modern languages stayed stable in this period; there was even a 1 per cent rise in Spanish qualifications, according to analysis by Global Future.
This blindspot is significant: 4.2 million people in the UK speak a language other than English at home, according to the last census in 2011.
At the Arabic language Peace School in Brent, northwest London, which hosts around 120 children every Saturday, 14 pupils were due to sit their Arabic GCSE last year – and none ended up with a grade.
Fatima Khaled, who leads the school and has taught Arabic for 19 years, tells me that her students “were very sad and angry – why were our languages not taken into consideration?”
For exam season this year, the government has agreed to offer grants of £200 per entry to exam centres, to allow private candidates – like community language students – to receive a grade. Those in the sector hope that this will prevent qualifications plummeting as far as they did last year.
Nevertheless, some of the damage has already been done. Khaled tells me that only two of her students have enrolled for GCSEs so far this year. She thinks the problem is part of a wider trend of “discrimination” against community languages in the mainstream education establishment and government. Other factors are also at play, including rising rental costs for school premises.
“Monolingualism is overcoming the curriculum,” Khaled says. “The way they look at these languages – they call them ‘minority’, ‘supplementary’, ‘after-school clubs’. Whereas French and German are called ‘modern languages’.”
“Psychologically, this plays into the mindset of our learners; they start to look at their languages as not needed, that English is enough.”
I have written before in the New Statesman about my gratitude as an adult for my long days at Armenian Sunday school, despite failing to appreciate them at the time as a restless teenager.
I realised over the years that knowing another language is helpful not only academically (bilingual students are supposedly likely to be better at maths and English if they maintain a high proficiency of their heritage language) but culturally too. As Khaled warns: “We will lose this young generation, they will lose their identity, their roots.”
This connection to my family history has enriched my life in all sorts of ways: maintaining contact with my relatives scattered across the world; developing a deeper understanding of Armenia’s fraught history; feeling closer to my father after he died through the facts and fables I had learned; laughing at my partner’s Lancastrian twang in Armenian when I teach him a phrase.
If Britain sees its post-Brexit future as one of international openness and new trade partnerships, it makes little sense to undermine the future of its plethora of diaspora communities – especially as there’s a “state of crisis” in language learning in English schools in general, in the words of the British Council.
Overall, despite the uptick in Spanish, languages are down at A-level. In 2019, foreign language learning was at its lowest level in UK secondary schools since the turn of the millennium. At its worst in England, GCSE take-up of “modern languages” fell between 30 and 50 per cent from 2013-19.
A grim irony of monolingual Britain is that for years, provision for people learning English as a second language has declined. English for Speakers of Other Languages (Esol) has been chronically underfunded since the austerity cuts kicked in a decade ago: a real-terms cut of 60 per cent between 2010 and 2016.
“If we are serious about building ‘global Britain’ we need to stop neglecting community languages. With proper commitment, they could be an engine for our economy as well as social justice,” says Rowenna Davis, a secondary school teacher based in London who authored the “Silenced Voices” report.
“Instead of fearing students who study these languages as somehow ‘isolated’ from British culture, we should develop and celebrate their talent as part of what makes Britain great.”