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Culture

How London's Goethe-Institut is fighting for foreign languages amidst Brexit

What does Brexit mean for language-learning and cultural exchange in the UK? The head of London's Goethe-Institut told DW that the impact is already being felt - but she remains optimistic for the future.

DW: Before the referendum, you had mixed feelings about Brexit. How do you feel now?

Angela Kaya: I am very curious to see what happens. We are living in a period of uncertainty. We are expecting a tough exit with tough negotiations, but we don't know whether there is a master plan. There may be plans, but we don't know of them. Prime Minister Theresa May doesn't want to publish them, so we're dependent on learning about what will happen. I feel like everyone else does: Hopefully it will start soon and hopefully the things we need to know to continue working will become more concrete.

Have you observed changes in Great Britain's cultural climate?

Yes. Everyone - whether they're part of business, politics, sports, culture or education - is torn. We have partners that say we will manage well without European subsidies. Others are very pessimistic. In the education sector, we are already experiencing drastic cuts. School budgets are being slashed. There are fewer teachers at the schools. It seems that schools are first saving where it appears to hurt the least - foreign languages and the arts. There is a wide variety of opinions on how we can deal with that.

Is Brexit still being talked about in London's art and culture scene?

Angela Kaya, director of the Goethe-Institut in London (Goethe-Institut London/Carolyne Locher)

Angela Kaya is the director of the Goethe-Institut in London

Yes, absolutely. Although the pragmatism that our partners demonstrate is also taking hold here - combined with the famous British humor. I recently attended an exhibition opening at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Tristram Hunt, the new director, spoke. The exhibition was about Europe and European theater history. Hunt did a masterful job: He constantly referenced March 29, the day the government is to trigger Brexit.

But Hunt also managed to make the people laugh. He vehemently presented the issue of Europe, but very positively, while saying things like, "See to it that you visit a European theater from the inside before it's too late!" (laughs)

Would you say that Brexit has divided the British culture scene?

No, I don't think so. Brexit sparked motion and dynamic. That will continue. There are various views, ranging from fatalism to optimism. There are also institutions and individual actors that say, "This is an opportunity. Now that everything seems to be getting worse, we have to position ourselves and make the best of it." Others say, "We are such an integral part of the European culture scene that we have no idea how things can possibly go on."

Organizing cultural collaboration is part of your job. What do you expect from Brexit?

We can't read the future, but I am confident that collaboration will continue. We will find a way. I don't know whether there will be bilateral contracts or contracts with the European Union on certain aspects of culture or education.

Tristram Hunt (Getty Images/AFP/S. Loeb)

Tristram Hunt is the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum

London, in any case, will remain strong. Londoners know that. But I don't know what will happen in the rural areas. I have spoken with several festival directors and asked what they think. They largely maintain that their festivals have always drawn financial support from multiple sources. They are more concerned about the European internationalization, which could wane.

What does Brexit mean for your work and for the Goethe-Institut in London?

Initially, nothing at all. We are financed by the German government and are not largely dependent on European funds. We can continue to undertake European projects here in the UK, paid for by the various sources that are made available for education and culture.

But in the future we're not assured that British partners will always remain on board - which, of course, is something we want if we're working here from a European perspective.

At the moment, everything is as it was. But we are adjusting our program to the time after Brexit.

Will Brexit make your work as cultural mediators more difficult?

Exhibit from Collecting Europe at London's Victoria and Albert Museum (DW/B. Maaß)

"Collecting Europe" was a recent exhibition at London's Victoria and Albert Museum

Not specifically. Perhaps most when it comes to education and appreciation for foreign languages. For years already, the Brits have been less interested in learning foreign languages - not just German, but all European languages. We don't know how that will develop.

It could be that appreciation for foreign languages grows because it is becoming more necessary to communicate. But it could also be that it wanes. We are currently working on how we, together with the British Council and the German Embassy, can boost schools in order to ensure that foreign languages - in this case, German - are taught.

Before the Brexit referendum, you said you hope that the European work will be continued. Have you become more optimistic since then?

We're not standing in the way. Those we've predominantly worked with in the past are considered open and Europe-friendly. We get along. But if we look back at the referendum result, we see the famous 52 percent that said no to the EU. They mainly live in structurally neglected regions and have fewer opportunities for education. Will we manage to reach them? I don't think so. We have to speak to these people and encourage them to find something good in Europe. That will certainly be the biggest challenge and perhaps the only European challenge for the Goethe-Insitut.

Angela Kaya heads the Goethe-Institut in London and coordinates the Goethe-Institut offices in northwestern Europe.