Thursday 12 November 2020
  • British Council survey finds that 66 per cent of UK adults did not appreciate benefits of studying a foreign language when they were at school;
  • 64 per cent wish they had kept up the foreign language they studied and 58 per cent regret not spending more time studying;
  • 10 per cent of UK adults tried learning a language during the first lockdown period, with smartphone apps the most popular study method;
  • 66 per cent think languages should be compulsory at primary school and 79 per cent at secondary school;
  • Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese considered the top three most important languages for young people to learn.

Two in three (66 per cent) adults in the UK say they did not fully appreciate the benefits of studying a foreign language when they were at school, a new survey from the British Council has revealed.

Just nine per cent of UK adults said they had kept up the foreign language they studied at school, with more than six in ten (64 per cent) wishing that they had done so.

Nearly three in five UK adults (58 per cent) expressed regret at not spending more time studying a foreign language when they had the chance at school.

The YouGov survey of more than 2000 UK adults was commissioned by the British Council to mark International Education Week, which runs from 16 to 20 November, as part of its work to advocate for the learning of modern foreign languages in the UK. This year’s programme of events has moved online with a series of webinars, activities and resources accessible from anywhere in the world.

Whilst foreign holidays were off the table for most people in the UK this year, one in ten (10 per cent) adults took the opportunity to try learning a foreign language during the first lockdown period. Of those who did, more than three quarters (77 per cent) chose to study using smartphone apps rather than traditional methods such as language classes (including online) or textbooks.

Although many UK adults have some regrets about their own schooltime experiences of language-learning, the majority nonetheless think that children today should have the chance to master a foreign language. 66 per cent said languages should be compulsory at primary school and 79 per centsaid they should be compulsory at secondary school.

The survey also found that one third (33 per cent) of UK adults think Spanish is the most important language for young people to learn, followed by French at 20 per cent and Mandarin Chinese at 18 per cent. This closely aligns with British Council research which places Spanish, Mandarin and French as the three most important languages to maintain and improve the UK’s economic position and international influence.

Asked about the benefits of learning a foreign language, 73 per cent of respondents said it makes international travel easier, 72 per cent said it broadens career opportunities, and 70 per cent said it increases understanding of different cultures. 62 per centthought that learning a foreign language sharpens the mind and improves memory. Just three per cent thought there were no benefits.

Vicky Gough, British Council schools adviser, said: “Most adults in the UK have some regrets about their experiences of learning a language at school. It’s essential that the next generation of learners doesn’t have the same regrets and instead understands the many benefits languages can bring, from boosting job prospects to connecting with different cultures. We need to encourage our children not only to develop their language skills whilst at school but to keep them up in the future.”

Baroness Coussins, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, said: “Language skills open up important educational, cultural and employment opportunities, which is why last year we launched a National Recovery Programme for Languages to reverse the UK’s language deficit. I am pleased that this International Education Week languages are back in the spotlight. In the twenty-first century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English. We must ensure that all children in the UK aged five to 18 have the chance to benefit from learning a language.”

The British Council and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages will present a free webinar on Monday 16 November, at the beginning of International Education Week, looking at practical steps that schools can take to help more children succeed in languages. To register for the webinar, please visit

For more information on the programme of events for International Education Week, please visit


Notes to Editor

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Amber Mezbourian in the British Council Press Office on +44 (0)75442 269345or

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2069 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 28 and 29 October 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts and culture, education and the English language. Last year we reached over 80 million people directly and 791 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. Founded in 1934 we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. We receive a 15 per cent core funding grant from the UK

About the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages

The APPG’s stated purpose is to:

  • explore the educational, skills-related, employment, competitive and cultural benefits of learning and using languages throughout the UK; 
  • provide a parliamentary forum for information exchange and consultation; 
  • encourage and support policies and action improving the take-up of languages in schools, further and higher education, in the workplace and in the community.

The Chair of the APPG is Nia Griffith MP (Labour). The Co-Chair is Baroness Coussins (Crossbench). The Vice-Chairs are Tonia Antoniazzi MP (Labour), Lord Dykes (Crossbench) and Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat).