Tuesday 15 November 2016


Language skills are ‘more vital than ever’ if the UK is to remain ‘outward looking’ and ‘open for business’ in the run up to Brexit, new British Council research has revealed.

In a survey of over 2,000 UK adults, the majority saw the ability to speak foreign languages as being essential if the UK is to successfully reach out to other countries (63 per cent) - and guarantee continued trade and investment (61 per cent) – in light of the result of the EU referendum.

Over two thirds of those surveyed (67 per cent) believed that as a country, we currently don’t encourage enough young people in the UK to learn other languages, with a similar number (63 per cent) stating that schools need to make more time than ever before for language learning as the UK prepares to leave the European Union.

There was overwhelming support for opportunities that allow young people to experience other languages and cultures – 69 per cent of respondents said that school exchanges and schemes like Erasmus+ should remain open. This rose to 74 per cent amongst 18-24 year olds, highlighting the value that young people themselves place on international experience.

Language uptake in schools remains low when compared to other subjects – this year, the number of pupils taking a languages GCSE was less than half the number of those taking one in maths while overall language entries dropped at both GCSE and A-level – by 5.57% and 3.86% respectively. Previous research by the British Council and Education Development Trust has also found that teachers have ‘deep concerns’ about the current situation facing language learning in schools in England with pressure on curriculum time highlighted as a major challenge.

Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: “As the UK comes to reposition itself on the world stage, language skills matter now more than ever. And with the country already facing a languages shortfall, we must do everything we can to encourage more people to acquire these vital skills.

“The reality is that speaking another language not only boosts job prospects but also allows you to connect with another culture. If the UK is to remain globally competitive as we prepare to leave the EU, language learning must become a national priority.”

The new research, carried out by Populus, was commissioned by the British Council – the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities - for International Education Week 2016. Language skills are vital to the UK’s future prosperity with the country’s current lack of these skills estimated to cost billions in missed business and trade opportunities every year1. According to the CBI, the foreign languages most in demand among British businesses are French (50 per cent), German (47 per cent) and Spanish (30 per cent).2

Other key findings in the British Council survey were:

  69 per cent disagreed with the idea that learning a European language was now a waste of time following the Leave vote, 42 per cent of them strongly.

  While only 12 per cent claimed to speak a foreign language to a high standard, 28 per cent said they were able to hold basic conversations. 41 per cent were embarrassed by their lack of foreign language skills.

  75 per cent agreed that speaking more than one language is an important skill to have and 79 per cent said it would bring ‘greater employment opportunities.’

  A quarter (26 per cent) said they now felt embarrassed about the fact the UK has chosen to leave the European Union when travelling abroad - this rose to over half (52 per cent) amongst 18-24 year olds.

The British Council champions International Education Week in the UK every year to showcase the benefits of international learning and cultural exchange. As part of the British Council’s ongoing #LearnALanguage campaign, this year’s focus is on the importance of languages – and encouraging more people to make time for language learning in their lives.  

Tackling just a phrase a day could see people greatly improve their language skills with 1000 words recognised as an achievable number that would allow a speaker to hold a simple conversation in another language. For those keen to get started, the British Council has produced a series of language learning videos with practical hints and tips while young people can spend time abroad through schemes like Erasmus+ and Language Assistants. Schools can also get some ideas about how to make more time for language learning in a new guide produced for International Education Week 2016. 

Notes to Editor

For more information or to set up an interview, contact Kristen McNicoll in the British Council Press Office on 020 7389 4967 / 07765 898 738 / Out-of-hours 07469 375160 or kristen.mcnicoll@britishcouncil.org  

Notes to Editors

1 - Independent research carried out on behalf of UK Trade & Investment by Professor James Foreman-Peck in 2014 shows that poor language skills and a lack of cultural understanding are holding back the UK’s trade performance at an estimated cost of £48 billion a year. The report shows that without the relevant language and culture skills, UK businesses are lacking the necessary market understanding to effectively engage and maximise trade opportunities, particularly in fast emerging economies like BRIC.

2 – CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2016

Populus interviewed a random sample of 2,083 UK adults aged 18+ from its online panel between 26-27 October 2016. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. Please note that some of the figures used exclude those who selected ‘not applicable’. Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at www.populus.co.uk.

A full regional breakdown of the data is available on request.

About International Education Week

International Education Week began in 2000 in the USA and was established in England and Wales in 2004. It is now celebrated annually in November in more than 100 countries throughout the world. The British Council champions International Education Week in the UK by encouraging schools to celebrate their international links and to showcase the ways in which embedding an international dimension in their curriculum has benefited students, teachers and the wider school community. This year’s British Council focus for the week is language learning and encouraging more people to make time for language learning in their lives.

For more information on International Education Week, visit https://schoolsonline.britishcouncil.org/ or follow #LearnALanguage and #MakeTime4Languages on Twitter.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We create friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the UK and other countries. Using the UK’s cultural resources we make a positive contribution to the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust.

We work with over 100 countries across the world in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. Each year we reach over 20 million people face-to-face and more than 500 million people online, via broadcasts and publications.

Founded in 1934, we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. The majority of our income is raised delivering a range of projects and contracts in English teaching and examinations, education and development contracts and from partnerships with public and private organisations. Eighteen per cent of our funding is received from the UK government.