More than half (58%) of UK adults wish they hadn’t let valuable language skills from their school days slip, new research from the British Council has revealed.
Despite over three quarters of those surveyed (77%) recognising that language skills give you greater employment opportunities and almost two thirds (65%) believing that speaking another language makes you seem more intelligent, the same number (65%) admit to having never fully appreciated the benefits of learning a language when they were at school. Just over half (53%) also regret not having made the most of studying languages when they had the chance.
Whilst almost one in two (46%) confessed that they are embarrassed by their current lack of language skills, 75% of those surveyed had lost most of those skills within just one year of finishing school, rising to 85% within two years. This explains why four in five of those who studied the most common languages – French and German – said that they aren’t confident in using those languages now (78% and 82% respectively), highlighting just how much valuable knowledge is lost after people finish school.
The research, carried out by Populus among more than 2,000 UK adults, was commissioned by the British Council for International Education Week 2015 as part of its work to build relationships for the UK around the world through language, culture and education - and to advocate for the learning of modern foreign languages in the UK.
The results reflect the wider decline in language learning that the UK has witnessed in recent years and whilst more than two-fifths (44%) of those surveyed had taken a qualification in a language from their school days, only 10% had an A-level or equivalent qualification in a foreign language. More worryingly, only tiny numbers had studied Arabic (2% - 36 people) or Mandarin Chinese (2% - 39 people) at any level - two of the top five languages considered most vital for the UK’s future*.
Commenting on the survey, Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: “Rather than ‘je ne regrette rien’, it’s a case of ‘je regrette beaucoup’ for UK adults when it comes to language learning - and rightly so – as employers are desperate for language skills and the UK’s current shortage of them is estimated to be costing the country tens of billions in missed trade and business opportunities every year.
“We need to encourage far more of our young people not just to develop their language skills whilst at school but to ensure that they keep them up in the future. The reality is that learning a language isn’t just a rewarding way to connect with another culture but will boost job prospects too. We need to ensure the next generation doesn’t have the same regrets when it comes to lost language skills but instead are able to connect, live and work with their counterparts around the globe.”
Interestingly, Brits are not alone when it comes to missing out on language learning – earlier this year, the world’s richest man, Bill Gates, admitted that not learning a language is one of his biggest regrets in life.
Other key findings from the survey showed:
- Almost three quarters (73%) of people think that speaking another language is an important skill to have;
- 72% think that language skills give you a standout CV;
- 68% feel that languages increase your confidence with 87% seeing languages as useful for when you go on holiday abroad and 84% agreeing that languages open doors to a different culture and way of life;
- 37% said they wish that they’d had the chance to study a non-European language at school.
The results reinforce the findings of a study released by the British Council this week which highlights the benefit of international experience in building confidence in foreign language skills, communication and other 21st century skills. ‘World of Experience’ looks at different types of international experience – including school exchange programmes, travel, volunteering, studying and working abroad and the way in which these experiences help to build skills that generate short and long-term benefits for individuals, employers and UK wider society. The report shows that people who have ‘deeper international experience’ are more likely to be involved in innovation in their workplace. It also indicates that people with multiple international experiences were encouraged by their first international experience to actively look for further study-, travel- or work-related opportunities abroad, with those whose initial international experience was at school age being the most inspired to look for further opportunities.
Throughout International Education Week 2015, the British Council is encouraging more people around the UK to consider the benefits of international experiences and language learning. With the theme of ‘my international journey’, schools across the country are being asked to celebrate their global outlook and to get involved in activities such as an internationally-themed homework challenge. A short video series with practical language learning tips has also been specially created to encourage more people from the UK to take on a new language or revisit one from their school days – something 42% of those surveyed said they would like to do.
For more information on International Education Week 2015 and the British Council’s #LearnALanguage drive, visit www.britishcouncil.org or follow #LearnALanguage on Twitter.