The British Council is committed to modern languages.

Modern Languages

  1. The UK lags behind international competitors in language learning and intercultural skills and is losing out in the global race
  2. The British Council creates opportunities for UK learners to develop their language skills by providing real-life global connections.

The UK lags behind international competitors

  • While English has emerged as the dominant international language of the 21st century, it is vital for the future prosperity of the UK that our population also speaks other languages.
  • Competence in modern languages is essential for increasing trust, trade and engagement between and within societies.
  • Multilingualism improves individual workers’ employability and job mobility while offering businesses the tools they need to expand into new markets.
  • Our international competitors are significantly ahead of the UK in developing the language and intercultural skills needed to build the trust on which success in global markets depends.

The British Council creates opportunities for UK learners to develop their language skills

  • Every year we support thousands of UK students to spend a year abroad developing their language and intercultural skills. We also bring native speakers into UK classrooms to support young people studying modern languages through the British Council Language Assistants scheme.
  • We promote the study of modern languages, intercultural understanding and international skills in schools through school partnerships, advice for teachers and learning materials. Each year we work with around 30 per cent of UK schools.
  • We are using our global expertise in teaching English as a foreign language to support English language teaching in the UK.


The UK’s language challenge

  • According to the Education and Employers Task Force, poor language competency is resulting in a loss of at least £7.3 billion per annum to the UK economy – that’s 0.5 per cent of GDP.
  • Businesses are far more likely to succeed in new markets if they understand the local culture and can communicate in the native tongue. However, 95 per cent of business owners have no knowledge of Mandarin Chinese and less than one per cent feel that they can converse fluently in the language of the world’s 2nd biggest economy.
  • Languages for the Future, a strategic analysis of the UK’s language needs undertaken by the British Council, used a range of economic, diplomatic and cultural indicators to identify the ten languages that will be key to the UK’s future success: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish. The challenge facing the UK is highlighted by a You Gov survey which found that 75 per cent of the UK’s adult population say they are unable to hold a conversation in any of these languages.
  • The British Council’s A World of Experience research found that when people from the UK gain international experience, including from learning languages overseas, there are signfiicant benefits for individuals, employers and society more broadly. These include development of a range of important skills such as leadership and teamwork that support employability; enhanced communication skills; and increased capabilities in areas such as critical thinking that are linked to innovation, resulting in a significantly increased likelihood of working in a role associated with innovation in the workplace – roles that are vital in driving economic growth.

Language learning in UK schools

  • A Department for Education study in 2012 found that only nine per cent of pupils in England taking French to GCSE progressed from GCSE to A-level.
  • A 2012 European Commission study found that only nine per cent of English pupils surveyed at age 15 were competent in their first foreign language beyond a basic level, compared to 42 per cent of their peers across the EU.
  • The most common languages offered in secondary schools are French, Spanish and German. Pupils in independent schools have more opportunities to learn a wider range of languages. In 2014, independent schools accounted for 74% of Mandarin A-Level entries.
  • Policy for language learning in UK schools is devolved. However, while policies differ all four countries of the UK have experienced significant declines in the study of non-native languages:
  • In England the number of GCSE students has fallen from 78 per cent in 2001 to 49 per cent in 2015 (Language Trends Survey).
  • In Wales, where bilingualism is widespread and the study of Welsh compulsory to GCSE, modern foreign languages entries at GCSE have fallen by 42 per cent between 2002 and 2014.
  • In Northern Ireland, entries for French, German & Spanish have fallen by nearly 50% since 2012.
  • Latest figures from Scotland suggest that in 2013-4, 61 per cent of students took a language exam at age 16, compared to 67 per cent in 2010 (SCILT, Scotland’s National Centre for Languages), a relatively small decline of 6%.
  • Despite a 3.5 per cent increase in the number of students applying to university in 2013, applications to study modern languages fell by 6.7 per cent. Undergraduate Modern Languages entries in England have fallen by 57% from 2002 to 2013. Modern languages have been designated ‘strategically important and vulnerable subjects’ by the Higher Education Funding Council for England since 2005 – recognition that there is a national skills shortage in modern languages. 


The British Council’s contribution to the teaching and learning of modern languages in the UK

  • In 2014, over 1500 UK schools employed a Foreign Language Assistant, bringing native speakers into UK classrooms to help improve UK learners’ language skills and develop their intercultural skills.
  • In 2014-15 we sent over 2,200 English Language Assistants to work in 14 countries. Working as a language assistant provides students with the opportunity to immerse themselves in the local language and culture.
  • We have been working to support the teaching and learning of Arabic for 8 years, supporting an annual conference for teachers. Since 2012, with support from the Qatar Foundation and Mayor of London’s office, we have funded research into the state of Arabic teaching at school level in the UK; supported pilot schools and their clusters to introduce or extend Arabic and supported a teacher CPD programme run by Goldsmiths University of London.
  • We have created thousands of partnerships between UK schools and counterparts overseas through our Connecting Classrooms, eTwinning and Comenius programmes, increasing young people’s international awareness and creating opportunities to learn about other cultures and languages.
  • Our International School Award programme, involving thousands of schools across the sectors, encourages, celebrates and accredits international activity. Many schools use a focus on language such as linking with francophone African countries to support French, and Brazil to develop Portuguese.

English in the UK

  • The most recent census data revealed that nearly 140,000 people living in England and Wales cannot speak English, while a further 726,000 had only a weak grasp of the language.
  • The British Council teaches English to over 380,000 learners a year internationally. It is using this global expertise in teaching English as a foreign language to support English language teaching in the UK through the ESOL Nexus project, by bringing together expertise to share best practice, by providing teaching materials and thereby building capacity in the sector.