Thursday 03 August 2017


Sunburn might not be the only reason British holidaymakers’ faces are turning red this summer. A British Council poll reveals poor language skills are also causing many of us to blush with embarrassment while on holiday abroad.

Among 2,000 UK adults surveyed, almost half of those who ever go on holiday overseas (46%) said that they have been embarrassed at not being able to speak the local language. Over a third (36%) reported feeling guilty for needing to ask others if they can speak English.

Despite the majority (80%) recognising the importance of trying to learn a few words or phrases before going abroad, only 37% say they always try to speak a little of the local language. A significant 45% said that they still rely heavily on the assumption that everyone will speak English in the country that they’re visiting.

Many acknowledge living up to the ‘Brits abroad’ stereotype when it comes to conversing with locals too - 56% said that they have pointed at a menu to avoid trying to pronounce foreign words while 42% have spoken English more slowly and loudly than they usually would to try to make themselves understood; 15% said that they had even gone so far as to speak English in a foreign accent.

This particular stereotype stretches beyond just language skills too, 15% admit eating in British or fast food restaurants to avoid local cuisine while a similar number say they prefer to stay in familiar surroundings, such as resorts, to avoid sampling local culture.

Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: “It’s great that many of us are willing to have a go at speaking the local language while overseas – it’s a meaningful gesture that will help you get the most from your holiday. But too many of us are still relying too heavily on English alone. And, if this means we’re missing out on holiday, imagine the effect that our lack of language skills is having on the UK more widely.

“The reality is that having more of us being able to speak at least a little of a foreign language is good for the UK’s long–term competitiveness, particularly as the country comes to reposition itself on the world stage. Speaking other languages not only gives you an understanding of other cultures but is good for business and for life too. Trying out a few words or phrases on holiday this summer – and encouraging our young people to do the same – is the perfect way to get started.”

The research, carried out by Populus was commissioned by the British Council – the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities - as part of its work to build relationships for the UK around the world through language, culture and education. Past research has shown that the UK has a shortage of people able to speak the ten most important foreign languages for the country’s future prosperity and global standing.

Other key findings in the Populus poll were:

Almost three quarters of those surveyed said they couldn’t speak a foreign language to a high level with just over a third (37%) able to hold a basic conversation in another language.

Almost a third (29%) admitted that they were too scared to attempt talking in the local language when overseas.

Over a fifth (21%) said they would even go so far as to purposefully choose a destination where they knew they wouldn’t need to communicate in another language in the first place.

When asked about Brexit, almost a quarter of those surveyed (23%) thought it was more important than ever to learn some of the local language when visiting an EU country with almost a fifth (18%) saying they currently felt self-conscious about going on holiday to a country in the EU. 

For those keen to start learning another language, the British Council has 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 ideas about how to make more time for language learning on the British Council’s Schools Online site. 

Notes to Editor

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Kristen McNicoll in the British Council Press Office on 0207 389 4967 / 07765 898 738or

You can also reach the on-duty press officer on + 44 (0) 7469 375160.

Populus interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,068 UK adults aged 18+ from its online panel between 24-25 July 2017. 1,768 adults said that they ever go on holiday overseas. Surveys were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. Populus is a founder member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules. Further information at

A regional breakdown of the data is available on request.

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 directly reach over 65 million people and more than 660 million people 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. Fifteen per cent of our funding is received from the UK government.