British holidaymakers struggle with languages and culture

Wednesday 14 August 2013

• 40% embarrassed by their lack of language skills

• 17% admit to speaking English in a fake foreign accent

Despite millions of people from the UK heading overseas for sun, sea and sand this summer, a lack of language and cultural skills is landing many in hot water, according to a poll by the British Council.

78% of British people say they cannot speak a foreign language to a high standard. 40% say this has caused them embarrassment while on holiday, 22% say they have paid over the odds as a result of not being able to speak the local language, and 18% admit to having no idea what they ate after ordering something from a menu they could not understand.

High-profile gaffes by football’s Steve McClaren and Joey Barton are by no means the only examples of Brits speaking English in a fake foreign accent in an attempt to make themselves understood by local people – 17% of those surveyed admit to having done the same.

And it would seem that many people are afraid to even attempt to communicate verbally, as more than half (53%) admit to ordering food by pointing at menu items to avoid trying to pronounce foreign words.

The research, carried out by Populus among 2000 British adults, was commissioned by the British Council as part of its work to build relationships for the UK around the world through language, culture and education - and advocate the learning of modern foreign languages in the UK.

Language skills are not the only thing missing. The results also suggest a reluctance to sample a different culture while on holiday. 18% admit to having stayed primarily in familiar surroundings - such as resorts - and avoided sampling the local culture, and 21% say they have eaten in British or fast food restaurants to avoid eating local cuisine.

8% admit they have caused offence on holiday as a result of a lack of understanding of the local culture.

John Worne, Director of Strategy at the British Council, said: “While the UK generally has a good reputation around the world, we can sometimes be our own worst enemy when it comes to connecting with other cultures. We could all benefit from broadening our cultural horizons – and brushing up on our language skills would be a good place to start.

“Too many of us have to rely on English when we’re overseas. And, if not speaking the ‘lingo’ means we’re missing out on holiday, imagine what it’s costing the UK in trade and business opportunities in the longer term.”

The British Council will be launching a major campaign in the autumn aimed at improving foreign language skills in the UK, working with schools across the country to encourage more language learning.

For more information, or to arrange an interview, contact Mark Moulding in the British Council Press Office on 0207 389 4889 or mark.moulding@britishcouncil.org

Notes to Editor

The full results – including a regional breakdown – are available on request.

British Council spokespeople are available to talk about the results and why language and cultural skills are vital to the UK.

More details about the British Council’s languages work are available here.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for educational opportunities and cultural relations. We create international opportunities for the people of the UK and other countries and build trust between them worldwide. 

We work in more than 100 countries and our 7000 staff – including 2000 teachers – work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year teaching English, sharing the Arts and in education and society programmes.

We are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter. A publically-funded grant-in-aid provides less than a quarter of our turnover which last year was £781m.  The rest we earn from English teaching, UK exams and services which customers around the world pay for, through education and development contracts and from partnerships with other institutions, brands and companies.  All our work is in pursuit of our charitable purpose and creates prosperity and security for the UK and the countries we work in all around the world.

For more information, please visit: www.britishcouncil.org. You can also keep in touch with the British Council through http://twitter.com/britishcouncil and http://blog.britishcouncil.org