UK adults regret losing language skills from school days

Monday 16 November 2015

 

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.

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 898 738 / Out-of-hours 07469 375160 or kristen.mcnicoll@britishcouncil.org 

*The British Council’s Languages for the Future report in 2013 identified Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese as the languages most vital to the UK over the next 20 years. They were chosen based on economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors including the needs of UK businesses, the UK’s overseas trade targets, diplomatic and security priorities, and prevalence on the internet.

Populus interviewed a random sample of 2,080 GB adults aged 18+ from its online panel between 28-29 October 2015.  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.

More details about the British Council’s languages work are available at: 

http://www.britishcouncil.org/education/schools/support-for-languages 

The figures mentioned in Vicky Gough’s quote relate to:

i) Employers’ demand for more language skills in the UK workforce refers to the CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey 2014 which indicated that nearly two-thirds of firms identified a need for foreign language skills, which is likely to increase as ambitious firms look to break into new fast-growing markets. 

ii) 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. The ‘Anglophone temptation’ to only enter into English-speaking markets also means that the UK is not realising its full potential in terms of export growth in non-common language markets. Small to medium-size exporters are especially affected in being unable to employ the language specialists brought in by global companies.

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. 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 8,000 staff – including 2,000 teachers – work with thousands of professionals and policy makers and millions of young people every year by teaching English, sharing the arts and delivering education and society programmes.

We are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter. A core publicly-funded grant provides 20 per cent of our turnover which last year was £864 million. The rest of our revenues are earned from services which customers around the world pay for, such as English classes and taking UK examinations, and also through education and development contracts and from partnerships with public and private organisations. All our work is in pursuit of our charitable purpose and supports prosperity and security for the UK and globally. 

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/.