A new report looks at the state of British foreign language learning and the priority languages for the UK’s future. Insight’s Alice Campbell-Cree explains the findings. 

The UK’s urgent need for international skills

The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union will fundamentally change its relationships with the countries of the EU, and with the rest of the world. We will need to reach out, within and beyond Europe, to maintain and improve our economic position, to build trust, strengthen our international influence and cultural relationships, and to keep our country safe. The extent to which we can do this in the long term depends greatly on the ability of our young people to understand and connect with people around the world. International and intercultural awareness and skills are crucial for the UK’ success on the world stage yes, but also in enabling the UK’s next generation to play a meaningful role in the global economy and in an increasingly networked world. The ability to communicate in more than one language is central to this. Speaking another language is not just about facilitating a basic transaction; it deepens cultural understanding and opens doors to international experience and opportunity. But which languages will be most important for the UK? And how well is the UK equipped to meet the current and future language need?

Five languages top the list: Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German

Languages for the Future, a new report by the British Council has identified the priority languages for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world. It updates an earlier report on the same theme published by the British Council in 2013. The report considers the outlook for the supply and demand for language competence in the years ahead and looks at the linguistic dimension of a variety of economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors, scoring languages against these. As in the 2013 report, the same five languages top the list: Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German. They appear some way ahead of the next five, which are: Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian. Though not in the top 10, other languages which also scored highly and may well grow in importance in future include Polish, Malay, Turkish, Hindi and other Indian languages.

Only 1 in 3 Britons can speak another language

But with only just over one in three Britons reporting that they are able to hold a conversation in another language, the UK’s language capability remains a concern. Language provision in many schools looks increasingly vulnerable. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools noted that only 34 per cent of pupils obtain a good GCSE in a language, and less than 5 per cent do so in more than one language. Official JCQ figures highlight a 7.3 per cent drop in the number of pupils taking GCSE language exams in the past year – and a 1 per cent drop at A Level. In Wales, only around one in five pupils takes a modern foreign language to GCSE and take up is less than 10 per cent of the cohort in more than a third of secondary schools. There have been some positive developments in education policy such as the English Baccalaureate – which requires pupils to enter GCSEs in English, maths, a science, either history or geography and a foreign language; the Scottish ‘1+2’ language education policy – which aims to introduce every child to two new languages in addition to English by the end of primary school; and the Welsh ‘Global Futures’ strategy – which aims to make Wales ‘bilingual plus one’ and introduces foreign language teaching in primary schools. Despite this, entry numbers for language examinations are still dropping in all four home nations. Declining numbers for these exams means a smaller pool of students taking higher level qualifications is increasingly a problem throughout the UK, despite some previously positive signs from Scotland. 

Painting of 'The tower of Babel'
‘Now the whole world had one language’. The Tower of Babel, by Brueghel. Image ©

Wikimedia Commons, adapted from the original.

Deficient language skills and the presumption that international business partners will speak English costs the UK economy about 3.5% of GDP

This is taking its toll. Research for the Department of Business (now dissolved) shows that deficient language skills and the presumption that international business partners will speak English costs the UK economy about 3.5 per cent of GDP.  A study which asked the views of more than 600 employers found that UK nationals without language skills lose out not simply because they are limited in their ability to communicate, but as a knock-on effect of having restricted access to overseas work experience, a lack of international business sense, a failure to appreciate that other cultures have different ways of doing things and a misunderstanding of the global importance of British culture. Indeed, language competence is far more than just one tool in the box, it’s a prerequisite and a facilitator for the development of a wide spectrum of other vital capabilities and attributes. Lack of language skills has been identified as the major reason young people do not take up opportunities to gain international experience. And with UK employers and business leaders reporting growing concern with graduates’ international cultural awareness - 74 per cent of 500 business leaders surveyed by Think Global and the British Council worried that young people’s horizons are not broad enough to operate in a globalised economy; 39 per cent of employers surveyed in the 2017 joint CBI-Pearson Education and Skills Survey were dissatisfied with graduates’ international cultural awareness, up from 30 per cent the previous year - the language deficit is a key barrier to overcome. 

The UK has reached an important juncture where investment in upgrading the nation’s language skills is critical. Now is the moment to initiate a bold new policy which should be cross-government, cross-party and focussed on sustaining improvement in language capacity over the medium to long-term. Languages should be prioritised alongside STEM subjects in schools, with strategic emphasis on building capacity in Arabic and Mandarin Chinese alongside French, Spanish and German, as the five languages consistently most important to the UK’s strategic interests. Individuals - as parents, young people and adults – should also consider the need for, and benefits of, language learning, and take responsibility for their own learning using the formal education system, private providers or the plethora of free language teaching resources.

The extent to which the country can achieve the vision of a truly ‘Global Britain’, and the UK’s next generation can succeed in an internationally competitive environment, depends on our ability to understand and engage with the rest of the world. Language learning has a vital part to play.