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.