By Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser, British Council

19 January 2023 - 16:30

Man sitting outside in a city, looking at a copy of El País, a Spanish national newspaper.
Spanish is becoming Britain's most popular foreign language. ©

British Council

'Everyone speaks English' - is that what most British people think? Or do we harbour secret regrets about our monolingualism? Vicky Gough looks at the results of the British Council’s recent UK survey and finds a desire to learn.

The UK isn’t the most enthusiastic country when it comes to learning languages.  Most of the population - around two thirds - only speak English and many say they don’t feel the need to learn another language. There is a common perception that ‘English is enough’ as it’s a global ‘lingua franca’. Why spend time learning German when many Germans already speak perfect English, right?  

Despite this, an appetite for language learning does exist in the UK. The British Council asked 3,000 people across the UK about their language learning ability, interests and habits. The findings revealed one in four UK adults regret never learning a second language.  

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter believe it’s more important than ever for people in the UK to learn a language other than English. As Australian professor, Joe Lo Bianco, said: “There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one is not knowing English; and the other is knowing only English”.

More than 1.5 million British children are growing up bilingual

Many people in the UK do speak languages other than English due to their heritage and upbringing. The potential of these heritage language speakers needs to be recognised. More than 1.5 million British children are growing up bilingual, yet most don’t enter for a GCSE or A Level in the language they speak at home. This means they don’t develop the academic skills to use their language professionally. This is a missed opportunity. 

To change the face of language learning in the UK, we need to focus on young people. They are the leaders, diplomats, businesspeople and change-makers of the future. Our survey found the biggest enthusiasm for language learning was among the youngest cohort of respondents. Thirty-seven per cent of 18–24-year-olds said they’ve always wanted to learn another language. To capitalise on this enthusiasm, the answer is to focus on language learning in schools. We need to ensure that the next generation don’t leave school wishing they had a second language. 

Currently only around half of pupils in England are taking a language at GCSE level. The Department for Education wants to raise that figure to 90% by 2025. It is investing millions in an initiative to boost take-up of languages. But it’s also vital for parents and teachers in the UK to encourage young people to take up languages. 

Being bilingual may help combat the effects of ageing

Aside from job skills, it’s worth remembering the vast number of other benefits language learning can bring. In our survey we found language learning is of interest across a broad spectrum of age groups and regions in the UK for a range of reasons. When asked their primary motivation to learn a new language, most respondents said they wanted to connect with people in another country. 

A quarter of respondents in each age group said they wanted “to challenge and exercise my brain”. This seems to show a public awareness of how being bilingual may help combat the effects of ageing. Some studies suggest bilingualism might even help protect against dementia. 

Most of our survey respondents thought French was the most important language for people in the UK to learn (35%). This was followed by Spanish (34%) and German (19%).

Many younger respondents said Mandarin Chinese is an important language for people in the UK. A quarter of 18-24-year-olds selected the language in this category compared to just 13% of people aged 35-44. 

Spanish – Britain’s favourite foreign language

The British Council’s Languages for the future report, 2017, found Spanish, French, German, Mandarin and Arabic are the top five priority languages to improve the UK’s skills, security and influence in the world. 

We asked respondents what their language of choice would be if they were to learn. The most popular was Spanish at 25% followed by French at 21%, Italian at 14%, German at 13% and Japanese at 10%. 

Unsurprisingly, Spanish is the most popular A-level language in England. It is likely to overtake French as the most popular language at GCSE by 2026.

The British Council says it's time to understand the role of languages

We say now is the time for politicians, policy makers and society to understand the role of languages in diplomacy, security, international relations, and economic growth. 

We believe all young people in the UK should have opportunities to learn other languages and to gain an international outlook through their education. This includes links with schools in other countries and if possible, visits or exchanges to other countries.

An infographic representing 26% of UK adults regret never learning a second language fluently

British Council

An infographic representing UK's most popular languages, where 25% of UK adults want to learn Spanish, 21% want to learn French, 14% want to learn Italian, 13% want to learn German and 10% want to learn Japanese.

British Council

The biggest appetite for language learning is amongst 18-24 year olds. This is an infographic representing 39% of UK adults would use mobile apps to learn a new language.

British Council

An infographic representing the majority of respondents of the British Council languages survey said they want to learn a new language to connect with people in other countries. Also, one in four UK adults would consider making it their New Year's resolution to learn a new language.

British Council

Vicky Gough

Schools Adviser, British Council

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