By Professor Michael Kelly

05 March 2019 - 08:13

Cafe door with 'bonjour' written on a chalk board
'Lack of language skills is costing the UK 3.5 per cent of GDP.' Photo ©

Foundry used under licence and adapted from the original.

Is the UK in a language crisis? The All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Modern Languages thinks so. Professor Mike Kelly, a languages advocate, expert and advisor to the APPG tells us why.

Lack of language skills is costing the UK 3.5 per cent of GDP. How does your new report recommend we turn that around?

Our language blind-spot costs us a lot of lost business, and it will need a multi-pronged approach to turn this around. The APPG report sets strategic objectives to achieve this in the areas of education, business and public policy.

Long-term, the APPG calls for a new language policy for schools, from infants through to school leavers. We would like to see a higher take-up of public exams, but also suggest opening up the range of qualifications that are available and looking at wider types of accreditation. What form these could take is open to debate, but you could include languages as part of apprenticeships and vocational qualifications or look at different types of exams, for example.

We also think young people should have access to a wider range of languages. Currently, Spanish and French are dominating, but the British Council also lists Mandarin and Arabic as two non-European languages in its top five Languages for the Future.

The report says languages need to be strengthened in colleges and universities by protecting language departments, as more than 50 universities in the UK have cut courses, or scrapped departments entirely since 2000.

It calls for incentives for businesses to invest in language and cultural skills in their workforce, for example through tax incentives. In particular, it is calling for government and business to work together to support schools in equipping students with the language and intercultural skills businesses want, and to support exporters.

The document calls on the government to co-ordinate language policy across departments – it’s not just a question for the Department for Education. Take the recent Export Strategy, for example – the importance of language skills is barely mentioned in this crucial, internationally facing, document.

Ultimately, the report says that progress on all of this will depend on the public recognising that languages other than English are valuable.

What effect do language skills have on export for small-to-medium enterprises (SMEs)?

Small-to-medium enterprises don’t have the same international reach or specialist expertise as multinational corporations, and they don’t find it easy to build relationships with non-English-speaking partners. Research by the British Chambers of Commerce showed that 96 per cent of exporters had no foreign-language ability for the markets they served.

The language deficit affects them all the way through their business process. Initial inquiries can be misunderstood or go unanswered. Customer information like brochures and websites may only be available in English. Sales representatives cannot establish the kind of rapport that business arrangements require. And after-sales are clunky because they depend on the customer’s workforce having good English language skills. Because of these challenges, 80 per cent of SMEs operate only in English. Research by the Cardiff Business School indicates that SMEs are aware of their language deficiency and that this stops them exporting in the first place.

What does the UK miss out on by relying on Anglophone export markets?

New areas of growth. We should be doing more business in most of Asia, Africa, Central and South America, and our immediate neighbours in Europe. Some of the fastest-growing economies in the world are not Anglophone, and the centre of gravity is moving away from English – the proportion of online content in English is declining. For the UK to take full advantage of trade opportunities overseas, we need to be much more open to trading in other languages.

What are schools and further or higher education doing now, and what do you recommend they do to reverse the current situation?

Many schools are doing their best with languages, and there are examples of brilliant teaching and imaginative projects. Anglo European School in Essex has a hugely pro-languages ethos and attracts students from other counties; and in Hackney, all primary and secondary schools have agreed a common approach to language-learning, with great success, showing that languages can be successful even in deprived, inner-city areas.

But too many schools are giving up on languages. Figures from the Department for Education show that languages are one of the most badly affected areas for recruitment shortages. Analysis by Schoolsweek in 2018 showed a trend indicating schools in England are using the Progress 8 measures – if a school uses this Progress 8 instead of the Ebacc to assess its performance, then it doesn’t have to offer languages. There is an increasing number of schools scrapping A-level classes, as class sizes are too small to be sustainable. GCSE entries have been falling for years despite the introduction of government targets.

There is not much language-learning in further education, unfortunately. Higher education has some excellent programmes, but they can’t attract people, as too few pupils are leaving school with language skills, or with an appreciation of the importance of languages.

The APPG's proposals are a statutory entitlement to language education from five to 18, a focus on helping disadvantaged students to learn languages (as language uptake is strongly correlated with socio-economic advantage), building languages into apprenticeship schemes, more support for international visits and exchanges, and a better funding formula for languages in universities, which have suffered since the discontinuation of the 'Strategically important and vulnerable subjects' status in 2015.

Apart from schools and universities, which other bodies have a role to play in improving language skills in the UK?

The government itself has an important role to play in providing strategic leadership for sectors to respond to. The biggest problem the APPG has identified is the lack of joined-up thinking at strategic level: languages are thought of as an issue for schools, but actually we need a language policy for trade, for the Foreign Office, for international development, for army deployments overseas, even for issues such as dealing with transnational organised crime.

In some instances, the government has already shown excellent practice even outside of education: UK diplomats’ language skills are highly respected, and the army now has a comprehensive language training policy. But what’s missing is a joined-up approach across departments.

What practical steps should business and government be taking?

Government has to take the lead. Businesses and markets have too many short-term priorities to meet the long-term need for language capability. Business can be supportive and respond to incentives, but government has to intervene where the market is not responding to the country’s strategic needs.

In wider society, what needs to change before language will improve?

Public attitudes and government policy interact with each other. With enough of a government lead, attitudes to languages would improve. Language experts often point to the dramatic turnaround in popularity of science, technology, engineering and mathematics subjects as an example of how strategic, high-level endorsement can change attitudes.

Already lots of people are learning languages for their own purposes; in classes, through language cafés or with mobile apps. It was reported this week that Duolingo claims several million subscribers in this country. If people know when it makes sense for them personally (career, family, holidays, etc.), they could also see how more language-learning makes sense for our society more widely.

We now know the brain remains ‘plastic’ throughout our lives and that language-learning improves our brain functioning. There are even initiatives such as Lingo Flamingo in Scotland using language classes as a preventive tool for elderly patients at risk of dementia.

The message is that language learning is fun, useful and healthy for everyone, at any age.

People in the UK are as good as anyone else at learning languages, if we want to. Our problem is that too many people think we don’t need to bother. But there is so much to be gained, and there’s a lot of fun and satisfaction to be had along the way.

Study and work abroad through the British Council, or find out about the support available for schools and teachers.

Find out more about the APPG on Modern Languages and download the report (Dropbox link)

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