By Alice Campbell-Cree

14 November 2017 - 07:00

Spanish word for hello written in lights on brick wall
'Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German top the list.' Photo ©

Jon Tyson used under licence and adapted from the original.

The United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union is fundamentally changing its relationships with the countries of the EU, and with the rest of the world. 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? The British Council's Alice Campbell-Cree, who edited the Languages for the Future report, summarises.

What does the Languages for the Future report consider?

The report considers two things – which languages the UK needs most according to a variety of economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors. And, how well equipped we are to meet this demand.

Which languages are at the top of the list?

As in the 2013 edition of the report, which the new report updates, Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German top the list. They appear significantly ahead of the next five – Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian. Other languages that also scored highly and may grow in importance include Polish, Malay, Turkish, Hindi and other Indian languages.

What kind of language provisions do UK schools have now?

With 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 five per cent do so in more than one language. In Wales, only around one in five pupils takes a modern foreign language to GCSE. Take-up is less than ten per cent in more than a third of secondary schools.

What steps are UK schools taking toward language learning?

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 countries of the UK. Declining numbers for these exams means a smaller pool of students taking higher-level qualifications. This is increasingly a problem throughout the UK, despite some previously positive signs from Scotland. And opportunities to learn languages in vocational pathways are scarce.

What are the effects of declining numbers for language examinations and qualifications?

Declining numbers for language examinations and qualifications are taking their 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. The Born Global study, which asked the views of more than 600 employers, found that UK nationals without language skills lose out because they are limited in their ability to communicate. They also suffer from 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.

Language competence is far more than just one tool in the box. It’s necessary for a wide spectrum of other vital capabilities and attributes.

Lack of language skills is a 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, the language deficit is an important barrier to overcome. Seventy-four 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. Thirty-nine 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.

Where do we go from here?

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 cross-government, cross-party policy focused on improving language skills over the medium to long term. Languages should be prioritised alongside STEM subjects in schools, with emphasis on Arabic and Mandarin Chinese alongside French, Spanish and German – the five languages consistently most important to the UK’s strategic interests. Individuals – parents, young people and adults – should also take responsibility for their own learning using the formal education system, private providers or free language teaching resources.

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’s success on the world stage. They are also crucial in enabling the UK’s next generation to play a meaningful role in a networked world.

Read the 2017 version of Languages for the Future.

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