The UK might be a small collection of islands but it needs to think big if it wants to capitalise on the increasingly international and inter-connected flavour of business.
A good place to start is increasing the diversity of languages taught in schools. Current fears suggest that if something is not done about the shortage of people who can speak foreign languages, future trading prospects could be jeopardised.
This is the latest thinking from the British Council, the country’s organisation that looks into educational opportunities and cultural relations.
A recent report has identified the languages that will be most important throughout the world in the next 20 years. These are: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese.
The Languages for the Future report looked at a diverse range of factors to make its assessment. These included economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational considerations such as the needs of businesses, overseas trade targets, diplomatic and security priorities, and prevalence on the internet.
An online YouGov poll of more than 4,000 British adults commissioned by the British Council found that 75% would be unable to hold a conversation in any of these languages
Most people in the UK know a modicum of French, while Spanish and German have become increasingly popular subjects to take in school. But non-European languages fare poorly in the national knowledge, as well as trickier European tongues such as Russian and Portuguese.
The figures for the percentage of people who feel they can converse in a foreign language break down as 15% for French, 6% for German, 4% for Spanish, with 2% claiming they can speak the ultimate Romance language, Italian. Arabic, Mandarin, Russian or Japanese are each only spoken by 1% – while Portuguese and Turkish are each spoken by less than 1%.
The report recommends that everyone in the UK should learn the basics of at least one of the 10 languages, and calls on businesses to invest in language training for staff.
The report also calls on policymakers to introduce a broader range of languages to school curricula and to give languages the same prominence as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects.
John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, said: “The problem isn’t that we’re teaching the wrong languages, because the most widely-taught languages like French, Spanish and German all feature in our top 10.
“But the UK needs more people to take up the opportunity to learn and, crucially, get using these languages – along with new ones like Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.”
He added: “If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’ll lose out both economically and culturally. Languages aren’t just an academic issue – they are a practical route to opportunity for the UK in business, culture and all our lives.”
Less than half of GCSE students (44%) took a foreign language exam this year, despite an overall improvement in recent years and a record number of students taking Spanish. The number of foreign language A-level entries dropped this year to a record low.
Earlier this year the British Chambers of Commerce called for foreign languages to be made compulsory up to AS level and encouraged financial incentives for businesses to provide language training for staff.
Employers stress the importance of foreign language skills for the UK workforce. This year’s CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey revealed that 70% of UK businesses value language skills, but only 36% are satisfied with those of their employees. In June, the British Chambers of Commerce called for foreign languages to be made compulsory up to AS Level and encouraged financial incentives for businesses to provide language training for staff.