British people need to improve languages to get ready for post Brexit period

by Ray Clancy on November 15, 2017

Spanish and Mandarin Chinese are the top two languages that people in Britain need to know most in a post Brexit world, according to new research, followed by French, Arabic and German.

The new analysis argues that for Britain to succeed post-Brexit, international awareness and skills, such as the ability to connect with people globally beyond English, have become more vital than ever.



The Languages for the Future report from the British Council identifies these as the top five languages for the UK’s prosperity once the country leaves the European Union, based on extensive analysis of economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors.

The top five are significantly ahead of the next five languages in the ranking, Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian.

However, the UK is currently facing a languages deficit. Recent research has shown that the percentage of 18 to 34 year olds who can hold a basic conversation in foreign languages is poor.

Just 14% can hold a conversation in French, 8% in German, 7% in Spanish, and 2% in Mandarin and 2% in Arabic while only a third of Britons can hold a conversation in another language besides their mother tongue.

Language learning in schools is also facing a difficult climate. Official figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications highlight a 7.3% drop in the number of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland taking GCSE language exams in the past year and a 1% drop at A Level. Scottish Qualification Authority figures indicate that the situation is similar in Scotland with significant drops in French and German uptake in the past year.

The report states that the UK has reached a critical juncture for language learning and that investment in upgrading the nation’s language skills is vital if we are to remain a globally connected nation. It says that now is the moment to initiate a ‘bold new policy’ which should be cross Government, cross party and focussed on sustaining improvement in language capacity over the medium to long term.

It advocates that languages should be prioritised alongside STEM subjects in schools. It also suggests that government and businesses should provide better advice to companies on using and managing language skills to support export led growth.

‘Languages are invaluable for a generation growing up in an increasingly connected world. If the UK is to be truly global post-Brexit, languages must become a national priority. There are few more important languages for the UK’s future prosperity than Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German,’ said Vicky Gough, schools adviser at the British Council.

‘At a time when global connections matter more than ever, it is worrying that the UK is facing a languages deficit. We cannot afford the apathy around the need for languages to continue and must champion these skills. If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’re set to lose out both economically and culturally,’ she added.

The UK’s current lack of language skills is said to be holding back the country’s international trade performance at a cost of almost £50 billion a year. Brexit gives even more urgency to the UK’s quest to be an international trading power beyond Europe.

Employer satisfaction with school and college leavers’ language skills has hit a low of 34%. And while language learning is already compulsory at primary schools in England and Scotland, the British Chambers of Commerce has called for language teaching to become compulsory between the ages of seven and 16 to help entrepreneurs become more globally minded and remove barriers to exporting.

The British Council works to improve foreign language skills in the UK as part of its mission to build relationships for the UK around the world through education and culture. It provides Modern Language Assistants to help teach languages in schools across the country, and helps young people in the UK to develop international skills through overseas links and opportunities to work and study abroad such as through Erasmus plus.

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