English Only in the UK: Lack of Languages Cost the Country

Published 2012-03-07 13:43:51

Dictionnaires © Silvia Ottaviano - Fotolia.comEveryone who has traveled or lived abroad can attest to the importance of knowing the language. Simple transactions like finding a bathroom and buying groceries can be ridiculously complicated without a basic understanding of the local language. But what about the situation back home? A new report from Education and Employers Task Force reveals that an inability to speak a foreign languages in the UK is costing the country billions. The report estimates that the UK is loosing 1.2 point of GDP (roughly £7.3 billion) with the majority of UK residents unable to speak any other language but English.

The Decline in Foreign Language

Beginning in the 1990s, a decline in foreign languages could be seen in the academic and work environment in the UK. This was accelerated after 2004 when a reform to the national curriculum made language learning at Key Stage 4 (KS4) or GCSE level optional. In response, fewer students took on foreign language courses and research shows a steep decline inattendance in the five years following 2004.

Various studies have found that the UK has the worst language skills in all of Europe. In the CBI's 2010 survey of employer satisfaction with employee skills, foreign language ability ranked last out of twelve skills areas. Fluency isn't even required for most positions, 2/3 of employers only require "conversational ability". It appears that the students least likely to engage in learning another language, are generally less social and have fewer economic opportunities, making their non-lingual skills just one of the problems for future employment. The study finds that three and a half years after graduation, more languages graduates are employed than their peers who studied Law, Architecture, Business or Computer Science, and they are earning higher average wages.

A primary problem seems to be that the ability to speak another language has not been valued in the workplace. Though the UK is a major trading power and financial center, the 2008 worldwide economic downturn has particularly affected the country. Unemployment in the UK is currently at 8.4 percent. Even among younger job-seekers, there is a belief that language skills have little importance in the labour market. This needs to change to increase the amount of people expanding their language skills. Some of the people uninterested in learning another language say, "Why do the English need to speak a foreign language when all foreigners speak English?"

The UK exports disproportionately to English speaking countries because of an overall inability to communicate with foreign countries. While about 320 million people speak English, over 885 million speak Mandarin Chinese, 266 million speak Spanish, 189 million speak Bengal, 182 million Hindi. Research commissioned by the EU finds that out of 29 European countries, 11 percent had lost a contract as a result of lack of language skills. If this deficit could be filled, it is believed that exports could increase by 8 percent. That kind of increase would be extremely welcome in the UK's current state of economic depression.

"Language skills are increasingly important in a globalised economy. Staff who can communicate at least conversationally in another language, particularly where this is coupled with an understanding of overseas business culture, can be a great asset. Linguistic proficiency helps firms to consolidate their relationships with existing overseas trading partners and develop contacts in new markets."
The Confederation of British Industry

Solutions to Increase Learning Foreign Language

To combat these issues, agencies and employers have formulated different approaches.

  • The British government has contributed by requiring foreign language as part of the English Baccalaureate (this name is confusing as this is not a degree as A-Level or International Baccalaureate, but a performance measure to assess the National curriculum).
  • Business Language Champions is a program that seeks to educate young people on the benefits of learning languages and the importance in the work force
  • Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG) provides information about future careers for teenagers between the ages of 14-19
  • Schools engaging in extra-curricular activities of foreign exchanges, theatre visits and workplace visits where foreign language is in use.
  • Languages Work website (www.languageswork.org.uk) displays real-life case studies to show the relevance of languages to careers.

While these measures have not been wholly successful, it is encouraging that the problem is being addressed. The UK cannot afford to be losing between £7 - 17 billion. The most effective approach will certainly be working with teachers, employers, and volunteers from the occupational fields. The biggest problem, changing the perception of young people entering the labour market, will not be easily reversed.

To start learning a foreign language, read about "Talking the Talk: Learning a Foreign Language".

The more languages you know, the more of a person you are.
European Commission


Author: EasyExpat
Community Manager EasyExpat.com

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