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Cross-party group wants Brits to be better at languages

Speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English, according to a cross-party group of UK politicians that is urging all British political parties to make a manifesto promise to improve the country’s language skills base ahead of next year’s General Election.

Baroness Jean Coussins, APPG Chair. Photo: University of Salford Press.

The UK economy is losing out on around £48 billion a year due to a lack of language skills in the workforce

The UK economy is losing out on around £48 billion a year in contracts due to a lack of language skills in the workforce, according to research commissioned by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) last year.

Citing this research, the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Modern Languages (APPG) Chair, Baroness Coussins, said that the UK’s next government must take “clear, urgent and coherent action to upgrade the UK’s foreign language skills”.

“Otherwise our young people will continue to fall behind their European and global peers in education and employability; our export growth will be stunted; our international reputation will suffer and our security, defence and diplomacy needs will be compromised,” she said.

The APPG’s template manifesto includes goals to introduce language teaching from age 7; GCSE and A Level reform to ensure children have a “high quality language education” by the end of secondary education; and “a long-term commitment to transforming the reputation of UK citizens as poor linguists”.

“Otherwise our young people will continue to fall behind their global peers in education and employability; our international reputation will suffer”

A European Commission study of 14 countries placed England at the bottom of the table, finding less than a third of pupils studying languages in English schools do not reach the level of “a basic user who can use very simple language, with support” in their first foreign language.

French and German A Level entries fell by 10% last year, contributing to a decline in language take-up at higher education level. Since 2000, 44 universities have closed their language degrees.

The British Council is among more than 50 leading businesses, organisations and universities including HSBC, UBS and the British Academy that are backing the institution, underlining the strength of feeling surrounding the need to better equip the UK with language skills in both academic and academic circles.

“Whatever your politics, it’s great to see so many major UK organisations and leaders recognising that a grounding in a foreign language is a vital skill for every young life,” John Worne, Director of Strategy at the British Council.

“Even a few words can make all the difference for travel, work and leisure – and that’s really important for UK’s economy, trade and international standing,” he added.

The initiative comes after a survey carried out by CBI and Pearson last month showed that nearly two-thirds of UK businesses saw a need for foreign language skills, and the British Council’s recent Languages for the Future report identified a severe shortage in the number of UK people able to speak the 10 most important languages for the UK’s future.

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8 Responses to Cross-party group wants Brits to be better at languages

  1. I write as an Englishman who studied French and Spanish to A’level and who holds a degree in Spanish and German. Such language skills have enriched my life to no end and have enabled me to communicate with many people the world over. However, it’s all talk and little action from the UK government on this issue. Why encourage children to learn languages at school only to then make languages optional at secondary school level, as has happened in recent years? It’s also worth pointing out that language skills are secondary skills and it’s only after one has developed a career in, say, marketing or engineering that language skills will then come to the fore and compliment one’s professional knowledge. As someone once said “what’s the point of speaking a language if you can’t say anything useful in it?!” It’s also a fact that whilst British companies will say they want employees with language skills, they rarely are prepared to pay a premium to have such linguists working for them – the fact they use the word “advantageous” as opposed to “essential” in relation to language skills speaks volumes. For those who argue “everyone speaks English” it’s worth noting that even if they do, they won’t necessarily want to speak in English especially when they are the customer needing to know the ins and outs of a product.

  2. The trouble is that Italians, French and German speaking English understand each better when talking together than when speaking to an English person – and too few Brits (and probably Americans, too) understand this!!

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