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28 November 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 6:22pm

Language skills are in decline at national cost

Communication skills will always be key to the future success of young people. 

By Baroness Jean Coussins

Willy Brandt, the former German chancellor, once said: “If I’m selling to you, I speak your language, but if I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” The government today would be wise to listen to this advice and act on it quickly if they are serious about becoming a leader in global free trade post-Brexit. It’s a myth that everyone around the world speaks English and companies are finding to their cost that building export growth is up against a big barrier in the form of the United Kingdom’s languages deficit. Why, then, did the recent government green paper on Industrial Strategy make no mention of language skills?

There is strong evidence to show that the UK’s lack of language skills – and the consequent under-exploitation of language skills by UK businesses – has held back efforts to boost exports and attract inward investment. Research by Cardiff University Business School suggests that the economy is losing out on £48bn every year, or 3.5 per cent of GDP, in lost contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workplace. If you can’t read the initial tender documents, you can’t bid for the contract – and they are by no means always written in English. Research by the British Chambers of Commerce showed that 96 per cent of English exporters had no foreign language ability for the markets they serve and the largest language deficits were for the fastest growing markets. Over three-quarters of the companies responding to the survey reckoned they had missed or lost business because of this. 

In contrast, companies which do invest in language skills, through a mixture of recruitment, training and strategic targeting by language, are succeeding in increasing the ratio of exports to sales by 37 per cent.

The establishment of the great website provides an important opportunity for the government to disseminate advice to businesses seeking to develop markets in new countries, but this has not been sufficiently promoted. Under the former UKTI, one-to-one advice on language and cultural issues was provided – to 1,170 companies in one region alone in 2015-16. But this service has now ceased in favour of regional contracts with the Department for International Trade and it is not clear whether local businesses will still be able to access guidance on overcoming language and cultural barriers to trade.

It’s not just a matter of business growth and competitiveness. We are also doing a disservice to young people in a global labour market if we do not equip them with a vital skill set of languages to improve their employability and mobility. Over 70 per cent of UK employers say they aren’t happy with the foreign language skills of our school leavers or graduates and are forced increasingly to recruit from overseas to meet their needs. The payoff for new graduates can be illustrated by a 2014 study that showed that those who had spent a year abroad on the Erasmus Programme as part of their degree course, acquiring language skills – and the inter-cultural understanding and international mindset that goes with them – had an unemployment rate after graduating 23 per cent lower than non-mobile students.

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Sadly, only nine per cent of British 15-year olds are competent in a first foreign language beyond a very basic level – and that compares to 42 per cent of teenagers across 14 other European countries. Granted, the uptake of language GCSEs has risen since the introduction of the English Baccalaureate (having been slashed in half following the disastrous decision in 2004 to make languages optional after the age of 14); but A-levels are in freefall with the consequent knock-on effect of a sizeable drop in the numbers applying to do languages at university. Since 2000, over 50 universities have scrapped some or all of their modern language degree courses. 

We need a national languages recovery programme to rebuild any credible level of UK foreign language competence. It needs to cover all ages and stages of education, from the primary school (where it is now a mandatory part of the National Curriculum for all pupils aged seven upwards to study a foreign language, but where the teacher shortage makes this a pipe dream in many schools), through to postgraduate research (where, according the British Academy, access to major funding as part of international consortia is seriously undermined because too few of our postgrads can work in more than one language). 

It also needs to encompass technical education and to address regional inequalities. The UK has regional weaknesses in participation and attainment in foreign languages, which correlate with regions of poor productivity and low skill levels. 

In the North-East in 2016, only 43 per cent of pupils sat a GCSE in a language, compared to 65 per cent in inner London and this gap has been widening year on year.

The government should also do more to build on the linguistic strengths we do have as a nation. Over a million school pupils are bilingual and speak languages including Arabic, Mandarin, Russian, Turkish, Farsi and many others, which hardly feature in mainstream school curricula, yet are some of the languages spoken in the world’s fastest-growing emerging markets. Too often these children are seen as an educational problem rather than an educational asset. Their languages should be acknowledged, nurtured and accredited, with a view to helping them utilise their skills, having more choices of employment and making a critical difference to Britain’s economic future in the long term.

The green paper pays scant attention to specific sectors of the economy. Tourism, transport and the creative industries, for example, are mentioned only briefly, and professional and public services not at all. These are all areas where there is a strong need for language skills, in addition to manufacturing and technology. There is also a good case to be made for a “sector deal” for the language industry itself – not just teachers, but also interpreters, translators, people who write teaching materials such as textbooks, CDs and websites, do subtitling and dubbing for films and TV and much, much more. The language industry across the EU is estimated to be worth over €20bn and has a very high growth rate. As an English-speaking nation, we would be well placed to take strategic advantage of this expected further growth, not only in Europe but worldwide.

It is vital to communicate with prospective consumers in their own language. One recent study of ten countries showed that 60 per cent of consumers rarely or never make online purchases from English-language websites. Prospective inward investors don’t want a monolingual environment either. Over a quarter of senior executives from top European companies rated access to multiple language skills as “absolutely essential” when considering where to locate their business. This has been a significant driver of London’s economic success. Scotland recently lost investment in jobs worth £4m per annum by a major petrochemical company because of concerns about their inability to recruit staff with the necessary language skills.

The government is right to be ambitious in encouraging trade and inward investment. But it needs to remember the words of Willy Brandt if it is to succeed. Complacency about English as the so-called lingua franca will not wash in the 21st century.


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