The cost of Britain's language problem

Linguistic skills are crucial for long-term career prospects and for the economy, but fewer young people are gaining them. 

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As chancellor of the exchequer, George Osborne thought he had found a key to boosting British competitiveness: teaching more children Mandarin. In September 2015, he announced a £10m investment in the Mandarin Excellence Programme, which aimed for an extra 5,000 children in the UK to be learning the language by 2020. Two years later, the country’s first entirely bilingual English-Chinese school opened its doors in London. At Kensington Wade, founded in 2017, children shout out answers in Mandarin in one classroom, practice calligraphy in another, and sing English songs in the next. Pinned to the wall of the school’s waiting room is a quote from businessman Sir Martin Sorrell: “Chinese and computer code are the only two languages the next generation should need”.

But the 61 pupils at the £17,000-a-year establishment, expected to be fluent in Mandarin by the age of 11, will be in the minority of young Brits who speak a second language. According to Eurobarometer, only 32 per cent of Britons aged 15-30 can read and write in more than one language. The EU average is 80 per cent. Given that it is compulsory for children in Wales to take Welsh until GCSE, fluency in non-UK languages is likely to be even lower.

The British decline in language learning is an issue for employers, and for the economy. In March 2019, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Modern Languages published its National Recovery Programme for Languages, outlining strategic objectives for schools, further and higher education, business, government and society. They noted that “the UK loses 3.5 per cent of GDP in lost business opportunities due to our poor language skills” and that “SMEs who deploy languages report 43 per cent higher export/turnover ratios.”

The fact that English is such a widely spoken language worldwide is part of the challenge. The problem with finding policy solutions to that challenge, Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi, vice-chair of the APPG for Modern Languages, told Spotlight, is that “[politically] languages belong everywhere a bit but nowhere holistically or strategically.” This is despite the importance of language skills “not just in education, but in areas such as international relations and security, social mobility .... cognitive health, and of course trade and exports.”

A study by Geneva University found that 10 per cent of Switzerland’s GDP could be attributed to the country’s multilingual heritage and abilities. Matthew Fell, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI)’s chief UK policy director, says that better foreign language skills are “critical to increasing the UK’s global competitiveness and to ensuring young people have the high level of cultural awareness that supports a successful career.”

Employers recognise the value of linguistic skill-sets. CBI has found that two-thirds of firms value foreign language skills among their employees. Typically, businesses do not demand native-level proficiency, but want employees to be able to build positive relationships and demonstrate the cultural awareness that often comes with having studied a language.

Last year, the British Academy together with the Academy of Medical Sciences, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the Royal Society published a joint statement calling for a national languages strategy. They said that “monolingualism [is] the illiteracy of the 21st century”. They highlighted the “decline in the relative influence of English online, from 51 per cent of traffic in 2001 to 26.8 per cent in 2011”.

The rate of young people studying foreign languages at GCSE or A-Level is hardly cause for encouragement. In 2004, the government changed its policy that languages should be compulsory at Key Stage 4. The number of pupils studying French and German has since declined. Today, less than half of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland take a foreign language GCSE, whereas in 2002 it was three in four. Only pupils in London and the South East rank above the national average for taking a language GCSE. Some 4,410 students registered to learn Mandarin at GCSE in 2018, 300 up on the previous year.

In 2010, the Department for Education introduced the English Baccalaureate (EBacc), for which young people needed to study English literature and language, maths, the sciences, history or geography, and a foreign language at GCSE. The EBacc measures the proportion of students who score a grade of five or more (A*-C under the previous system) in these subjects. Among other things, it was hoped that making a language compulsory would arrest their declining popularity. Since its introduction, the number of children at state-funded schools taking a language at GCSE has gone up to 46.6 per cent from 40 per cent in 2010, according to the DfE.

At A-Level, the picture is one of decline. Last year, just 1 per cent of A-Level students took French – a total of 7,503. In 1996, that number was over three times greater – 22,718. Spanish has now surpassed French as the most popular language subject, chosen by 1.1 per cent of A-Level students. In 2018, Mandarin overtook German among A-Level learners with 3,334 compared to 3,058.

The data at undergraduate level is not much more promising. The number of language graduates has declined by 20 per cent over the past five years. In 2019, fewer than 25,000 people – less than one in 20 UK graduates – attained a foreign language degree. This will likely impact the intake of foreign language teachers at secondary level.

Gender is also a factor.  In the UK three-fifths of secondary school teachers are women, and language teachers are even more disproportionately female. In 2018, 63 per cent of all candidates for A-Level language subjects were female. Taking inspiration from the push for girls to study Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), similar encouragement for boys to study foreign languages may help to redress the balance.

In January, the Higher Education Policy Institute, a think tank, published its A Language Crisis report, which calls for the reintroduction of compulsory language education up to Key Stage 4, a more varied language curriculum, and for language teachers and assistants to be added to the Home Office’s Shortage Occupations List.

The APPG’s report from that year also recommends the government introduce a language accreditation into apprenticeship programmes and develop an inclusive language policy from ages 5 to 18 with different routes to gaining language qualifications.

For the UK to thrive as “Global Britain” as we exit the European Union, says Mark Herbert, head of schools programmes at the British Council, “we will need more of our young people to be equipped and willing to study and work internationally.” In this way, the UK can take “advantage of the increasingly globalised economy, rather than [be] side-lined by it.”