'Alarming shortage' of foreign language skills in UK

Hand and dictionary Not enough people in the UK have ability and skill in crucial foreign languages, argues a report

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The UK has an "alarming shortage" of people able to speak the 10 languages vital to our future prosperity and global standing, warns a report.

Schools should teach a wider range of languages, with language skills given the same status as the sciences and maths, argues the British Council.

More adults should learn at least one new language, say the authors.

Failure to act risks the UK losing out "both economically and culturally", said John Worne of the British Council.

"The problem isn't that we're teaching the wrong languages, because the most widely taught languages like French, Spanish and German all feature in our top 10.

'Crucial importance'

"But the UK needs more people to take up the opportunity to learn and, crucially, get using these languages, along with new ones like Arabic, Chinese and Japanese", said Mr Worne.

British Council top 10 languages

  • 1. Spanish
  • 2 Arabic
  • 3 French
  • 4 Mandarin Chinese
  • 5 German
  • 6 Portuguese
  • 7 Italian
  • 8 Russian
  • 9 Turkish
  • 10 Japanese

The authors analysed a range of economic, political, cultural and educational factors to define the languages which "will be of crucial importance for the UK's prosperity, security and influence in the world over the next 20 years".

A YouGov poll of more than 4,000 UK adults found that three-quarters (75%) were unable to speak any of the 10 languages well enough to hold a conversation.

Some 15% of the UK population said they could hold a conversation in French but only 6% said the same of their German skills, 4% could converse in Spanish and 2% in Italian.

The other languages on the top 10 list were spoken by 1% or fewer of the population, the poll suggests.

The report was endorsed by Martyn Heather, head of education at the Premier League: "Being able to speak another language opens up a world of opportunities to play and coach in football leagues across the globe.

"It is the people who understand languages and feel confident with other cultures who will be able to make the most of these opportunities and thrive the most overseas".

Earlier this year the British Council challenged everyone in the UK to learn at least 1,000 words of a new language.


In his foreword to the report Mr Worne stresses that it is functional skill rather than fluency that counts.

"'Fluent' is an inhibitor, 'functional' is a liberator.

"It begins with a few words and phrases and that small investment can grow into a lifetime of interest, employment and opportunity," he writes.

The report urges the four UK governments to link their language teaching policies more clearly to their aspirations for international business, education and culture.

Greater use should be made in education of the language skills of minority communities within the UK, while businesses should invest in the teaching of languages from which they will directly benefit, say the authors.

A spokesman for the Department for Education in England said the introduction of the new EBacc was "reversing successive annual falls in the number of entries to modern language GCSEs since 2002.

"There were 50,000 more entries to languages GCSEs this year, with French up 16%, German up 9% and Spanish up 26%.

"From next year it will be compulsory for children to be taught a foreign language from age seven through to age 14," said the spokesman.



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  • rate this

    Comment number 714.

    712 Sally -
    are you deliberately dodging my question re ability versus money?

    I'm no advocate for the state system as it exists being a great system - but under your view - other than an ability to buy a good education - what do you suggest as a means of promoting the brightest?
    Or do you believe that an ability to pay should give you access to the best education?

  • rate this

    Comment number 713.

    ..Anyway, as an ex-serviceman,I am proficient in many languages eg "Cervesa por favor,ein bier bitte,mia byra parakalo,un bier si vous plait" Beer is the 2nd most common similar word worldwide..
    Una birra per favore
    Biru ippai kudasai
    Odno pivo pozhaluysta

  • rate this

    Comment number 712.

    In a broke country;

    How much larger does the bloated Department of Education's budget need to be?
    How much higher do taxes need to be?
    How much more unionised do our educators need to be?
    How many strikes over mere performance based pay must we endure?
    How much more semi-illiterate do our children need to be?

    ... Until you realise the state is a lousy educator?

  • rate this

    Comment number 711.

    The odd thing is when your younger learning another language felt pointless or (in my case) you don't get on with the language. having been out of school and college for a few years taking up learning 2 languages (from a colleague, German being one of them) it is one of the most challenging but rewarding tasks I've done in a long time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 710.

    Maybe we should try to ensure that we don't need to learn 10+languages. Maybe we should ensure that the rote needs to learn English.

    Not arrogance, just a hopeful indication of British commercial dominance dictating which we prefer to use.

  • rate this

    Comment number 709.

    RE 696 Sally -
    why in your view of the world does everything relate to ability to spend - on education or anything else?
    So you hypothetically take Jane&Janet - Jane's parents are uneducated peasants/Janet's are rich & educated - but Jane has the potential to be a Nobel scientist - Janet's potential is average - because Jane's parents can't afford education that potential is lost in your world!

  • rate this

    Comment number 708.

    469. A second-hand Japanese textbook? Did it have phonetic print?

  • rate this

    Comment number 707.

    Faith is in essence relationship with a Creator in the Christianity that relationship also comes in Jesus through and the holy spiirit. It only become religion when in order to receive the sacraments (Bread. Body and Wine. Blood) they must be confirmed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 706.

    re 686 - Sorrysorryandsorry -

    they don't speak Arabic in Iraq! Sort of means your irony falls a bit flat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 705.

    14 Hours ago
    I've always found it difficult to understand why I can attend a 10 week evening course in French and come out able to hold reasonable conversations >> however, it always seemed inexplicably complicated at school.
    ** The difference is that now you want to learn but as a teenager you didn't. Wanting to do something makes it more interesting to learn

  • rate this

    Comment number 704.

    There is the Book Titled - "how to speak Italian without saying a word".

    Maybe English is popular because it does not have accent marks all over the letters, and it only has 26 letters.

    Have heard that some languages are hard to speak if you did not learn them at a young age because of palate development - so you can't pronounce the sound ad hearing that you cannot separate the words.

  • rate this

    Comment number 703.

    There was a no doubt tongue in cheek comment made earlier that perhaps had an element of truth in it.

    To a degree of accuracy we can already copy and paste any text into Google Translate. In the not too distant future it isn't unthinkable that along with our Google Glasses, we'll be wearing a device that instantly translates any spoken language into a language of our choice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 702.

    Folllowing the rules of particular faith branch of faith
    does not make any person better in the eyes of the Creator and/or Jesus than another person. The journey into faith is one to be at one own pace rather a rite of passage
    to be accorded people at a particular age as such it is never to late to find it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 701.

    Sally worldwide only the privileged few get educated by privateers,charities & some public education takes place, privateers know can not make any money out of mass education unless has in our case it is paid by taxpayers money,otherwise even in this country millions of children would not be educated,there your proof,the fact private money only educates the overvalued privileged

  • rate this

    Comment number 700.

    The problem is there is no motivation to learn another language when the rest of the world speaks English. There are more people now that speak it as a second language than those who do so as natives. As an English tutor and speaker of four other European languages, when I visit those countries I end up speaking their language to them while they see a chance to practise and so speak mine to me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 699.

    The study of RE/RS is no less important than that of history or geography or perhap evem plitic and philosphy/psychology. It should be taught in equality with other major faiths so that people possess a reasonable amount of knowledge of other faiths.

  • Comment number 698.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 697.

    A linguist once said that in 500 years there will be only 3 languages. English, Mandarin, and Spanish (for South America). A Greek air traffic controller speaking to a Russian pilot flying between Norway and Saudi Arabia will speak to him in English, which all international airline pilots must understand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 696.

    619. Pauline
    "Of course they won't but neither will it increase the number of teachers or their skills."
    Why wouldn't the abolishing of the Dept of Education increase teachers skills, who must now compete on price, innovation, and results to earn their keep?

    Do you think parents are incapable of spending their own money on educators of their choosing?

  • rate this

    Comment number 695.

    684 continued The study pf foriegn lanuaguages is as as important as the study of science an should be valued for its contribution to internatial culture and community which are directly more tangible to humanity as a whole than science.


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