'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 474.

    In schools the children might learn a language for 2.5hrs a week for 30 weeks. (75hrs per year)
    This time might not be totally effective with large classes etc.
    Estimates suggest that it takes about 5-600 hours of highly effective, intensive teaching to learn a language.
    It is not surprising that most children leave school with poor foreign language skills.

  • rate this

    Comment number 473.

    "Intenational language ....... Why can't we have a nice, entirely logical, numerical language? That would be bliss."

    Try Maths. Thats international!

  • rate this

    Comment number 472.

    What makes me laugh about is that I heard many times from some brits who thought they could go anywhere aboard without necessarily speaking a single word of foreign langue as the locals can speak English.

  • rate this

    Comment number 471.

    I don't know what they are worried about. The government of any day will just import enough native speakers of these langauages to make us the best in the world.

    It really doesn't matter that few will be able to speak English, but hey, why is English needed?

  • rate this

    Comment number 470.

    We don't need to speak other languages (esprecially not American English).

    Our biggest and best gift to the world has been English, and the whole educated world can, or is learning to, speak it.

    I do think we need to be able to read other languages, though,

  • rate this

    Comment number 469.

    I grew up on a council estate in East London, and the only language my school offered was French. However, I picked up a second-hand Japanese textbook one day and my addiction to language learning began. I'm now 21 and speak Japanese and Turkish as well as having high competence in 4 other languages.
    I haven't been given the opportunities on a plate, but I somehow managed it. There's no excuse.

  • rate this

    Comment number 468.

    The BBC could help with this.

    Show more foreign-language programmes and films. There is so much, in French, German, Spanish etc.

    The BBC has plenty of time for crap like Strictly. How about catering for grown-ups instead?

    The success of the likes of Borgen shows how it can be done.

  • rate this

    Comment number 467.

    I agree that the learning a foreign language but how young is to young and does it put additional but on those who struggle with their English for whatever reason. I also agree that have more TV programmes available in multi lingual formats would useful wether the pragrammmes are regarless of how old the viewer may be.

  • rate this

    Comment number 466.

    Our comments crossed but you made the same point as me. Which language to study?
    From an early age, I believe we should still concentrate on French and German as two of the most useful languages. Once you have developed good languages skills then it is much easier to acquire other languages when required.

  • rate this

    Comment number 465.

    Generally, when reading blogs and forums it is evident there are is a sizeable minority that cannot even write or spell (not typos) what appears to be their native language, reasonably well, so I am unsurprised that a lack of interest in foreign languages manifests itself either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 464.

    My in-laws speak a better French than my wife and always make an effort to talk in French to my parents when my wife can only call for help!.
    It's not surprising when you see that now, people can get to UNI with as little as 2 A level subjects.
    In France, the Baccalaureat is 9/10 subjects, including 1 foreign language,French,History,Geography,Philosophy whatever is your main area of study.

  • rate this

    Comment number 463.

    409: Also The Sciences also hard to do well in and also boring and for some difficult becasue of the practcal element of the subject. So why don't we see certain groups exempted from them after 14 and where necessary given the option of learning a second foreign language.

  • rate this

    Comment number 462.

    It is, of course, easy for most countries to decide which language to teach children first as English is fast becoming the lingua franca, certainly in Europe.
    It is more difficult for us as we have a choice of so many languages. Spanish is often put at the top and the numbers studying it are rising fast, partly because of the number of teachers. However it is spoken mostly in S. Am not the EU.

  • rate this

    Comment number 461.


    With the web, it is much easier to expose yourself to your target language through foreign websites, youtube etc

    Excellent point and one that I try to make the most of. However many people from different countries are immersed in Eng culture to some degree before deciding on learning a language. I suppose the problem is there's no one stand out language for us.

  • rate this

    Comment number 460.

    Failure of the government and the education system. The right emphasis has never been placed on languages, reliance being placed on the ubiquity of the English spoken word. A reflection of our island mentality, not really in Europe and our "special relationship" with America. When you reside in mainland Europe you quickly realise that speaking other languages is a necessity and the norm.

  • rate this

    Comment number 459.

    There isn't any "foreign" news that can't become an outlet for grumpy brits these days. So we have a lot of foreigners, and apparently their language skills are considered british skills even though we don't like them stealing our jobs.
    Most of the asian pacific department are asian or british asian in my company, i'd really hate for them to leave because i won't have a clue about their clients.

  • rate this

    Comment number 458.

    I think the British gov should help improve the quality of teaching and learning in English in Schools, particularly by focusing on writing -- terrible

  • rate this

    Comment number 457.

    455. squash or dilutant

    I can understand your point of view but I have to disagree with you. I am English, but I also speak Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish.

  • rate this

    Comment number 456.

    We can learn all we like, it's use that makes the difference...

    It's like the migrant workers where I live - they rarely speak English (if they even know how to) because they're always talking in their native tongue.

    The town centre where I live may as well be a foreign country.

    Still, "business" must have the pre-packed perfect employee to pay peanuts to, so who I am I to argue...

  • rate this

    Comment number 455.

    Why is everything always about money? As for improving culture what about the celtic languages here? If more people knew them that would enrich culture and we could have a truly multicultrual society not based on immigrants but then the British have always tried to kill the celtic languages.


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