'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

Related Stories

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.



More on This Story

Related Stories

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    I went to a language college so was forced to learn Latin, Spanish, French and Chinese. I've never used them since and can't actually remember any of them. The real issue here is that teens should not be forced to learn a language if they wish to learn another skill. I've never been abroad and don't intend to so would rather have spent the time on subjects that would have been of use to me now.

  • 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 443.

    Dyslexic son failed maths but excelled at IT and French (mainly spoken including oral exam). Too much emphasis on reading and writing inhibits growth of conversation skills. Kids learn mother tongue from birth, we only ask them to write it when they are expert speakers, so why make them write a language they can't yet speak?

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    Having lived abroad, I am embarrassed by the inability of the British to speak foreign languages when our European cousins have a better grasp of English than many of us.

    Personally I found that languages were some of the easiest classes at school. Maybe it was just the Scottish system, but the majority was coursework. We need to push for mandatory quality language teaching from an early age.

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    My daughter looked into becoming a translator but found she could earn more at Pizza Hut!

    In any case since so very many global business people speak English anyway, and WANT to use that language, where's the problem?


Comments 5 of 13


More Education & Family stories



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.