Foreign languages 'shortfall' for business, CBI says

Hand on Chinese dictionary Two-fifths of firms said it was "beneficial" to have staff with language skills

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The UK's education system is failing to produce enough people with foreign-language skills to meet a growing need from business, the CBI has said.

Nearly two-thirds of about 300 UK firms surveyed by the business lobby group said they preferred staff with these skills.

French, German and Spanish were highly prized but Arabic and Mandarin were growing in importance, it said.

The government said its policies meant more children were learning languages.

The report refers to British Council research citing an "alarming shortage" of speakers of certain major languages.

The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey suggested languages were likely to continue to grow in importance "as ambitious firms look to break into new, fast-growing markets".

'Prized' skills

Some 41% of businesses said knowledge of a foreign language was beneficial, while 28% believed language skills would help to build relations with overseas contacts.

French (50%), German (49%) and Spanish (44%) were identified as the most useful languages.

A total of 31% wanted staff who could speak Mandarin and 23% demanded Arabic skills.

Others identified Polish (19%), Russian (18%), Cantonese (16%) and Japanese (15%).

CBI deputy director general Katja Hall said research showed one in five schools in England had a persistently low take-up of languages.

Spanish numbers Spanish, French and German are still the most desired languages, but companies also want Mandarin and Arabic speakers

She said: "With the EU still our largest export market, it's no surprise to see German, French and Spanish language skills so highly prized by companies.

"But with China and Latin America seeing solid growth, ambitious firms want the language skills that can smooth the path into new markets," she added.

"It has been a worry to see foreign-language study in our schools under pressure.

"The jury remains out as to whether recent government initiatives can help spur a resurgence in language learning.

"Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language."

'Money talks'

Last year a report by the British Council urged schools to teach a wider range of languages, giving these skills the same status as the sciences and maths.

"In a tight economy, one thing that will help more UK young people choose languages is a clear signal from UK businesses that they want them and will pay for them," said John Worne, the organisation's director of strategy.

"Money talks, but it's people being able to communicate that makes the world go round."

A Department for Education spokeswoman said the proportion of teenagers taking a language GCSE fell from 75% in 2002 to 43% in 2010, but exam changes have meant the figure rose to 49% last year.

"This government is overseeing a languages revival after a decade of damaging decline," she said.

"From this September, languages will be compulsory from the age of seven, rather than 11 at the moment.

"And our EBacc has seen the numbers learning languages at GCSE rising again after many years of consistent decline."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 403.

    Things may have changed but, when I was at school learning French, they emphasised reading and writing rather than speaking French. Everything was about translating.
    Years later I learned German from Germans by direct method - no translation and emphasis on the spoken language. Nowadays I can't get around in France but have few problems in Germany.
    Teaching methods are important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 385.

    I studied languages at university - it was one of my favourite subjects because it connects me with people. I've always loved the reaction you get when you speak to someone in their own language. When I was at school it was compulsory to take a language at GCSE level. I think this should be brought back. I had the chance to learn Russian at school, which has literally opened up a new world for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    I think more importantly too few kids are learning engineering and science. Let's get our industry right first before learning a second language.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    When at school, we were forced to learn French, but my interests always lay with Chinese for a variety of reasons to do with that civilizations great history and stunning works of art. Now, I stumble and try, but I do so wish I had been allowed to learn Chinese, even if on my own, when I was of an age that would make it easier for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    At least the majority of pupils in Wales learn two languages, Welsh and English, and I was very glad the BBC verified that learning two languages is beneficial for your brain and helps you sustain brain function into old age.

    I appreciate that in the rest of the UK that pupils in schools do not have this advantage.

    Both my children are bilingual, and also have learnt French and Spanish.


Comments 5 of 11


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