It’s easy to advocate for the importance of foreign language learning in warm, fuzzy terms; for example, it helps us connect with other people and it helps us understand people from different cultures. Foreign language learning does help us do these things, but a new report from The British Council reminds us that there is a another, more concrete reason to value foreign languages: money.
According to the report, the UK economy may take a hit in future years because there simply aren’t enough people speaking what the Council identified as the ten most important foreign languages: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian and German. The report calls these languages “of crucial importance for the UK’s prosperity, security and influence in the world over the next 20 years,” but even the most commonly taught languages on the list are not commonly spoken by most UK adults.
For example, according to the BBC, only a quarter of UK residents were able to speak any of the languages on the list at a conversational level. French fared the best, with 15% of respondents able to hold a conversation in French. The outlook was less rosy for the other European languages on the list: 6% were conversational in German, 4% in Spanish and 2% in Italian. Less than 1% of UK adults can speak any of the other languages on the list.
In the report, the British Council’s John Worne said the problem wasn’t solely with the school system’s offerings:
“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. 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.”
To keep the UK competitive, Worne argues, a cultural shift is needed:
“If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’ll lose out both economically and culturally. Schools have their job to do, but it’s also a problem of complacency, confidence and culture – which policymakers, businesses, parents and everyone else in the UK can help to fix. Languages aren’t just an academic issue – they are a practical route to opportunity for the UK in business, culture and all our lives.”
We couldn’t agree more!