Foreign languages are another incredibly important skill, especially for future jobs opportunities, which schools are failing to teach children
French, Spanish, German, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Turkish, Portuguese, Arabic and Mandarin are the languages that the British Council believes “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. Of the 25% at conversational ability (not fluency) almost all of these were in French, Spanish, German or Italian. Only one percent of our population speak any of the other six languages to conversational level.
The British Council has flagged a worrying lack of Mandarin lessons. Only 3 per cent of primary and 9 per cent of secondary teachers said their schools offer Mandarin Chinese lessons. Martin Davidson, Chief Executive of the British Council and fluent Chinese speaker, said: “The UK’s future prosperity depends in no small part on our ability to communicate and build relationships with people from around the world, and there are few more important partners for us than China. But, despite perceptions that more and more UK schools are teaching Mandarin, all the evidence suggests that the real number is stagnant at best and far too small. Without a workforce that can understand and communicate effectively with one of the world’s biggest economies, there’s a real risk that the UK will struggle to compete and fall behind as a result.”
The British Council report says: “Our overall conclusion is that the UK has now reached a critical juncture where investment in upgrading the nation’s language skills is critical”.
Other countries are doing it better than us. For example, 82% of students in Sweden reach a competent level in a foreign language compared to only 9% of British students. Many countries not only prioritise classes in foreign languages, allocating substantial time in the curriculum, but also part teach other subjects in a foreign language which hugely increases immersion.
The British Council made a number of recommendations around what needed to happen within education including; setting minimum time requirements for language learning, prioritising Arabic and Mandarin Chinese alongside French, Spanish and German and prioritising language learning alongside science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects and giving pupils every opportunity to develop an understanding and appreciation of other languages and cultures. Dr Adam Marshall, Director General of the British Chambers of Commerce highlighted the importance of foreign languages to businesses. “We have long called for foreign language teaching to be made compulsory in schools between the ages of seven and 16 – our own research has shown that few businesspeople are confident enough to conduct deals in the buyers’ language, while non-exporters see a lack of proficiency in another language as a barrier to do so.”
The British Council’s school’s adviser said that their research had shown that worldwide companies valued candidates speaking foreign languages and that it increased their employability. Not only for speaking the other language but because it showed cultural sensitivity and awareness of your own culture.