Lack of language skills might hinder British economy

28/11/2013 | Rachel Hurley

We’ve talked about the effect of the decline in language learning before, but last week a report by the British Council confirmed warnings that the lack of language skills might hinder the British economy.

According to The Languages for the Future report, Arabic, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Turkish are the top 10 languages of vital importance for the UK for the next 20 years on economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational grounds. In contrast, the number of British students choosing to study languages at A-Level and higher education has dropped considerably over the last few years.

In 2011, the British Academy released a report warning that Britain might suffer market failure because of the shortage of language apt personnel. Since then there have been efforts from the British Academy, the British Council and even the European Commission (working in partnership with the two latter institutions) to encourage students to think about studying other languages when choosing their possible career paths. The British Chamber of Commerce has also urged the government to return languages to being a compulsory subject at schools, just like Maths and English.

The latest report suggests a similar approach, as the British Council has called on government and businesses to highlight the need for children to be taught a broader range of languages as well as the need for language learning to be given the same priority in schools as the core subjects. And it is interesting to notice that this comes at the same time as trilingualism seems to be growing amongst children, especially in London.

According to John Worne, the Strategy Director at the British Council, the issue is not a lack of language courses, but an issue of complacency, confidence, and culture. There is an underlying assumption that if someone is able to speak another language, such as children who are raised bilingual for instance, they do not need qualifications to work with that language. Teresa Tinsley, the co-author of the report, calls this a waste of resources and believes Britain should be striving to keep these skills. Worne believes that because English is spoken internationally, there is a further assumption that speaking other languages is not a necessary skill when this could not be furthest from the truth. In an interview with Sky News, Worne stated that even though we are still able to communicate with foreign companies and potential clients or associates, speaking their mother tongue could grant Britain advantages over its competitors. As it happens, its European counterparts are much stronger at speaking other languages.

Language skills are incredibly important and affect every aspect of modern life. From sports to shopping, from politics to business, without it, very little would exchange hands passed borders. There are also many personal benefits to speaking a second or third language in such a globalized digital age. In addition, many doors can be opened if you tap into the right groups.

But all is not doom and gloom. The next 20 years should be very busy for the translation and interpreting industry in the UK, even if we have to recruit from abroad.

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