The Government has acknowledged that language skills are “increasingly important” for business, trade and competitiveness in the global marketplace. A range of reports published in recent years have considered the benefits of language proficiency for trade and employment and noted that a persistent skills gap appears to be hindering both export performance and employment opportunities.

Languages and trade

A shortage of language skills in the UK has been identified as barrier to trade by numerous reports. In 2013, a British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) survey of over 4,500 businesses noted that “up to 70% of respondents had no foreign language ability for the markets they served”. The report noted over 95% of business owners were unable to speak sufficient Russian or Chinese to conduct business deals in those languages. The BCC said this shortage of language skills was holding back exporters. It added that “addressing the gaps in commercial exporting skills, including language skills, must be a priority for supporting growth in Britain’s export sector”.

In May 2014, UK Trade and Investment commissioned a review of language skill deficiencies and UK trade performance from academics at Cardiff Business School. The review concluded that the economic costs of “language ignorance”, in terms of communication and awareness of cultural barriers, were estimated at up to £48bn in 2006, or 3.5% of national income. The analysis found that firms with a “greater understanding of language and culture were better able to identify and exploit sales opportunities” in overseas markets.

In 2017, a British Council report identified the languages of “crucial importance for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world”. The top five comprised of Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German. The report drew attention to how leaving the EU had “given urgency” to developing the necessary skills to engage internationally, both within and beyond European countries. It said the UK had “now reached a critical juncture where investment in upgrading the nation’s language skills is critical”.

In July 2019, a report by the BCC and job site Indeed identified that similar languages to those mentioned in the earlier British Council report would be important to businesses over the next five years. The report also highlighted the need for businesses to have access to foreign language skills in response to government proposals for the UK’s immigration system.

More recently, in May 2021, Aston Business School published research linking language capabilities with the export success of UK small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The research found that SMEs making use of languages had 30% better success in exporting. In addition, it found that languages broadly helped the internationalisation of UK SMEs. The report underlined these findings by highlighting “SME companies represent 99.9% of the business population with six million businesses and around half of all turnover in the UK’s private sector”. In addition, it noted SMEs employ 61% of the total UK workforce.

Languages and employment

Language skills have also been associated with increased employment opportunities and social mobility. In 2019, a Confederation of British Industry (CBI) survey concluded that foreign languages and cultural understanding would be “vital” for ‘Global Britain’. It also noted that learning foreign languages can expand the horizons of young people. It said that businesses would “need people who can communicate with customers and suppliers around the world” and endorsed the inclusion of a foreign language in the English Baccalaureate (EBacc).

However, British Council language trend surveys have reported how socio-economic and regional inequalities impact access to foreign language learning. In 2016, the British Council reported “relatively high levels of take up for GCSE languages in London and the South East, but much smaller participation rates in the North East, Yorkshire and the Humber and the Midlands”. It also reported that schools in less advantaged socio-economic areas were likely to allocate less time for languages and face more problems with the supply and retention of specialist language teachers. Findings in relation to socio-economic disadvantage persisted in the British Council’s 2019 survey.

In addition, time spent living abroad can be beneficial for employment prospects. In 2014, the EU Commission reported that “on average, Erasmus students have better employability skills after a stay abroad than 70% of all students”. It also reported that the unemployment rate of Erasmus students five years after graduation was 23% lower than the rate for those who had not spent time abroad. The Erasmus programme has been in place since the late 1980s and allows students to study at universities in EU member states for set periods. Students can choose from a variety of subjects, but the majority use the programme to improve their language skills.

In 2017, the EU Commission went on to publish data collected in 2015 on foreign language proficiency and employability in EU member states. Key findings included:

  • around one fifth to a quarter of jobs required an advanced level of foreign language skills;
  • many of the jobs performed by higher education graduates required foreign language proficiency, whereas fewer medium-level and low-skilled positions had such requirements;
  • around one fifth to a quarter of employers said a language other than English was the most useful foreign language, with an emphasis on German, French and Russian;
  • employers tended to demand a higher level of oral than written skills in languages;
  • one third of employers had difficulties filling positions as a result of applicants with insufficient foreign language competences; and
  • foreign language skills provided competitive advantage both for businesses and job seekers—if they form part of a broader set of useful skills.

On 24 December 2020, the Government announced the UK would no longer participate in the Erasmus programme. In its place, the Government launched the Turing scheme, “backed by over £100 million, providing for 35,000 students in universities, colleges and schools to go on placements and exchanges overseas, starting in September 2021”. The Department for Education announced the scheme would target students from disadvantaged backgrounds and be accessible to everyone across the UK. However, the scheme has been subject to criticism, including a joint statement from the Scottish and Welsh governments. In March 2021, the Welsh Government went on to launch its own International Learning Exchange Programme to “fill the gaps Turing leaves”.

What has been recommended to improve language skills?

In July 2020, the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Association of School and College Leaders, the British Council and Universities UK proposed a national languages strategy. The strategy highlighted that:

Languages are strategically vital for the future of the UK, as we look to recover from the coronavirus pandemic and strengthen our relationships across the world. But there is overwhelming evidence of an inadequate, longstanding, and worsening supply of the language skills needed by the UK to meet future needs.

The strategy proposed a range of short-, mid- and long-term actions. These included:

  • Schemes for outward mobility such as Erasmus, and those that enable language specialists to come to the UK to teach, are able to continue to their present level into the future.
  • Providers of post-16 education incorporate language elements in existing extension qualifications, and exploration of new types of post-16 qualifications in languages.
  • Extension of the time allocated to primary languages subject specialism in initial teacher training and stipulation of a statutory minimum amount of time for subject specific pathways.
  • Joined-up strategy for retention and recruitment of language teachers, recognising that different teacher education and accreditation arrangements exist across jurisdictions.
  • Incorporation of language learning into vocational and technical qualifications.

The proposal went on to highlight:

Both in education and the workplace the UK has depended heavily on the skills of non-UK EU nationals. They continue to play a vital role, but this is an opportunity to refocus on the language skills of UK citizens.

Government policy

The Government has acted in a number of ways to address language skills and the supply of language teachers in schools. On 5 February 2021, Nick Gibb, Minister of State at the Department for Education, responded to a written question on the effect of withdrawing from the Erasmus scheme on the number of modern foreign language (MFL) teachers in the UK. He drew attention to the Turing scheme, which he said would be available to students of all subjects, including degrees in MFL. In addition, he highlighted a £10,000 bursary for MFL trainees starting initial teacher training in 2021/22 and subject knowledge enhancement courses to support applicants.

On 4 March 2021, MFL teachers were added to the shortage occupation list, to make it easier to recruit staff. Since then, the Government has published guidance for non-UK applicants to train to teach in England, as well as guidance for teachers who are already qualified outside the UK to teach in England.

On 27 April 2021, Mr Gibb responded to a written question on equipping young people with language skills for international trade and commerce. He highlighted the importance of languages to compete in the global market and drew attention to:

  • government funding for the National Centre for Excellence in Language Pedagogy and its programme to improve MFL take up and teacher training; and
  • a recent review and consultation on MFL GCSE subject content to make courses “more accessible and motivating for students”.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, which is supported by the British Council, has noted that certain government strategies do not explicitly refer to language skills. For example, the APPG has drawn attention to the Department of International Trade’s Export Strategy not mentioning language skills, despite intending to bolster export performance. In addition, the Plan for Growth, announced by the Government in March, noted “high quality education and skills training play a vital role in sustaining productivity growth and our international competitiveness”. While the report mentioned improving technical skills in STEM subjects, construction and manufacturing, as well as basic literacy and numeracy, it did not explicitly mention languages.

The importance of foreign language skills has been raised during the passage of two government bills currently passing through the House of Lords. Members of the House have made a case for the explicit inclusion of foreign language skills in both the Professional Qualifications Bill and the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. The Professional Qualifications Bill has passed committee stage and a date has yet to be announced for report stage. The Skills and Post-16 Education Bill entered committee stage on 6 July 2021.

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Cover image by Markus Spiske on Pexels.