Dan Dalton is a Conservative MEP for the West Midlands.
With the debate surrounding the UK’s place in the world continuing, one aspect of it that is absolutely vital is perhaps its simplest. In our highly connected digital world, the need to speak and communicate naturally with other people in their own languages is often understated, yet it is key in building the trust and networks to secure business deals and grow exports abroad.
As long as English remains the world’s number one language, and the dominant one for commerce and business, many will argue that the need for Brits to learn languages is largely redundant, particularly since translation technology is slowly making language learning obsolete. Our education system has certainly followed this path, with fewer and fewer children choosing to take a foreign language.
However, we can’t escape the fact that the vast majority of the world doesn’t speak English as a first language. With the Government’s continuing drive to increase our exports to international markets significantly, every advantage can help. In line with this aspiration, language learning should be seen as having a vital national importance, yet we have fallen behind.
A recent CBI Education and Skills Survey revealed that two thirds of UK businesses need foreign language skills, with 74 per cent of employers interviewed in the survey are looking for candidates with conversational language skills. In particular, businesses trading with China have a huge shortage of those speaking Mandarin. However, we also have similar language gaps with other large economies. For example, there is a shortage of fluent Korean speakers at a time of increasing trade with South Korea, with exports increasing by 104 per cent since 2011.
Yet rather than respond to this demand, language learning in schools has dropped rapidly. Last year, there were over 10,000 fewer A-levels being taken in languages than were taken at the end of the 1990s. Those that are taking languages and those schools which offer them often focus on French. This made sense during the 1960s and 1970s – but not now, at a time when French has dropped rapidly down the rankings of global languages.
The British Council’s Languages for the Future report highlighted this point when it looked at the important languages that the UK needs the most to develop global competitiveness on the world stage over the next 20 years. Spanish, Mandarin and Arabic are seen as the three key global growth languages of the future.
Whilst Spanish is offered in a lot of schools, very few offer Arabic or Mandarin. Yet the appetite is out there. 70 per cent of primary school students recently said that they would be interested in learning a language in the future: they are just not given the right opportunities.
The younger generation are highly in sync with the digital world, and this provides a huge opportunity to make language learning relevant. In particular ,we should embrace digital technologies and promote language learning apps for global languages – not just European ones – which are fun, and fit in with the national school curriculum.
Globalisation has fundamentally changed the world, and the opportunities available to our young people around the world are limitless. Many schoolchildren are unaware that these days it is highly possible, should they want, to work in almost any economic sector, in almost any city across the world.
By the time today’s primary school students leave school, China will probably be the world’s biggest economy and Mandarin will most likely be the world’s most in-demand language. But for children to want to learn languages, these have to be made relevant to them and their future. So we need to do a much better job in linking language learning to the careers advice that is given to children when they choose what subjects to take.
It is no surprise that our main competitors have already worked this out. France is experiencing a Mandarin learning “boom”, yet the UK remains in the slow lane, despite containing a region (the West Midlands) which has an export surplus with China. China is bustling with business opportunities for British graduates and businesses, yet the vast majority are unable to fully utilise these skills because they have not been educated from a young age about the importance of grasping the language.
Languages offer a window into a culture, not only providing an ability to communicate but also an ability to understand. This is key to making language learning cool and interesting. Innovative ideas like CIKT’s Languages and Film Talent Awards (LAFTSas) UK-wide competition, inviting 13 to 21 year olds to make two minute videos about why languages matter, created significant media coverage and is a good example of how languages can be promoted.
Given that language learning is vital for the UK’s future prosperity and global standing – essential for our trade, diplomatic relations and security interests – we should act now. Focusing on key strategic interest languages, we can help the next generation succeed in the ferociously competitive global market and ensure that the UK remains a hub of global business.
Our competitors in Europe are already doing this. And we need to make sure that in the next decade when our businesses compete for contracts in China – the winners will be those who are able to speak the language and understand the culture.