According to the British Council, 46% of Brits claim to be “embarrassed at not being able to speak the local language” when going on holiday. But it’s not just travel for leisure where Brits are being hampered by their lack of linguistic flair; British businesses are losing out overseas as a result of their linguistic shortcomings. This is a loss which has been cited as a prime post-Brexit translation concern by translation agency Global Voices, one which “should be addressed as a priority within all sectors, from business to education”.
This lack of knowledge starts young, as a 2012 survey by the European Commission notes: England was bottom of the 14 countries given a foreign language proficiency test, with only 9% of those polled speaking another language at an “independent” standard. This is a shocking 33% below the European average.
So, with Brexit fast approaching, Britain is at something of a crossroads. Brits could simply continue in their current state of ignorance towards other languages and risk having English be eradicated as a significant international language. Alternatively, students, teachers and diplomats could put serious effort into improving the country’s chances once Brexit has been finalised.
What could happen to languages within the UK?
As the Guardian notes, the UK’s lack of interest in speaking a second language may be due to the fact that more of the world speaks English, but we neglect the fact that “English is the world’s preferred second language”. That is to say that if Britain’s global importance dwindles, so too will international interest in speaking its language. According to ONS statistics from last year, language graduates have the lowest employment level of any degree subject, having dropped to 84% since 2014, and a recent survey showed that only 2% of employers were “very satisfied” with school leavers’ language skills.
This lack of interest starts young, with almost half the number of GCSE students taking languages last year than twenty years previously. However, while students harbour a level of disinterest in learning foreign languages, schools themselves seem equally culpable; only around 20% of schools provide compulsory language lessons at GCSE age.
If the crisis remains at this level, not only will the number of foreign language students continue to drop, but the knock-on effect for future generations of teachers could be catastrophic. As the chairwoman of the Independent Schools Modern Languages Association told the BBC a few months after the Brexit vote, “We simply do not currently produce enough linguists in this country to fill the modern language teaching vacancies we have”.
How could Britain fare internationally without solid language skills?
Obviously, the British modern foreign languages crisis isn’t just bad for the country on an internal level; without a firm grounding in international languages, British businesses could be even more hampered after Brexit. A recent study from the Cardiff University Business School has revealed that businesses lose an annual £48bn worth of contracts due to poor language skills, which stands to reason. After all, if managers are unable to even understand the contracts they’re negotiating, international companies will simply take their business elsewhere.
With the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, noting that “English is losing importance” within the EU, Brits are now more than ever in need of a firm grounding in other languages. The Financial Times recently published a list of the ten most desirable languages for Brits to learn in the wake of Brexit. Spanish came out on top, with the article citing its prevalence in the significant marketplaces of Latin America and the United States, as well as the relative ease of learning it compared with Mandarin, which ranked second.
Ultimately, the UK is going to need to step up its language game if it wants to compete in the brave new world which it created. Addressing the dearth of teachers and students will lead to the next generation being able to right the linguistic wrongs which were wrought in the run-up to the Brexit vote.