A recent report from the Office for National Statistics reveals that language graduates are now the least employable in Britain and, for those who do find jobs, average annual salary has, in the last four years fallen by more than £5,000. At university level, take-up for modern language degrees has sharply declined as fewer students are studying languages at GCSE and A-level. So where does this leave us as a nation with Brexit on the doorstep and the quest for new international markets a priority.
A British Council report dated November 2017 states that the UK has reached a critical juncture for language learning and that investment in upgrading the nation’s language skills is vital if we are to remain a globally connected nation. Only a third of Britons can hold a conversation in another language. Declining numbers for language examinations are already taking their toll. Deficient language skills and the presumption that international business partners will speak English costs the UK economy about 3.5 per cent of GDP.
Michael Gove has decided views about the importance of language learning. In September of 2011 he said, ‘There is a slam-dunk case for extending foreign language teaching to children aged five’. (Key Stage 2 legislation followed in September 2014). Gove implied that, just as some people took a perverse pride in not understanding mathematics, we British took a perverse pride in not speaking foreign languages. This view was oxygenated by a major study of foreign language skills among European teenagers which ranked England bottom of the table. Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University highlighted part of the problem when he said that British children were growing up in a world where everyone speaks English, everything they read and watch is in English – and when they do need to translate, they use Google.
So where do we go from here? According to the Confederation of British Industry, while only 5% of employers think it essential to recruit employees with a foreign language, 45% think it desirable. A 2017 survey of 500 business leaders revealed 74% worried that young people’s horizons were not broad enough to operate in a globalized economy and 39% were dissatisfied with graduates’ international cultural awareness. There seems little doubt that we need to reach out within and beyond Europe to maintain and improve our economic position. Changing language choices and the way we teach and learn them may have to change too.
Will Brexit prove to be a language game-changer? Will Russian, Arabic and Chinese replace French, Spanish, German as the most popular choices for A-Levels? Will language degrees become outmoded as more universities offer their under-graduates optional language modules as part of a main degree? The questions are for today – but the answers lie in the future – and, as always, with the needs of employers.