How monolingualism is costing the UK £48 billion a year.

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By Kit Henderson

I’m sure by now that we’ve all heard about the diminishing take ups in Modern Foreign languages at GCSE, A-Level and degree level, while the number of languages on offer has increased dramatically take up is down, and there seems to be little to suggest that it’s going to improve, which is a problem. Beyond the obvious issue of Britons assuming everyone else will speak English, only to be perceived as arrogant, there is also a huge economic cost to our monolingualism, one that seems likely to increase.

Brexit, Brexit, Brexit. Is there any issue that can’t be turned back to Brexit? Maybe, but not this one. The government is well aware that we, as a nation, need to improve our language skills and, while government policies, such as increasing the number of compulsory language lessons for children, is certainly a start, where are we going to find all of these MFL teachers when we end freedom of movement? Certainly, the government seems set to allow immigration on a skills-based quota, and it is likely that teachers will be on that list, but I can’t imagine the idea of coming to the UK is as appealing as it was a few years ago. Knowing that a nation has collectively decided to leave the EU, largely because the UK wants to ‘control our borders’ can’t make it an appealing country to move to. And we really need MFL teachers to move here. The UK is pretty good at offering a wide variety of foreign languages in schools, offering nineteen, compared to Germany’s eight. Yet teacher training courses focus almost exclusively on French, Spanish and German, so while there are certainly schools that offer languages such as Mandarin and Urdu, they will remain a minority until we either recruit more foreign language teachers from abroad or start to equip native teachers with a wider variety of language knowledge.

So, polyglots are leaving, and the UK is failing to produce many people who speak more than rudimentary French, what’s the problem? Well, the problem would be that our language deficit is costing us £48 billion a year (some estimate it to be closer to £50 billion). How are we to join in international trade when we cannot speak to those we wish to trade with? “If the UK is to be truly global post-Brexit, languages must become a national priority”, says Vicky Gough, schools advisor at the British Council. Almost 2/3rds of businesses need foreign language skills, and they have made it quite clear that they’re failing to find the talent they need among nationals. Naturally, they’re turning to non-nationals to fill the gap. Only with Brexit, we’re pushing them away. Recent surveys have shown that Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German are the languages the UK most desperately needs to learn after Brexit and yet 62% of our population only speak English. We’re way behind our European cousins, and the stats speak for themselves: 38% of Britons speak at least one foreign language, compared to 56% of Europeans; 18% of Britons speak at least 2 foreign languages while 28% of Europeans do; and only 6% of Britons speak three or more, in comparison to 11% of Europeans. We’re the second worst for languages in the EU (Hungary just beats us). As a country we need to get over our sense of entitlement, the rest of the world may learn English but that doesn’t excuse our laziness, we’re limiting ourselves and future generations, we’re harming our economy in a situation that’s already damaged enough by Brexit uncertainty.

Where do we go from here? Well, there’s no quick fix, the prime time to learn a language is when you’re young and, while it is now compulsory for children to learn a language at primary school, it’s going to take a while for the effects of this to trickle down. To start with, we need teachers to teach these languages. But more than that, we need people to take language learning seriously. Yes, it’s difficult, no one’s disputing that, but a generation of children have been pushed away from languages for fear of doing badly on their GCSEs and A-Levels, teachers too are guilty of pushing students towards less academic subjects. We need to encourage children to start learning languages younger; we need to encourage hard work instead of becoming discouraged. And more than that, adults, especially young adults, need to step up to the plate, its difficult to learn a language, and maybe some people don’t have the time, but I bet many of us do. Universities and local colleges often offer evening classes in a wide variety of languages, and there are more online methods of learning a language than ever before. The benefits seem never-ending: increased memory, improved mathematical skills, less likelihood of getting Alzheimers. If nothing else, it’ll be something to put on your CV and a good way to meet new people.