Thursday 12 November 2020
  • British Council survey finds that 74 per cent of Northern Ireland adults did not appreciate benefits of studying a modern language when they were at school;
  • 59 per cent regret not spending more time studying a modern language at school and 56 per cent wish they had kept up the language they studied;
  • 51 per cent think languages should be compulsory at primary school and 68 per cent at post-primary;
  • Spanish, French and Mandarin Chinese are considered the top three most important languages for young people to learn;
  • 10 per cent of Northern Ireland adults tried learning a language during the first lockdown period.

Nearly three quarters (74 per cent) of Northern Ireland adults say they did not fully appreciate the benefits of studying a modern language when they were at school, a new survey from the British Council has revealed.

Nearly six in ten (59 per cent) Northern Ireland adults expressed regret at not spending more time studying a modern language when they had the chance at school, with more than half (56 per cent) wishing that they had kept up their language skills.

The YouGov survey of more than 2000 UK adults was commissioned by the British Council to mark International Education Week, which runs from 16 to 20 November, as part of its work to advocate for the learning of modern foreign languages in the UK. This year’s programme of events has moved online with a series of webinars, activities and resources accessible from anywhere in the world.

Whilst holidays abroad were off the table for most people this year, one in ten (10 per cent) Northern Ireland adults took the opportunity to try learning a modern language during the first lockdown period. Across the UK as a whole, more than three quarters (77 per cent) of adults who took up a modern language during lockdown chose to study using smartphone apps rather than more traditional methods such as language classes (including online) or textbooks.

Although most Northern Ireland adults have some regrets about their own schooltime experiences of language-learning, the majority nonetheless think that that children today should have the chance to master a modern language. 51 per cent said languages should be compulsory at primary school and 68 per cent said they should be compulsory at post-primary.

The survey also found that nearly two in five (38 per cent) Northern Ireland adults think Spanish is the most important modern language for young people to learn, followed by French and Mandarin Chinese at 21 per cent each. This closely aligns with British Council research which places Spanish, Mandarin and French as the three most important languages to maintain and improve the UK’s economic position and international influence.

Asked about the benefits of learning a modern language, 65 per cent of Northern Ireland adults said it makes international travel easier, 61 per cent said it broadens career opportunities, and 56 per cent said it increases understanding of different cultures. 55 per cent thought that learning a modern language sharpens the mind and improves memory.

Jonathan Stewart, British Council Northern Ireland country director, said: “We’ve been encouraging pupils to study Mandarin through our annual Mandarin speaking competition, and speaking to teachers and school leaders about the perceived barriers to language learning for our biennial Language Trends Northern Ireland research. It’s important we highlight to Northern Ireland pupils the benefits of language learning, from boosting job prospects to connecting with different cultures, to ensure the next generation of learners doesn’t end up with the same regrets as so many adults here.”

Baroness Coussins, co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, said: “Language skills open up important educational, cultural and employment opportunities, which is why last year we launched a National Recovery Programme for Languages to reverse the UK’s language deficit. I am pleased that this International Education Week languages are back in the spotlight. In the twenty-first century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English. We must ensure that all children in the UK aged five to 18 have the chance to benefit from learning a language.”

The British Council and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages will present a free webinar on Monday 16 November, at the beginning of International Education Week, looking at practical steps that schools can take to help more children succeed in languages. To register for the webinar, please visit

For more information on the programme of events for International Education Week, please visit


Notes to Editor

For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Amber Mezbourian in the British Council Press Office on +44 (0)75442 269345or

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.  Total sample size was 2069 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 28 and 29 October 2020.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We build connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and other countries through arts and culture, education and the English language. Last year we reached over 80 million people directly and 791 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. Founded in 1934 we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. We receive a 15 per cent core funding grant from the UK 

About the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages

The APPG’s stated purpose is to:

  • explore the educational, skills-related, employment, competitive and cultural benefits of learning and using languages throughout the UK;
  • provide a parliamentary forum for information exchange and consultation; 
  • encourage and support policies and action improving the take-up of languages in schools, further and higher education, in the workplace and in the community.

The Chair of the APPG is Nia Griffith MP (Labour). The Co-Chair is Baroness Coussins (Crossbench). The Vice-Chairs are Tonia Antoniazzi MP (Labour), Lord Dykes (Crossbench) and Baroness Garden of Frognal (Liberal Democrat).