Tuesday 14 November 2017


  • Spanish, Mandarin, French, Arabic and German are the languages the  UK will need most once the UK leaves the European Union;
  • Only a third of people in the UK can hold a conversation in another language with language learning in UK schools facing a ‘difficult climate’;
  • The ‘Languages for the Future’ report says now is the moment to initiate a ‘bold new policy’ to improve language learning in the UK. 

‘Languages for the Future’ identifies these as the top five languages for the UK’s prosperity once the country leaves the European Union, based on extensive analysis of economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors. The top five are significantly ahead of the next five languages in the ranking – Italian, Dutch, Portuguese, Japanese and Russian. 

The new analysis argues that for the UK to succeed post-Brexit, international awareness and skills - such as the ability to connect with people globally beyond English - have become more vital than ever. However, the UK is currently facing a languages deficit. 

Recent research has shown that the percentage of 18-34 year olds who can hold a basic conversation in the top five languages is as follows: French (14 per cent); German (8 per cent); Spanish (7 per cent); Mandarin (2 per cent) and Arabic (2 per cent). Only a third of people in the UK can do so in another language besides their mother tongue. 

Language learning in schools is also facing a difficult climate. Official figures from the Joint Council for Qualifications highlight a 7.3 per cent drop in the number of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland taking GCSE language exams in the past year – and a 1 per cent drop at A Level. Scottish Qualification Authority figures indicate that the situation is similar in Scotland with significant drops in French and German uptake in the past year.

The report 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. It says that now is the moment to initiate a ‘bold new policy’ which should be cross-government, cross-party and focussed on sustaining improvement in language capacity over the medium to long-term. 

It advocates that languages should be prioritised alongside STEM subjects in schools. It also suggests that government and businesses should provide better advice to companies on using and managing language skills to support export-led growth. 

Vicky Gough, Schools Adviser at the British Council, said: “Languages are invaluable for a generation growing up in an increasingly connected world. If the UK is to be truly global post-Brexit, languages must become a national priority. There are few more important languages for the UK’s future prosperity than Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German.“At a time when global connections matter more than ever, it is worrying that the UK is facing a languages deficit. We cannot afford the apathy around the need for languages to continue and must champion these skills. If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’re set to lose out both economically and culturally.” 

The UK’s current lack of language skills is said to be holding back the country’s international trade performance at a cost of almost £50 billion a year. Brexit gives even more urgency to the UK’s quest to be an international trading power beyond Europe. 

Employer satisfaction with school and college leavers’ language skills has hit a low of 34 per cent. And while language learning is already compulsory at primary schools in England and Scotland, the British Chambers of Commerce has called for language teaching to become compulsory between the ages of 7 and 16 to ‘help entrepreneurs become more globally-minded’ and remove barriers to exporting. 

The need for more of us to ‘be international’ – including language skills – is the focus of this year’s British Council International Education Week from 13-17 November. The week includes events across the country on language skills with resources to support international and intercultural experience in schools. 

In Northern Ireland, a number of activities will be taking place this week, including British Council’s International School Award, which will be held at Titanic Belfast this afternoon (Tuesday, November 14). This award is a badge of honour for schools that do outstanding work in international education, such as through links with partner schools overseas. This year, 31 schools from across Northern Ireland were applicable for an award, with five schools achieving full-accreditation; Botanic PS, Belfast High, Carniny Primary, St Francis PS and Glenwood PS.

The British Council works to improve foreign language skills in the UK as part of its mission to build relationships for the UK around the world through education and culture. It provides Modern Language Assistants to help teach languages in schools across the country, and helps young people in the UK to develop international skills through overseas links and opportunities to work and study abroad such as through Erasmus+.

Notes to Editor

For more information or to set up an interview, contact Kristen McNicoll in the British Council Press Office on 020 7389 4967 / 07765 898 738 / Out-of-hours 07469 375160 or kristen.mcnicoll@britishcouncil.org   

The new ‘Languages for the Future’ report updates the 2013 report and ranking of the same name. It will be available to download here from Tuesday 14 November: britishcouncil.org/organisation/policy-insight-research 

Joint Council for Qualification figures: jcq.org.uk/examination-results 

Scottish Qualification Authority figures: sqa.org.uk/sqa/64717.4239.html 

Join the online conversation this International Education Week: #BeInternational

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We work with over 100 countries in the fields of arts and culture, English language, education and civil society. Last year we reached over 65 million people directly and 731 million people overall including online, broadcasts and publications. We make a positive contribution to the countries we work with – changing lives by creating opportunities, building connections and engendering trust. Founded in 1934 we are a UK charity governed by Royal Charter and a UK public body. We receive 15 per cent core funding grant from the UK government. britishcouncil.org