Languages are the primary means by which humans communicate with one another.
They serve to transfer information, describe our reality and to convey our emotions succinctly and in a systematic manner. In the United Kingdom, we have a rich tradition of fostering and promoting our internal languages. As the home and global hub of the English language, the UK is considered as the standard bearer when it comes to promoting the English language and all that it represents. Apart from the universal use of English, other spoken languages across the UK include Gaelic and Welsh.
When it comes to Britons learning and expressing themselves in other languages and cultures however, the situation is quite the opposite. Recent a study undertaken by the British Council (herein BC) has revealed some starting statistics. Out of the 10 major languages it has identified as important for the country's future, more than three-quarters of the UK public is not competent enough to hold conversations in such languages.
The YouGov poll undertaken by the BC found that out of 4000 people surveyed, 75% were unable to speak and articulate in languages deemed as critical to the UK's future economic standing. The 10 listed languages included (in order of importance):
Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. Another four were also under the report's radar and described as potentially important being: Dutch, Indian languages, Korean and Polish.
John Worne, Director of Strategy for the British Council, mentions how the problem with the current predicament is not that the wrong languages are being taught at school, but rather "the UK needs more people to take up the opportunity to learn and, crucially , get using these languages - along with new ones like Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. "
The study found that out of all the 10 listed languages, only French was spoken by a double-digit percentage (at 15%). The next most widely spoken languages included German (6%), Spanish (4%) and Italian (2%). Arabic, Japanese, Mandarin and Russian were spoken by around 1%; with Portuguese and Turkish spoken by less than 1% of the sample population.
The criteria for choosing the top 10 languages were on the basis of educational, economic, cultural and political indicators. They consider such variables like the current UK trade balance and relationship, the language needs of doing business, the government's future trade priorities and direction and emerging high-growth markets (of particular importance being the BRICS bloc).
The BC has urged the government and business community to work in tandem towards developing and nurturing an education policy more facilitating towards international languages. One of the salient recommendations suggested by the BC is to utilize and harness the diverse language and cultural skills of the UK's Diaspora and minority communities. Rather than trying to integrate them into a "melting pot," society has to do more to embrace their unique identities and to foster diversity and communication. One key consequence of such developments is the increased need for professional translation and interpretation firms to work with minority communities and to promote their interests with others groups while staying in the UK.
Worne adds that "If we do not act to tackle this shortfall, we'll lose out both economically and culturally. Schools have their job to do, but it's also a problem of complacency, confidence and culture – which policy makers, businesses, parents and everyone else in the UK can help to fix. Languages are not just an academic issue – they are a practical route to opportunity for the UK in business, culture and all our lives.