Languages and employability in the modern economy

Northampton High School

1st May 2019

Training & Education

Northampton High School

A SKILL deficit that costs the UK economy an estimated 3.5 per cent of GDP, while 74 per cent of business leaders suggest a knowledge vacuum is a major barrier to graduate career success. As Britain renegotiates its place in the world economy, inside or outside the EU, such stats make us sit up and take notice.

These headlines relate to Modern Foreign Languages (MFL), an area low on the national educational agenda. Britain is in danger of sleepwalking into an employability crisis, as educators ignore warning signs of a skills gap for future graduates.

Only a third of Britons report that they can hold a conversation in another language. A 2016 review of language teaching in English secondary schools found that only 34 per cent of pupils obtain a good GCSE in a foreign language, less than five per cent do so in more than one language. As language learning shrinks - with A Level French and German declining by 17 per cent and 12 per cent respectively in the past six years, the situation is unlikely to improve.

Many people assume that the problem will decline after Brexit. Are our trading partners not, after all, Anglophone, with (American) English as lingua franca of the global economy? Post-Brexit Britain will inevitably look outwards towards non-European markets, such as Russia and China, where the linguistic scales are balanced against monolingual Britons.

Professor Bianco, at University of Melbourne's Faculty of Language and Literacy Education, puts it in a nutshell: "There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English."

Many young people in non-English-speaking countries go to great lengths to acquire English skills. They have significant advantages over British workers in global workplaces.

In education, the debate gets bogged down in which languages we should teach. This is a sideshow. Language learning is more than mastering a language. It is about mastering the skills for language acquisition, transferrable to other languages in the future. For this reason, French, German and Spanish remain in the top five languages recommended by the British Council as threshold languages for study.

Crucially, it is about developing the cultural awareness - a vital transferable skill, indispensable in international business negotiations. It is part of the armoury of our ambitious young people.

In 2017, 39 per cent of employers expressed dissatisfaction with UK graduates' global cultural awareness (up by nine per cent from 2016). Making foreign language study to GCSE compulsory should be an absolute minimum, internationalism a golden thread woven through school life.

At the High School, for example, language exchanges, a residential in Year 8 to Normandy, cultural visits every year, a thriving eTwinning programme and an exciting Erasmus + project, collaborating with schools in Germany, Hungary, Latvia and Portugal, as well as hosting of European and American university fairs, provide a myriad of opportunities for students to develop a global perspective.

Whatever Brexit brings, our students' futures are not defined by national borders.