Different languagesAcademia, led by organisations such as Universities UK and the British Academy, is calling for a national strategy for foreign languages. And with the government’s Global Britain agenda, the importance of having multi-lingual businesses has, arguably, never been more important.

In July this year, Vivienne Stern, Director, Universities UK International said: “We’re proposing a national languages strategy at a time when the UK is most in need of graduates with the skills to form invaluable international partnerships. International collaboration has been a vital part of the UK’s response to Covid-19, and will be a cornerstone of its recovery. If the UK government is serious about their ambitions for a Global Britain, we must upskill our graduates with the linguistic and cultural understanding to shape an outward-looking, post-Covid and post-Brexit UK.”

Fast forward to the end of September and we find that the UK was ranked 76th out of 79 countries for time spent learning a foreign language in secondary schools. According to the OECD, in 2018 pupils in UK schools spent an average of 1.7 hours a week learning a new language.  I suspect that this figure will be even worse in 2020.

There is an obvious disconnect here: not enough schoolkids learning languages will, surely feed through to fewer studying languages at university and thus fewer coming through to the world of business. If it makes you feel any better, it’s not just languages. There is a similar gap between schools, HE and industry in the world of IT, which, on the face of it, is even more important in leading our country out of the pandemic-induced recession we are currently suffering.  Yes, the private sector can, and will, lead the way of its own accord, but a clearly stated understanding of the issues at government level would be a very good thing too.

Yet the Global Britain section on the government’s website makes no obvious mention of the importance of foreign languages.  Why not?  With Brexit only weeks away, it’s regrettable, to say the least, that this has not been a central plank of the government’s post-Brexit strategy. If, as is clearly the case, the UK is going to have to reach out to new world markets, how are we going to do this effectively without sufficient numbers speaking local languages and understanding local customs?  Answers on a postcard to the FCO please…?

Fiona Woodford, Head of Translation, Global Connects