Less than 32% of 16-to-30-year olds in the UK can read and write properly in more than one language, according to the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI). Their report, A Languages Crisis?, warns that the UK needs to drastically change its policies towards the teaching of languages if its society is expected to improve social cohesion, compete internationally and grow economically. The statistics, which come from a number of sources including the European Union, shows that the UK has the lowest such figure out of all 28 EU countries.
By comparison, the second lowest figure is Hungary with 71% of 16-to-30-year olds being proficient in two or more languages. The number is even higher for other EU states, with 79% of French, 91% of Germans, 97% of Swedes, and 99% of Danes being able to read and write confidently in two or more languages.
UK Government Policy Allowing Children to Drop Second Languages in School is to Blame
While there has been a soft decline in the study of foreign languages in the UK since 2001, that drop increased sharply since 2004, after secondary languages became optional for students after the age of 13.
Nick Hillman, Director of the HEPI, said the decision by the UK government to make languages voluntary from 14 years old in 2004 was probably “the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century”.
Under 50% of British 14 – 16 year old students now study foreign languages compared to 76% in 2002. The report does note that there has been a modest growth in the number of UK students studying some foreign languages, such as Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew and Polish, since 2011, but overall there is still a “huge drop in demand” for foreign languages.
The UK at the Bottom of EU Countries in Terms of Speaking Multiple Languages
The report, authored by Megan Bowler, a third year undergraduate student of classics at Oxford University, also says that austerity cuts and a greater dependence on raising funds via tuition fees has worsened the problem at universities.
With fewer students studying languages in high school fewer study languages at higher education, and because universities are more dependent on tuition fees that means less money to maintain language departments. The result is that university language departments are being reduced in size or closed down altogether.
Languages Are Important For Society, International Relations, and Business Growth
Bowler said increasing awareness and appreciation of Slavic (such as Russian, Polish, and Serbian) and non-European languages is crucial to improving “social cohesion” at a time when 40% of people say British culture is undermined by multiculturalism.
She argued that “cultural agility” offers “deeper understanding of collaborators, competitors or peers, important in both daily life and international trade”.
The report also cites a Cardiff Business School report which estimates that the UK loses out on £48 billion a year as a result of its relative weakness in languages.
Recommendations Include Making Secondary Languages Mandatory Through High School
In order to bridge the gap between the UK and other EU countries the report makes numerous recommendations including that taking foreign languages should be mandatory for students until the age of 16. It also said the courses on offer must be more varied and engaging and that students and teachers should have access to publicly funded language learning facilities.
“Rather than continuing to present languages as not suitable for everyone, we need to include a broader range of pupils learning through a variety of qualifications geared to different needs”, Bowler explained.