Many British citizens are lagging behind in foreign language proficiency. For Eriez Magnetics, a British company, Sarah Gains was recruiting members for the company’s export sales. She had to hire foreigners with multiple language skills, who are also fluent in the English language. She hired a Venezuelan who speaks Portuguese and Spanish, a French-speaking Italian, and a Lithuanian who also speaks German, Polish and Russian. She said that the British applicants she received did not have the company’s required language skills.
Poor foreign language performance of Britons
The conclusion of Ms. Gain is no longer unusual and Britain should do something about it. The European Commission conducted a survey in 2012, testing the proficiency of 54,000 students in foreign languages. The students, who came from 14 nations, were between the ages of 14 and 15. According to the survey, Sweden was on top, with 82% of the students ranked as “independent” or “advanced independent.” The average culled from the 14 nations tested was 42%, but on the whole, England only reached nine%, which was the lowest among all those tested.
Part of the explanation about the huge disparity was that more people speak English as a second language while many people in Britain still believed that since they speak English, they do not need to learn any other language. That belief holds true if they are only thinking of basic communication, however, they are already jeopardizing their own job prospects given the current trend. This was not helped by the previous educational policies instituted by British leaders. The Labor government of Tony Blair abolished the foreign language learning requirement after age 14 in 2004, which resulted in the cutting in half the number of students taking a language GCSE exam at age 16 from years 2004 to 2011.
Educational policies and numbers
The changes in the educational policies affected not only the students but also the educational institutions. Students taking language exams in the GCSE rose and fell through the years. Students taking language courses in college or university also fell because the language requirement was not strictly adhered to by authorities. Many higher learning institutions have reduced their foreign language offerings. Fewer schools in Britain are offering German, French or Spanish and while degrees in Arabic and Chinese are getting popular, these two are still considered as rare cases.
Effects in international trade and economy
Consequently, the effects of the situation could already be felt in the British labor market. The British Chamber of Commerce had a survey of 8,000 local companies in 2012, which revealed that 96% of these companies do not have employees that could speak a foreign language. British companies exporting for the first time found it difficult to enter the international markets due to the language barrier.
Britain comprises 12% of the EU’s population but only about five% of the civil servants working in EU’s office in Brussels are from Britain. There are very few British employees who are qualified to work in German- or French-speaking firms. It had been said that even if some British were lucky enough to find work in a multinational company, if they are monolingual, it would be very difficult for them to rise to the top of the corporate ladder.
It had also been projected by Cardiff University Business School professor, James Foreman-Peck that the gross language effect or the income lost because of language barriers and the reduction of international trade could be around 3.5% of the GDP or about £59 billion.
There is some glimmer of hope. Some British universities are now veering away from degrees that are literature-based and moving towards more practical joint degrees with subjects that include business and law studies. Even scientists are learning languages to increase their chances of getting employed and the government had mandated that a foreign language must be taught starting in primary schools on September 2014. The question is who will be able to teach these children since there are very few language graduates.