The UK is lacking in the necessary language skills for the future and this is partly due to the status of English as the language of international communications.

Languages the UK needs most and why

This question has been hard to answer, and the debate has tended to reflect vested interests and prejudices rather than a solid and balanced evidence base.

Research for the British Council‘s Languages for the Future report sets out to explore the question further, and considers which languages are likely to become increasingly important to the UK in the next 20 years. Although the research was not intended to provide a definitive answer, it was designed to be systematic in identifying which languages would bring the most benefits to individuals, society at large or to the economy.

A ranking system was devised based on ten factors, including both market and non-market criteria, future requirements and current practice. These two sets of criteria were weighted equally and were qualified by two additional contextual factors.

  • Economic factors:
    • Current UK export trade
    • The language needs of UK business
    • Government’s future trade priorities
    • Emerging high-growth markets
  • Cultural, educational and diplomatic factors:
    • Diplomatic security priorities
    • The public’s language interests
    • Outward and inward tourism
    • Government’s international exclusion strategy priorities
  • Balancing factors:
    • Levels of English proficiency in other countries
    • The prevalence of different languages on the internet

Top 10 languages the UK needs for the future

UK's Top 10 Languages

This picture clearly reflects past language education policy, as French, German and Spanish have been most widely taught in schools and universities. Italian, Russian and Japanese have a smaller presence in our education systems. But the Top 10 list also includes Turkish and Portuguese and, perhaps the languages which present the biggest challenges, Arabic and Mandarin.

The overall conclusion is not that people in the UK are learning the wrong languages, but that the country needs to build on its existing language-learning profile to include a wider range of languages and enable far greater numbers of people to gain competence in a language other than English.

Note: This article, in its complete version, first appeared in the latest edition of The Linguist, 53,3 (June/July 2014).