The UK must radically overhaul its “alarmingly deficient” foreign language teaching to focus on German, Mandarin, and Arabic or risk floundering in the global market.
That’s according to a group of senior academics who warn in a new book, “Languages After Brexit,” that Global Britain can only thrive if it becomes a nation of polyglots.
Civil servants, ministers and schoolchildren must be taught languages spoken in non-EU member states, the authors recommend. They also say tax cuts should be offered to businesses who offer staff language lessons, while Whitehall should emulate the approach of the Armed Forces, which offers financial incentives to soldiers who improve their language skills. The book also calls for the UK to produce a higher number of German speakers so that the country is better equipped to negotiate with the EU’s wealthiest member state.
Prof Michael Kelly, the editor of “Languages After Brexit,” said the ability to speak a foreign language and have an understanding of a country’s values and culture was more important than ever, as the country looks beyond Europe to forge its destiny.
“It’s the way China has always traditionally worked, it’s light on paperwork and you need to know their values, their priorities to build a relationship with them,” added the professor, who in 2014 received an OBE for his services to higher education.
“Proponents of (what has been dubbed as) Empire 2.0 will come up against the reality that the rest of the world has moved on: Australia, New Zealand, and Canada only take 3.1 percent of the UK’s exports,” wrote Gabrielle Hogan-Brun, a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol, in a chapter on economic partnerships.
Ten most important foreign languages
Source: British Council
It comes after a British Council study found that few businesses were capable of doing deals in a buyer’s own language and reiterated calls for languages to be a compulsory subject in schools between the ages of seven and 16.
In its report “Languages for the Future,” the British Council also identified Spanish as a key language for international research, as it was being increasingly used in papers published in the United States. But in a damning indictment of language teaching in the UK, the report concluded that hardly any meaningful progress has been made since 2013.
“In 2013, we argued that, while the millions of people around the world learning English provide us with a huge advantage, we had fallen behind by not devoting sufficient time, resources and effort to the learning of other nations’ languages,” it said.
In some areas, the British Armed Forces command more respect in the foreign languages field than even the civil service. The ability to speak a second language has become a requisite for promotion, with Arabic one of the most sought-after skills.
The forces also carry out “language audits,” to identify recruits with language skills, while those who hope to reach the rank of Major in the Army “must have a survival level of speaking and listening to a foreign language,” according to House of Lords defense minister Earl Howe. He has also said the Army’s approach was being adopted “across all defence personnel, both regular and reserve.” Perhaps most appealingly, soldiers who put in the effort to learn a language are given financial incentives which vary according to how important that language is to the Armed Forces.
As training staff to speak foreign languages – even at a basic level – can be expensive, a number of firms are offering interpreting services on the cheap as Brexit looms.
One such company is Interprefy, which links up businesses with interpreters who sit in on negotiations via webcast.
“The interpreter can be based anywhere in the world. This solution can be used for face-to-face business meetings, larger conferences or virtual online meetings, in as many languages as are required,” the firm’s founder and CEO, Kim Ludvigsen, told the Telegraph.
“For example, using Interprefy, a British businessman in Sao Paulo could organise interpreting for an upcoming meeting in English, Portuguese and Spanish at very short notice. No forward-planning or specialist equipment is required.”
However, once the topic of conversation moves from “How are you,” to technical matters of trade – particularly in complex, tonal languages such as Mandarin – robotic translators still have a long way to go.
For Professor Kelly, that makes the need for British businessmen with the gift of the gab all the more important.
“If you want a warm and trusting relationship with someone else you need insights into way they live, think, what makes them tick,” said Prof Kelly.
“It’s a big, wide world out there, and we need to diversify. That’s exciting. But it will also be challenging.”