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Learning languages on a blackboard

CBI: lack of foreign language speakers

Britain’s education system is not producing enough foreign language speakers to meet an increasing demand from business, The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has said this summer. The business lobby group polled some 300 British companies – and nearly two thirds replied that they preferred to employ those who had language skills.

Among the most prized languages are German, French and Spanish. However, Mandarin and Arabic are also increasingly important as well.

While the government said its policies were working, and more youngsters were learning languages, the CBI’s report refers to the British Council citing an “alarming shortfall” in numbers of those who could speak some of the world’s key languages.

The report into skills and education, by both CBI and Pearson, said languages were likely to go on growing in importance as businesses looked to succeed in new and rapidly growing areas.

More than two fifths (41%) of respondents agreed that being able to understand a foreign language was advantageous, while over a quarter (28%) said these skills would help in forging relationships with contacts overseas.

The most useful languages were identified as being French (50%) and German and Spanish, at 49% and 44% respectively. Perhaps not surprising given that EU partners are still the UK’s biggest export market. Equally, nearly a third (31%) sought Mandarin speakers, and nearly a quarter (23%) wanted Arabic speaking employees. The ability to speak Russian, Cantonese, Japanese and Polish was also identified as particularly useful.

According to the deputy director of the CBI Katja Hall, a fifth of English schools had a consistently low take-up of language learning. She added: “Young people need more awareness of how studying languages could boost their future careers”

Languages can, after all, offer a varied career path, so it’s not just about working for translation agencies. This has been backed up by the British Council, who last year urged schools to give languages the same status as maths and sciences. The organisation said that businesses should give a firm signal that they are prepared to pay for language skills.

In 2010, the proportion of young people studying a language GCSE dropped from 75% (the 2002 figure) to 43%. However, exam changes meant that figure had risen to 49% last year.