Languages of the Future

A November 2013 report by the British Council entitled "Languages for the Future" identified the top ten most vital languages to the UK over the next twenty years based on economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors. These languages are: Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese.

While none of the languages on this list come as a surprise, nor are there any startling omissions, this same report spoke of a language "deficit" within the UK that makes for slightly more disagreeable reading. Our country has an alarmingly poor record in taking up other languages let alone mastering them; only one quarter of the British public are able to speak any of the ten languages on the list well enough to hold a conversation. The next question is, presumably, why?

One factor that may be contributing to these unfavourable statistics, and the most pertinent to our discussion, is the falling rate of students opting to study languages. In 2013 alone there was a 5% drop in the number of students taking on a language at A Level, with languages representing only 3.8% of all subject entries. In light of this, it is crucial to reinforce the importance of languages at school and at home as part of our role in fostering a globally-adept future society for the UK. A language is a skill and so, like all skills, learning and speaking one can be economically beneficial - in this case culturally so too. As the British Council so succinctly assert, learning a language can 'give access to employment, enrich cultural understanding and provide a valuable resource which can be drawn on in overcoming communication barriers in an international context.'

Those languages identified as most vital to us in the UK are a rich and varied top ten. To put it bluntly: there should be something for everyone. Choosing which language to study at school can often be a big decision, especially as we are made to feel that these decisions stay with us throughout our academic careers, according to the way our education system is set up. I remember being particularly perplexed as to whether to opt for Italian or Spanish at GCSE; I chose Spanish on the basis that 350 million people in our world speak the language as their native tongue versus the Italian-speaking 59 million. Based on that justification, I may have chosen Mandarin had it been on offer at the time. While my reasoning may seem whimsical, each person's attraction to a specific culture and connection to a specific language is idiosyncratic, thus it follows that each person's reasons for choosing a language would be equally personal. It is worth stating, however, that in the context of schooling there are only so many subjects a student can take on at one tim and, as touched on just now, those more unorthodox school languages may not yet be offered (in this case private tuition can be a superb tool in supplementing mainstream education). 

With regard to the education sector, therefore, improvements to the linguistic arena can be dissected threefold: school curricula can be amended to include new languages; schools can exploit linguistic and cultural resources both within the UK and internationally; and youths and parents can seek out more opportunities to learn languages and experience different cultures.

Armed with all of this information, hopefully parents, schools and students would feel encouraged to push forth with the idea that linguistic competence equates to global prowess on an economic level, but also meaningful interconnectedness on a human level. Regardless of language and education, the world is becoming evermore compact and cultures more assimilated by means of the internet, political developments and ease of travel. We must keep up, adapt and look forward with strategic flair.