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An unspeakable disaster? The UK’s foreign language skills shortage

This report, carried out by Wolfestone Group in partnership with the Department of Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting at Swansea University, looks at the future of foreign language skills in the UK.
New Lang Skills

We are putting forward these recommendations to address the UK’s language skills deficit and boost the UK’s prospects as an outward looking, globally competitive economy. The aim of these recommendations is to help propel businesses in the UK towards a more prosperous future.

Alex-Michelle Parr, Managing Director of Wolfestone Group

Report Summary

Foreign language skills have a vital role to play in the UK economy beyond Brexit and the pandemic; they can help to foster economic growth, collaboration and diplomacy, all the while building on the UK's long-held reputation as a leading trade and business partner.

But between declining foreign language uptake, the UK abandoning their membership of the Erasmus scheme and stricter immigration requirements for EU migrants, could the UK be heading towards a language skills shortage disaster?

This research, carried out by Wolfestone Group in partnership with the Department of Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting at Swansea University, looks at the future of foreign language skills in the UK.

Through interpreting the latest publicly-available data, and by drawing on the expertise and opinions of the UK's top recruiters, business owners and academics, we aim to paint a picture of the UK's language skills deficit today, and explore how this could impact the UK economy in the future.

The report discovers that academics and those in hiring positions in the UK believe that Brexit will have a negative impact on the nation's language skills, and will ultimately make it more difficult to recruit suitable candidates with language skills. In the long term, this may impact the competitiveness of UK businesses when trading internationally, and could see the UK economy continue to lose out due to poor language skills.

That is why Wolfestone Group and the Department of Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting at Swansea University are putting forward joint recommendations to guarantee strong language skills for the next generation . They firmly believe that the UK Government must do everything it can to adequately fund language education schemes and higher education provision, as well as ensuring the forthcoming Turing scheme is successful in creating pathways for language learning in the future.

All of this is with the purpose of propelling businesses in the UK towards a more prosperous future.

Wolfestone Group foreword

For too long, much of the UK has viewed foreign language skills as a 'nice-to-have' rather than a critical resource that drives the UK economy.

As one of the UK's leading translation and language solutions companies, Wolfestone Group understands first-hand how vital language skills are to internationally-trading SMEs and multinationals alike.

Indeed, our clients come to us because they know that clear communication has never been more important: From high-quality, impactful marketing translation, to accurate interpretation in a high-stakes business scenario, to instantaneous captioning for branded live streams - Wolfestone Group delivers professional language solutions that are focused on growing our clients' business.

But once Wolfestone delivers the translation for that brilliant new website that'll drive international sales, or helps a start-up to capture investors with an impactful email marketing message, it's then down to the company's in-house language skills to communicate, negotiate and ultimately drive the business forward.

And that's where the UK could be heading towards disaster. With foreign language teaching already in decline and the introduction of a stricter, points-based immigration system for EU migrants - to name but a few factors - it appears that the UK is facing a perilous language skills deficit. Our research has found that UK companies are worried about the long-term impact this'll have on their business' growth when it comes to hiring top talent with language skills.

After Brexit and the pandemic, it has never been more vital for the UK economy to be in the best possible position to bounce back and build towards growth. But, without strong language skills, the UK risks being left behind in the global economy.

That's why Wolfestone Group has invested in researching this issue. In partnership with the Department of Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting at Swansea University, we are putting forward recommendations that seek to address the UK's language skills deficit and improve the UK's prospects as an outward looking, globally competitive economy

Alex-Michelle Parr, Managing Director of Wolfestone Group


Introduction

This report explores foreign language skills in relation to the future of the UK economy. It focuses on the perspectives of academics and all those involved in the hiring process; from HR professionals, to business owners to recruiters, in terms of the UK's language skills deficit and the impact this could have in the future.

The report was commissioned and carried out by Wolfestone Group, in partnership with the Department of Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting at Swansea University.

The report is based on:

  • an evidence review, which explores existing publicly-available research and data relating to foreign language skills in the UK.
  • a targeted survey of approximately 25 UK-based academics, business owners, recruiters and HR decision-makers. The survey was carried out by Wolfestone between 02/26/2021 and 04/22/2021. They survey was disseminated across PR callouts, Wolfestone Group's social media channels and our list of recent clients.
  • Qualitative interviews from academics, business owners, recruiters and HR decision-makers in the UK who have shared their opinions and perspectives on foreign language capacity in the UK.

Definitions

For the purpose of this report, 'foreign languages' refer to languages ​​not historically spoken in the UK, and exclude Welsh, Cornish, Gaelic, and other languages ​​indigenous to the British Isles.

New Lang Skills 1

Section 1: The state of foreign language skills pre-2020

Introduction

The UK has long faced the challenge of poor foreign language capability - well before the Brexit referendum vote was posed.

Over the past century, English has become the dominant 'universal' language in the spheres of business, academia, diplomacy and tourism. Between the reach of the British Empire and the Commonwealth of Nations, to the political power of the United States in the 20th century, it should come as no surprise that the English language happens to be so widely-spoken today. In fact, the number of English language learners worldwide is up to approximately 1.5 billion , making it the most-studied language in the world.

It's perhaps this prevalent idea in the UK that the 'whole world speaks English' that has led us into national complacency when it comes to learning other languages.

Indeed, in the UK, just 32 per cent of young people aged 15 to 30 feel confident reading and writing in two or more languages, including their mother tongue. The EU average is 89 per cent.

In fact, the UK lags so far behind the rest of the EU member states that this figure is less than half the number for the second 'lowest-performing' country with regards to confidence in other languages ​​(Hungary is at 71 per cent ).

As a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) argues , these figures form part of a “gradual and complex pattern of long-term decline” of foreign language capability.

Language teaching

One of the major factors that has contributed - and is set to continue to contribute - to the UK's language skills deficit is the decline in formal foreign language teaching and course admissions.

Though formal qualifications aren't the sole route into learning another language, they can provide an incredibly useful platform for young people to develop their capacity for foreign language acquisition.

The data relating to these qualifications may also give a strong indication to UK society's attitudes towards language learning at large, and help us understand what we can expect to see from the language skills of the next generation.

GCSE and A-Level

The compulsory foreign language GCSE was scrapped in England, Wales and Northern Ireland in 2004. Many believe that this decision correlates with a steep decline in uptake of foreign languages ​​across schools.

In an official statement , Nick Hillman, Director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), said:

The decision to limit language learning in schools by making GCSE languages ​​voluntary is probably the single most damaging education policy implemented in England so far this century.


A recent BBC News analysis of exam entries showed that foreign-language learning was at its lowest level in UK secondary schools for over 20 years, with German and French falling the most. BBC News data showed a drop of between 30% and 50% since 2013 in the numbers taking GCSE language courses in the worst affected areas in England.

Looking at the UK as a whole, another BBC report found that between 2002 and 2018, there was a 45% decrease in uptake in GCSE language exams across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, and a 15% decrease at A level.

The Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) has cited difficult GCSE and A-level exams as a major factor behind this decline. They have warned that if uptake doesn't improve, it puts Britain at risk of becoming a “monolingual society” after Brexit.

Higher Education

The decline in foreign language course uptake in schools appears to have had an impact on higher education admissions too.

UCAS data reports that acceptances to modern language courses have fallen by 36%, from 6,005 in 2011 to 3,830 in 2020. That includes a 13% drop in 2020.

What's more, this seems to be having a negative impact on funding for modern languages ​​provision at higher education institutions. Between 2007 and 2017, at least 10 modern languages ​​departments were closed at UK higher education institutions and at least nine more significantly downsized their undergraduate provision.

Clare Marchant, UCAS 'chief executive, said in an official statement :

The decline in acceptances to languages ​​could exacerbate the languages ​​skills gap in the wake of Brexit, therefore it is important that action is taken to promote the benefits of languages ​​across the education sector.
New Lang Skills 2

Section 2: The state of language skills post-2020

Introduction

The cultural, political and economic implications of Brexit, as well as the practical challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, mean it is more urgent than ever that we interrogate the UK's provision for language skills.

As we have already discussed in the previous section, it seems clear that the UK was heading towards, if not already facing, a foreign language skills deficit before 2020.

But now, while it is impossible to fully determine the impact of Brexit on language skills just months after the UK has officially left the EU, there have been some major changes that are set to have an immediate effect.

Education

The Brexit vote had a negative impact on attitudes towards language learning at schools, according to a British Council report. The report said that 45 per cent of English state schools report the implications of Brexit as a 'major challenge' to providing high-quality language teaching. Two of the key factors influencing this position are:

  • Changing attitudes

The report found that some parents and pupils' attitudes towards language learning have become more indifferent, and some have questioned the need to learn another language given the UK is no longer in the EU. This was raised as a particular issue among students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

  • Staffing concerns

The report also cited staffing concerns as a wider challenge for schools. A 36% drop in acceptances to modern language courses in the UK is likely to mean that fewer language graduates will go on to train as language teachers. It may also become more difficult to recruit language teachers and expertise in UK schools due to Brexit, given that a large number of language teachers employed in the UK are EU nationals.

In addition, the disruption to schooling due to the Covid-19 pandemic may leave gaps in pupils' knowledge when it comes to language learning. This could make it more difficult for pupils, particularly those from lower-performing schools, to gain good grades in formal exams and may not equip pupils with the confidence or incentive to engage in further study.

Points-based immigration system

From January 1st 2021, the UK Government introduced a new, points-based immigration system for migrants who wish to enter the UK, with the change specifically affecting EU nationals.

Home Secretary Priti Patel told the BBC that the system is set to "reduce the levels of people coming to the UK with low skills" and to instead "encourage people with the right talent."

But a major consequence of the system has been preventing European migrants - many of whom have the language skills that UK-based schools, organizations and internationally-operating businesses require - from living and working in the UK as easily as before Brexit.

Anna Bastek, Wolfestone Group CEO and co-founder, commented on why she believes this new system will have a negative impact on the UK economy. Although Wolfestone Group will continue to be headquartered in Swansea, Wales, Anna has driven forward a strategy to help protect the Group against the possible negative impact of the new system.

Wolfestone Group has recently opened a European office in Bucharest and a North American office in New York, and one of our driving decisions for this was to allow us to employ multilingual graduates that we will not be able to find easily in the UK anymore. We believe it protects us from the negative effects of Brexit and the subsequent change in immigration rules.

There is a shortage of language skills in this country and translation is an area we operate in. I believe a lot of companies might be doing the same which means a lot of jobs might move out of the UK.

What's more, if this system had been in place when I arrived in the UK 17 years ago, it would have been unlikely that I myself would have met the strict criteria to be able to get a visa. This means Wolfestone Group - encompassing 4 brands - wouldn't exist. Some 60+ jobs in the UK wouldn't have been created, not to mention thousands of freelance jobs and 3 successful acquisitions of RLI and City Lingual.


The Erasmus scheme

A third - and more immediate - consequence of Brexit has been the UK Government's decision to abandon the UK's membership of the Erasmus program. Erasmus is a study / work abroad exchange program that has long facilitated study placements and internships abroad for students across the EU.

More than half (53 per cent) of UK students who study abroad do so through Erasmus. According to the BBC , 16,561 UK students participated in Erasmus in 2017, while 31,727 EU nationals came to the UK.

According to a briefing by the British Academy , the Erasmus scheme has been vital for boosting language skills in the UK. They say:

  • The Erasmus program provided "a critical pathway for language degrees and the promotion of languages, in a context of continuing decline in the number of students studying languages ​​at secondary school and consequently at university."
  • The program helped "enhance language skills and ensure that UK-based students and academic staff across disciplines can work across different cultures and within a diverse workforce as well as establish vital international partnerships."

The program is set to be replaced by The Turing Scheme, a UK-equivalent of Erasmus. However, there are real concerns about the accessibility of the scheme, suggesting the impact will not be as wide-reaching as Erasmus. What's more, new details about The Turing Scheme state that it will “not pay tuition fees for UK students studying abroad or for students from other countries studying in the UK. Instead, it expects the fees to be waived by the universities that take part.

Debut, one of the UK's leading graduate recruitment agencies, spoke to us exclusively about the loss of the Erasmus scheme for our report. They suggest that the Turing scheme is set to face challenges in incentivising partners, which could affect the positive impact of the scheme.

Given that the majority of language courses today include an Erasmus year, if it is more complex for individuals to travel and work abroad then candidates will be less likely to take a year abroad.

For the universities or programs abroad who partner with UK universities, they will likely be more reluctant to partner with UK universities if there are additional costs involved on both sides. "
Sec2 New Lang Skills

Section 3: The impact of a language skills shortage

Introduction

Having outlined the state of language skills in the UK pre-2020, and the possible challenges posed by Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, it is now necessary to consider the impact of the language skills deficit.

By drawing on the expertise and opinions of academics and all those involved in the hiring process; including some of the UK's top HR professionals, business owners and recruiters, we aim to explore what the language skills deficit means for filling roles in the UK, and the subsequent impact on the UK economy in the future.

Back in 2014, research from Cardiff Business School outlined the possible cost of the UK's poor language skills. The report estimated that Britons' lack of language skills could cost the UK £ 48 billion annually, equivalent to 3.5 per cent of GDP. What's more, the costs are likely to be centered on “smaller firms and non-exporters,” which could be a barrier to economic growth.

Today, it seems like Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic are set to exacerbate these challenges, meaning the negative impact of the UK's limited language capabilities could even be greater.

For this reason, we firstly surveyed 25 UK-based academics, business owners, recruiters and HR decision-makers about the impact of Brexit on foreign language skills in the UK specifically.


Key Survey findings

Our survey found that despite language skills being important to most respondents, the vast majority believe that the UK currently has a language skills deficit . The majority of respondents are concerned about the impact of Brexit on recruitment of candidates with language skills, and believe Brexit will have an overall negative impact on language skills in the UK .

  • 60% of respondents said additional foreign language skills were Extremely or Very Important to their company / recruitment / work (40% said Extremely Important, 20% said Very Important, 32% said somewhat important and 8% said not so important).

  • 60% of respondents said Brexit will have a negative impact on language skills in the UK (20% said Very Negative and 40% said Somewhat Negative. 40% said it will have a neutral impact).

  • 72% of respondents believe Brexit will make recruitment of candidates with language skills more difficult (24% a lot more difficult, 48% a bit more difficult).

  • 84% of respondents believe that the UK workforce currently has a language skills gap.

  • When asked about the most likely reason for this language skills gap, respondents said… (They were able to choose more than one answer)

    - Poor language education: 28%
    - Further education in languages ​​not encouraged enough: 52%
    - Negative attitudes towards learning foreign languages ​​in the UK: 56%
    - Tougher immigration rules prevent linguistic talent coming to UK: 32%
    - None of the above. I don't believe the UK has a language skills gap: 12%

  • Prior to the survey, 92% of respondents were unaware that UCAS admissions for modern language courses had dropped by 36%.

  • 80% of respondents believe the decline in the number of students studying modern languages ​​at university will have an impact on the UK job market.


Language skills in hiring

According to our survey, the UK's existing language skills deficit, coupled with the impact of Brexit, could make it more challenging for companies based in the UK to hire candidates with the required language skills.

Ute Keller, German Lecturer and Year Abroad Officer at Swansea University , spoke to us for our report on the impact this could have:

It is my full expectation that Brexit will promote a more inward-looking British society - something that will inevitably affect the take up of modern languages ​​at school level even further which in turn will impact on the number of school leavers enrolling on a Modern Languages ​​degree at university level.

In the medium-term, employers engaging with international trading partners and clients might well find themselves in a position where they will have to compete for a steadily decreasing number of trained linguists. Whilst this should put those graduates with language skills and a high level of intercultural awareness into a strong position, it could also, in some instances, lead to a situation where businesses find themselves unable to recruit the staff they require to conduct their international business effectively .

It is at that point that I would expect employers to lobby strongly for a change in the curriculum, emphasizing the importance of modern languages ​​alongside STEM subject.

In the interim, businesses might well have to rely on private language tuition providers to equip their employees with those skills required successfully to perform on the international stage. "


To illustrate this issue further, we also spoke to Rupert Deering, Co-founder and Director of Timberseed , one of the UK's leading graduate recruitment agencies.

Timberseed has a network of over 13,000 recent graduates with fluency in two or more languages, and says that the biggest demand for UK roles is for German, French and Nordic Speakers, where many UK businesses (in particular software and technology firms) are expanding their operations.

Timberseed currently has more language-speaking graduate jobs than ever before. 90% of these roles are based in the UK. So the appetite for businesses looking to hire graduates with language skills seems to be higher than ever, and we don't expect this to change any time soon.

The challenge for UK businesses will be hiring the native speakers they need. Over 50% of the language speaking roles we recruit for requires native proficiency. However, Timberseed has found that graduates in Germany, France and the Nordic countries have become increasingly reluctant to relocate to the UK. Brexit has played a big part of this, accelerated by COVID. "


Debut also comment on this specific issue, adding:

Today, with Brexit concerns, many employers look for a country national rather than anyone who speaks the specific language.

The impact of the language skills deficit for companies, SMEs and start-ups

This report brings together the opinions of several companies, SMEs and start-ups to illustrate the challenges around recruiting for language skills.

We spoke to Carmina Davis, marketing manager for Factorial HR; an HR software company catering to small to medium sized businesses based in over 8 countries. With a HQ in Barcelona but operations in the UK, Factorial believes that Brexit will pose challenges for other multilingual, multinational and internationally-operating businesses in the UK.

We do believe that the recruitment of employees or graduates with good language capabilities will inevitably become a lot more challenging due to Brexit [...] International schemes like Erasmus have been suspended, resulting in an obvious decline in people learning new languages ​​and understanding the value that comes from being able to speak another language.

The language skills deficit will have a significant negative impact on businesses in the future, as they will no longer be able to compete with international multilingual companies globally. Additionally, due to Brexit it will be harder to recruit international workers further perpetuating the problem. "


Andrew Dark, Director and Co-Owner of Custom Planet , a North East SME who specialise in printwear, spoke to us about the advantages of multilingual employees for his business specifically, and how important foreign language skills will be for trade in the future:

Brexit has caused all sorts of problems for businesses in the UK, but the necessity to communicate and trade with other countries will remain high. Even if we don't need to use European languages ​​as much as we used to, the demand for other languages ​​has never been higher. The latest CBI / Pearson survey indicates that, while German, Spanish, and French are useful languages ​​for UK businesses to have, Arabic and Mandarin are also important. We all still have to trade, and with the Government's plans to export more goods to other countries, language skills will play a vital role in this.

Before Brexit and Covid-19 we [Custom Planet] were trying to expand our exports to the EU. We were lucky enough not to have any issues with language as we have employees who speak fluent German, French, Polish, and Russian. While many businesses might put a halt to their expansion until the ground settles, we still plan on growing exports over the coming years. Our biggest focus post-Brexit is holding onto our diverse workforce, as they're going to be key in helping us expand into a global market. "


Ricky Lee, CEO of fintech start-up sync. , with headquarters in London, UK and operations in Malaga, Spain, told us about the difficulties of recruiting the right talent with language skills here in the UK.

We are looking to expand across Europe and in the Middle East very soon, so highly skilled people who are fluent in multiple languages ​​are a huge asset to us.

It is a requirement that all our Spain-based employees are fluent in English, and we haven't had a problem recruiting people who are both excellent at what they do and also fluent English speakers.

The UK is another story. I speak Spanish as I was born in Spain, and my Co-Founder Azahara Egea is Spanish as well. It is incredibly difficult to find new team members based in London who fit the job description and also speak Spanish, and I don't see this problem getting any better in the future, particularly thanks to Brexit. Luckily we have a very diverse team from all over the world, meaning English is the second language of many of our team members. It does show that British people are not willing to learn another language, but the rest of the world knows the importance of speaking English.

In the future, when we expand to other countries - say Brazil, for example - we will look for Brazilians who are fluent in English. In a remote working world, they could be based either in the UK or Brazil. I no longer think companies can rely on UK graduates to have both language skills and the skills needed to do a technical job, like UX design or programming, due to the language skills shortage in the UK, which is a real shame. "
Sec4 New Lang Skills

Section 4: Conclusion and Recommendations

Conclusion

The report can conclude that according to academics and those in hiring positions in the UK, the UK's foreign language skills deficit is a very real challenge for those who depend on language skills in their company or work.

What is clear is that the UK has long faced poor language capability, but challenges like Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic will only exacerbate this.

Indeed, the majority of our survey participants believe that Brexit is set to have a negative impact on the nation's language skills, and will ultimately make it more difficult to recruit candidates with adequate foreign language skills.

In the long term, they fear this may impact the competitiveness of UK businesses when trading internationally, and could see the UK economy continue to lose out due to poor language skills.

Given our research, it is safe to conclude that the possible economic impact of the foreign language skills shortage is two-fold:

1. Internationally-operating companies may be less likely to come or stay in the UK (bringing jobs and boosting the economy) due to the nation's lack of language skills.

2. UK-based companies may struggle to compete internationally, particularly in marketing and sales, if they cannot recruit employees with those in-demand language skills.

What's more, as mentioned by Ute Keller, we envisage that language service providers (LSPs) like Wolfestone Group will have a major role to play in plugging the UK's language skills deficit in the coming years.

In working alongside SMEs and multinationals, LSPs can offer a range of multilingual services to help companies grow internationally in a cost-effective way. For example, AI-led translation can translate large volumes of text, such as customer service chat communications and more, allowing businesses to deal efficiently with international customers.

Furthermore, LSPs and providers of private language tuition may be relied upon to equip employees with those skills required to successfully perform on the international stage.

Recommendations

In light of this research, Wolfestone Group and the Department of Modern Languages, Translation and Interpreting at Swansea University wish to put forward joint recommendations to guarantee strong foreign language skills for the next generation.

These recommendations are broadly in line with the British Academy's report , 'Towards a national languages ​​strategy: education and skills', and can be viewed in more detail in their report.

Our key recommendations are:

  1. Investing in language-learning at school level

    Foreign languages ​​should be invested in as a priority subject for school-age pupils. This should include integrating foreign language-learning into the curriculum and key subjects in dynamic and exciting ways, and investing in intensive schemes for language learning for multiple languages ​​of interest.

  2. Guaranteeing higher education funding

    We believe that the UK government and other funding bodies must work to guarantee funding for higher education provision for modern foreign languages. We believe that everything possible must be done to tackle the closures of language departments at universities. These departments provide vital pathways into language skills-led careers and roles, such as those in Wolfestone Group, upon which the UK economy depends.

  3. Prioritizing the impact of the Turing scheme

    The Turing scheme should foster outward mobility of UK students and staff and should ensure it has an equivalent impact as the Erasmus scheme. To achieve this, the Turing Scheme needs to be reciprocal to allow UK institutions to maintain and build global opportunities through mutual benefit.

We call upon the UK government and key stakeholders to act decisively to foster foreign language skills in the UK and guarantee the UK economy has a prosperous and internationally-competitive future.

Please get in touch with sofia.lewis@wolfestone.co.uk if you have any inquiries or media requests regarding this report.

© Wolfestone 2021

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