The UK is limbering up to sign free trade agreements across at least three continents in a bid to transform the country into a commercial powerhouse after Brexit.
But first, it must radically overhaul its “alarmingly deficient” foreign language teaching to focus on German, Mandarin and Arabic or risk floundering in the global market after Brexit.
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 per cent of the UK’s exports,” wrote Gabrielle Hogan-Brun, a senior research fellow at the University of Bristol, in a chapter on economic partnerships.
“Here, the demand for Mandarin Chinese and Portuguese is firmly set in the global market, alongside Russian.”
Ten most important foreign languages
Source: British Council
UK language skills ‘alarmingly deficient’
However, the book paints a dire picture of the UK’s current language competency.
It points out that while 80 per cent of children in EU countries start learning a second language in primary school, one recent study suggested that nearly two thirds of the UK population were incapable of holding a conversation in a foreign language.
By contrast, in Switzerland, train conductors and bank clerks are able to hold basic conversations in French, German and English.
And, perhaps most alarmingly, the book reveals that 46 modern languages departments in universities have closed down since the millennium.
These concerns over Britain failing to capitalise on Brexit due to shoddy language skills have pushed the book’s 26 contributors to produce a nine-point plan for the government.
The plan suggests creating a new post of Chief Government Linguist, reintroducing compulsory foreign language GCSEs and raising the public profile of language teaching with a Google doodle.
Another suggestion is setting up new award ceremonies, such as an equivalent to the Turner prize for expertise in languages.
“We also recently announced financial incentives including scholarships in modern languages worth £28,000 and tax free bursaries for modern foreign language teacher trainees.”
Do deals in buyer’s language, firms told
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.
“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 defence minister Earl Howe.
He has also said the 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.”