English youths 'Europe’s worst at languages’: Just 9% of pupils have basic mastery of French compared with 42% elsewhere

  • UK is missing out on almost £50billion-a-year in lost contracts because of poor language skills among the workforce
  • English 15-year-olds came bottom of a table of 14 countries for competence in the main language taught in schools
  • Forty-four universities had scrapped language degrees since 2000.

By Laura Clark, Education Correspondent

English teenagers are the worst in Europe at speaking foreign languages with fewer than one in ten 15-year-olds competent in French.

A new report out today exposes Britain’s poor record at learning languages despite growing demand from employers.

A group of MPs and peers warns that the UK is missing out on almost £50billion-a-year in lost contracts because of poor language skills among the workforce.

A Department for Education spokesman said: 'After years of decline, our reforms are driving a languages revival in schools. We are making it compulsory for children to learn a foreign language from age seven to 14' (File photo)

A Department for Education spokesman said: 'After years of decline, our reforms are driving a languages revival in schools. We are making it compulsory for children to learn a foreign language from age seven to 14' (File photo)

The group’s report highlights European Commission research showing that English 15-year-olds came bottom of a table of 14 countries for competence in the main language taught in schools.

Just 9 per cent of English pupils had a basic mastery of French – the most commonly-taught language – while the average across 14 nations was 42 per cent.

 

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages also warned that the study of languages was in ‘deep crisis’ at A-level and languishing at a ‘record low’ in universities.

Forty-four universities had scrapped language degrees since 2000.

'The UK economy is already losing around £50billion a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills in the workforce' (File photo)

'The UK economy is already losing around £50billion a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills in the workforce' (File photo)

Language learning was increasingly ‘the preserve of an intellectual or affluent elite’ attending private schools, where more than two-thirds of teenagers studied the subject until the age of 16, compared with just 16 per cent in state schools. 

A manifesto published by the group called on the main political parties to value the study of languages as highly as maths and science. 

The UK needs a ‘national recovery programme’ to increase the numbers who can speak a language besides English.

‘English is an important world language but the latest cutting edge research shows that, in the 21st century, speaking only English is as much of a disadvantage as speaking no English,’ the report says.
The manifesto calls for all children to have achieved a ‘high quality language qualification’ by the time they finish secondary education.

There should also be a long-term commitment to ‘transforming the reputation of UK citizens as poor linguists, reluctant to value languages other than English’.

‘Languages are as important for our future as STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths),’ the document says. ‘Leadership is needed to ensure they are given similar recognition.’ 

Baroness Coussins, chairman of the group, said: ‘The next government will need to take clear, urgent and coherent action to upgrade the UK’s foreign language skills. 

‘Otherwise our young people will continue to fall behind their European and global peers in education and employability; our export growth will be stunted; our international reputation will suffer and our security, defence and diplomacy needs will be compromised.

‘The UK economy is already losing around £50billion a year in lost contracts because of lack of language skills in the workforce. And we aren’t just talking about high flyers: in 2011 over 27 per cent of admin and clerical jobs went unfilled because of the languages deficit.

‘We’re looking for an acknowledgement of this issue in all the parties’ manifestos for the next General Election, backed up by some specific policy commitments.‘ 

Ian Bauckham, the president of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: ’It’s clear that young people are missing out on good jobs because of a lack of foreign language skills. While there has been an increase in the numbers of students taking languages at GCSE, there are still many who choose to drop the subject at A-level.

‘Schools cannot solve this problem alone. We are supporting this approach because it includes employers, political parties, and universities, all making a commitment to address the issue.’ 

A Department for Education spokesman said: ‘After years of decline, our reforms are driving a languages revival in schools.

‘We are making it compulsory for children to learn a foreign language from age seven to 14, a move supported by 91 per cent of respondents to our consultation on languages in primary schools.’ 

The spokesman added that thousands more pupils were now studying languages at secondary school, with almost half of state-school pupils entered languages at GCSE last year – ‘the highest level for seven years’.

‘We are spending £350,000 over the next year so primary and secondary teachers improve their teaching of languages,’ he said.

The comments below have not been moderated.

I taught MFL in France and even they were better than us! Language learning should be made compulsory from primary school to improve the problem, starting at secondary level is far too late! Most of our European neighbours have done this for years and are actually taught other subjects, such as Maths, in English, which is why they are better linguists! 3 hours a week from 11 years old is not going to solve anything. This debate has been going on for years and unfortunately I don't see it changing anytime soon.

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How the DM loves to put out these articles saying that "the British are worst at ....""""!!!!!! How about an article one day saying how great this country is, how tolerant and kind our people for instance! Maybe explain how the British are responsible for most of the great inventions of the last 2 centuries, how our laws and way of life respect others in a way that no other country comes close too!!!!! On the question of languages, English is spoken universally these days, it is the language of science, mathematics, politics, business etc. whenever I try out my language skills when abroad, the person I am speaking to replies in English, as they are keen to practice OUR language. It is another great thing WE have given the world. Think of it that way!

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Nahhh Them are thick aint they like.....

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why are so many pulling down our own, i agree there are to many illiterate, but surely anyone who goes to uni should have a basic grasp of a second language.

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i think the main problem here is the fact, french was chosen, i think Spanish would be a much better choice as most go to Spain for their hols, so this would be a good incentive to learn. i am in my 60s have never been to France but go to Spain often.

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"9% of pupils have basic mastery of French" as high as that! They must have run the survey in a very specific school because I know that almost no teenagers have even a few words of French.

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The second language taught in schools should not be French anyway. Spanish is a hundred times more useful than French, unless you're planning to live in France.

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Many of them don't even speak their own language, let alone speak another one.

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Surely it would be better to make sure children in England can actually speak English properly before taking on new languages...

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I taught MFL in the UK, and the results don't surprise me. You only have to look at the teaching methods and curriculum to see why.

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A man who speaks three language is trilingual. A man who speaks two languages is bilingual. A man who speaks only one language is English.

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