The media is all too ready to decry a shortage of foreign language skills in the UK. Indeed, City AM claims a lack of language skills among British workers could be costing the UK tens of billions of pounds in missed trade and business opportunities each year.
Despite the UK’s pivotal role on the global stage, the country remains largely a nation of monoglots. You’d be forgiven for thinking your office is no exception. But you could be wrong.
Here are five reasons why your colleagues may speak more languages than you think.
They studied languages
For the past decade, the number of students studying for A Levels in modern foreign languages has been in steady decline, and the number of undergraduates accepted for a degree in languages fell to its lowest level in 2013 – 14.
But it’s not all bad news: primary schools are leading the way in Mandarin teaching, with the government providing £10 million in funding to give the study a significant boost. Meanwhile, 70% of students ages 14 – 17 said they would be interested in learning a language in the future. The number taking language GCSEs has also begun to recover since the introduction of the EBacc, a measure of school performance across core academic subjects including a language.
And university language graduates can end up in a wide variety of roles, and do not always make full use of their language skills. In short, the person sitting next to you may be fluent in a couple of languages they studied at school or university, but may not have an opportunity to use their French, Mandarin, Spanish or Russian in their current role.
Your colleagues may also be learning a language in their spare time. With approximately 4% of adults learning a language in the UK, and a further 42% saying they’d like to revisit a language they studied at school, language learning is looking up among the adult population. Whether your colleague opts for a language book, online programme, or weekly language classes, estimates suggest that £16 million is spent on language materials in the UK each year.
They had an international education
In a world where international careers in banking, business or even the military are becoming commonplace, the phenomenon of so-called Third Culture Kids — children who spend their developmental years in a culture outside that given on their passport (or where they are legally considered native) — is increasing exponentially.
It is estimated that there are over four and a half million pupils studying at as many as 8000 English-medium international schools around the world. With over 3,700 these being British ‘expat’ schools — schools with a British national orientation, and/or using elements of the UK national curriculum — it might not be immediately obvious that your globe-trotting colleague had an upbringing any different to your own.
Furthermore, research found that international schools in the UK are also catering for increasing numbers of local students. Eighty per cent of students at international schools included in a 2012 poll were found to be local children, as families look to the linguistically diverse culture and curricula of international schools as a means of advancing to some of the world’s best universities.
And finally, as many as 25,000 UK students undertake higher education abroad each year, whether that be through the ever-popular Erasmus scheme, international exchange or even undertaking their whole degree study at a foreign-language university.
The number of those committing to language qualifications may have dropped, but other exposure to a variety of cultures and languages at home and in the classroom can make language learning a necessity.
They took a teaching gap year
These days, the ‘gap year’ is almost considered a rite of passage — the obligatory next step for college or university graduates before they settle into full time employment.
Teaching English abroad is now the preferred option for an increasing number of gap year students, since the hike in university tuition fees has left many a little strapped for cash. TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) provides a way to gain travel experience and a earn money at the same time. Language Assistant roles with the British Council offer 6-month and year long placements in a foreign country too.
And there’s also the option of working abroad as an Au Pair. Living rent-free in a comfortable family home with flexible working hours seems like the perfect working holiday for many young adults, and it’s no wonder the number of 18 – 30 year olds working abroad as au pairs is on the rise.
Depending on their travels, your colleagues could impress you with linguistic abilities they picked up working in a whole plethora of countries around the world.
If you’ve recently discovered the multilingual landscape of your office, it might be time to put those skills to use.