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The economic value to the UK of speaking other languages: realistic or idealistic?

Rosie Loyd

Thursday, 17 March 2022

With the demand for foreign-language speakers on the rise, new research has uncovered just how valuable these skills can prove to be to the UK on an economic level. Examining the current and future language-learning scene, 3rd year Spanish and Mandarin language student and Current Affairs Editor, Rosie Loyd, highlights this report’s main findings. Comparing these against the clear trend of declining uptake and accessibility to certain languages, beginning in primary schools and working its way up to university level, she poses the question of whether our government’s vision for a “Global Britain” is realistic or, rather, idealistic.

According to a new report, published by the University of Cambridge and the not-for-profit research institute RAND, investing £1 into the learning and education of Arabic, French, Mandarin, or Spanish, could return approximately £2.

Using a macroeconomic model with hypothetical scenarios, researchers examined the UK’s economic performance between now and 2050, assessing the different outcomes if more students at Key Stage 3 (KS3) and Key Stage 4 (KS4) were to study one of four languages, reaching a level suitable to a business setting.

The study was based on the Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP), an initiative being delivered in state schools since 2016. The programme’s aim was to have 5,000 students on track to attain at least a B1 level (HSK3) in Mandarin by 2020 at the end of Year 10, followed by a GCSE in Year 11. As of September 2021, there are around 8,000 pupils enrolled in the programme.

Researchers calculated a cumulative increase of £11.8-12.6 million in the UK’s GDP by 2050 if there was a 10 percentage point increase in the uptake of Arabic at KS3/KS4, and between £11.5-12.3 million for Mandarin. These two languages correspond to about 0.5% of the UK’s GDP in 2019, whilst French (£9.2-9.9 million) and Spanish (£9.1-9.8 million) figures, correspond to about 0.4%.

To arrive at these calculations, the study considered the costs required to provide such language teaching, noting that programmes such as French and Spanish, which are likely to be already well embedded in schools, would cost less, whilst Mandarin, and especially Arabic, would be most costly.

Furthermore, researchers considering the relationship between languages and bilateral trade flows found that a full eradication of language barriers with Arabic-, Chinese-, French- and Spanish-speaking countries could increase UK exports annually by about £19 billion.

It is clear that languages and the opportunities they create have the potential to bring significant returns to the UK economy. But this is wholly dependent on the assumption that there will be a continued uptake of foreign languages in the coming decades. Recent statistics suggest that this is not looking likely.

The 2020 Language Trends report, published by the British Council, showed that although French remained the most taught language at KS2 level (primary school) in 75% of the responding 608 schools, followed by Spanish taught in 25%, Chinese was available in less than 3% of schools. Arabic was not on the list. In the same study for 2021, responses from 756 schools presented French and Spanish with similar figures to the previous year, whilst Chinese was at 3%, and Arabic was taught in less than 3% of primary schools.

There is a consistent uptake of French and Spanish for GCSE exams with over 120,000 and 100,000 entries recorded respectively. Mandarin and Arabic, among others, fall into the category “Other modern languages’”, which saw a drastic decrease in GCSE entries from approximately 31,000 in 2019 to just over 22,000 in 2020.

Fewer GCSE students taking languages means fewer A-Level students developing these languages to a higher level. There is a clear domino effect reaching universities, with acceptances onto modern language degrees decreasing by 36% between 2011 and 2021.


There seems to be no issue with the uptake of French and Spanish across all levels of education. That’s promising, then, if this new report’s estimates for economic benefits are something to go by. The lack of Mandarin and Arabic in primary schools, however, must be addressed, not only to reap supposed economic rewards, but also to keep up and develop alongside the ever-changing yet constantly interconnected world. There are, after all, over 1 billion Mandarin speakers. And, whilst these two languages are considerably more complex than European languages - I can vouch for that as a University Mandarin language student - they are, nonetheless, crucial when it comes to both business relationships and the continuous need for communication abroad.

One reason many students opt for French and Spanish, even when other languages are available, is because those are traditionally what their parents were taught in school. The lack of non-European language teachers further reflects this. The ‘otherness’ that students might associate with languages to which they are unfamiliar, such as Mandarin, Arabic, or Japanese, for example, needs to be quashed with urgency. These languages, and their people, are the future, and one will no doubt look foolish if seen fumbling about with Google Translate in a few decades’ time.

The recent government report on a ‘global Britain’, addresses our need to communicate with China going forward. But is this realistic or idealistic? One section suggests that “China’s increasing power and international assertiveness is likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor of the 2020s. […] Open, trading economies like the UK will need to engage with China and remain open to Chinese trade and investment. […] Cooperation with China will also be vital in tackling transnational challenges.”

If “cooperation”, then, is so very pressing, the government needs to take more action and responsibility to counter the clearly declining figures of uptake for GCSE exams and above.

The most obvious place to start is by targeting primary schools, where education begins. Providing more language teachers, more funding for material and, most importantly, making languages such as Mandarin and Arabic compulsory subjects on curriculums will be the first most crucial steps. Until a significant number of students begin to study these languages, thus making it the “norm” in schools, there will be no continuous flow of the subjects’ uptake.

Languages are an invaluable skill. The government needs to make sure its citizens have every opportunity possible to access these languages, which have the potential, as this new report suggests, to reap rewards for the economy.


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