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National academies urge Government to develop national languages strategy

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Transforming the UK into a ‘linguistic powerhouse’ is essential to the country’s success, the British Academy says as it urges the Government to revive language learning in a statement published today. The national academy for the humanities and social sciences is leading a call for a ‘national strategy for languages’ to help make Britain and its citizens truly global.

Backed by the Royal Society, the Academy of Medical Sciences, and the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy statement says that the prospect of Brexit ‘makes it even more important for the UK to have the languages needed to forge wider commercial and other links.’

On 27 February 2019, the BBC published findings that showed that learning foreign languages at school has hit an 18-year low across the UK. Despite the Government’s aim for 90% of pupils in England to take a language (modern or ancient) at GCSE by 2025, fewer than half of them do. The last two decades have seen a drastic decline in the numbers studying languages at secondary school and consequently at university. The number of undergraduates in modern languages fell by 54% between 2008–9 and 2017–18. With fewer students applying, at least 10 modern languages departments have closed in the last decade, and a further nine significantly downsized.

The four national academies say that the UK’s poor language capacity has resulted in the loss of economic, social, cultural, and research opportunities. The economic cost of the UK’s linguistic underperformance in terms of lost trade and investment has been estimated at 3.5% of GDP.

The call is directed at government but also business, policymakers and social organisations. A UK strategy for languages would coordinate with existing ones in Scotland and Wales and build on current policies in England and Northern Ireland. It will be followed up later in the year by detailed proposals. The national academies call on the Government to adopt and implement a national strategy for languages and engage with a coalition of organisations who stand ready and willing to help implement it.

David Cannadine, President of the British Academy said:

“We are calling for a step change in the way that we as a nation approach language learning. With the possibility of Brexit just a few weeks away, at a time when we need to communicate with the world better than ever before, language learning is in decline at almost every life stage and in numerous contexts.

“Language skills cannot be perceived as nice-to-have. The UK has the potential to become a linguistic powerhouse. If it did, it would be more prosperous, productive, influential and, literally, healthier. Languages must be the wind in global Britain’s sails.”

Neil Kenny, Languages Lead at the British Academy said:

“Languages are vital for effective trade, diplomacy and soft power, all of which will be essential to the UK’s future success. But the benefits of language learning go far beyond simply being able to communicate with our global neighbours. Within the UK too, language learning is good for social cohesion.

“At school it boosts literacy and educational attainment. The ability to switch between languages makes you cognitively more flexible, better at multitasking, more creative. Language skills improve access to the world of work. They enhance productivity. They make you culturally agile—more able to put yourself in other people’s shoes, to have intercultural understanding.”

“We need a genuinely joined-up national strategy for languages, developed in close collaboration with, and building on the work of the many individuals and organisations already working to turn the tide on language learning decline.”

Catriona Seth, Fellow of the British Academy said:

“We are a multilingual nation. We need to do all we can to value and nurture existing skills but also to ensure everyone in the United Kingdom, whatever their background or age, has access to opportunities to develop their knowledge and acquire new languages.

“Learning languages broadens the mind, increases tolerance, enhances professional and personal development, has long-term beneficial effects on one's health and is fun.”

Read Languages in the UK: a call to action from the UK's four national academies. 

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