Back in 2014, a report by Cardiff Business School for UK Trade and Investment found that deficient language skills were costing the UK 3.5% of its GDP. The UK has long languished behind Europe when it comes to language learning, the business impact of this is rarely discussed with any sense of urgency. However, with Brexit fast approaching, the value of being able to speak foreign languages – certainly so far as the business world is concerned – is increasing.
Looking at the likely impact of Brexit, the British Council recommended in 2017 that the UK would need speakers of Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, French, Arabic and German “for prosperity and influence” following its uncoupling from the European Union. Until now, companies have often relied on professional translation services when they need to develop business relationships. Companies looking to forge partnerships with China, for example, will turn to Mandarin translation services in order to do so.
However, in the brave new post-Brexit world, UK businesses will need to do all they can to get ahead. The British Council has identified a “growing language deficit” in the UK, which is precisely the opposite of what is needed for the UK to achieve strong economic performance when it strikes out on its own in 2019.
Interestingly, the UK’s existing language industry, which is worth around £1 billion, relies heavily on EU citizens when it comes to translation and interpretation services. This is yet another factor that could land the country in bother post-Brexit.
One way to address these coming concerns is to focus on languages. Leading academics and linguists have recently flagged up the need to do so, speaking at the Hay Literary Festival.
“Brexit was the biggest impact that we saw in the state sector,” comments linguist Teresa Tinsley, speaking to British Council research on attitudes to learning languages in the UK. “I don’t know if it has to do with the general sense of isolationism or anti-immigrant or anti-foreigner feeling, or perhaps a mistaken idea of what’s going to happen when we leave the European Union, that we won’t need to speak other languages anymore.”
Indeed, the reason itself does not matter so much as the fact that the UK needs to refocus sharply on its linguistic abilities. With fewer and fewer children learning languages in school after the age of 14, thanks to it no longer being compulsory to do so, could the business community come to the rescue? Might we see a post-Brexit world where savvy business owners arrange language lessons for their staff, just as they currently train staff on, say, health and safety matters? Only time will tell.
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