Which languages?

November 20th, 2013 by

When the British Council announced they wanted to commission a piece of research on which languages the UK needs most and why, I was delighted. But I could also see the pitfalls. One the one hand, I could see that a balanced and considered analysis would help to stimulate and inform a debate which is all too often dominated by personal opinion and value judgements. On the other hand, producing a list of just 10 languages seemed destined to upset someone. I had no wish to be the cause of a diplomatic incident. And asking which languages the UK needs is not the same as saying which languages schools should teach or which languages people should learn. These questions require consideration of a wider range of factors and I respect that. So when I joined forces with my colleague Kate Board to carry out the work we were clear that the report needed to be based on a systematic and dispassionate review of the evidence. It needed to take into account a balanced range of factors, both economic and cultural. Not only which languages might be needed for future business success, or the languages of countries where cultural links are already strong but, given the power of language learning to build trust, where there was the greatest need to strengthen relationships and mend fences.We were also seeking balance in terms of the sources of evidence we used. We wanted not only to take into account the views of government and business, but also the wants and needs of the British public. We achieved this by looking at the most popular tourist destinations for Britons, and the availability of beginners language courses for adults, which are so responsive to popular demand.

The list of languages we’ve come up with is not definitive, but we hope it will stimulate debate and above all, positive action. We hope that it will encourage creative thinking not only on how to develop the teaching of a more diverse range of languages, but also to strengthen and enrich those which are already widely taught. I am delighted that the main message emerging from media coverage is that it is language learning in general which is important, and the entrée into other cultures which it provides is a great prize which can enhance the future in so many different ways.

To download the full report, go to


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