Benefits of Languages at School

Benefits of Languages at School

Languages at School
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

An additional 10% of pupils learning Chinese at school would increase the UK’s GDP by £12 billion

Joint research by RAND and the University of Cambridge projects that an additional 10% of pupils learning Spanish, French, Arabic or Chinese at school would increase the UK’s GDP by £9-12 billion/language over 30 years. (1) (2)

The Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, declared that:

“In an increasingly globalised economy, it has never been more important for our pupils to be taught modern foreign languages. There is mounting evidence which shows the economic benefits of learning an additional language.” (3)

Nick Gibb, Schools Minister

Accordingly, the UK government has set themselves a target of 90% of Year 10 pupils in state-funded schools studying a language by 2025 and have proudly announced “millions invested in language lessons.” This means putting £14.9 million over 3 years into a Centre of Excellence comprising a network of 25 schools that act as hubs for other schools in their area(3), following the model of the Mandarin Excellence Programme that has been running since 2016.

Chinese remains a priority language for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world

Spanish, French, German, Arabic or Chinese remain the “the priority languages for the UK’s future prosperity, security and influence in the world,” based on research first published by The British Council in 2013 and updated in 2017. (4) In line with this, the Chartered Institute of Linguists has launched a degree-level Certificate in Translation in these 5 languages specifically. (5)

Considering that less than 50% of pupils take a GCSE in a language today (6), the government’s latest target – whilst it will be welcomed by businesses, economists and linguists alike – looks extraordinarily ambitious.

The most common reason cited for low student numbers is a lack of teachers.(6) This is undoubtedly a significant factor and so the Centre of Excellence initiative – like the Mandarin Excellence Program – is good news as it should increase the number of qualified language teachers and see resources shared more widely by creating a hub-and-spoke network.

Can it really be, however, that the enormous drop in the number of students taking a language at school over the last twenty years is simply a supply issue? Surely the supply has shrunk in response to dwindling demand: schools across the country have been forced to let their German teachers go, for example, because not enough pupils were choosing their subject.

Doubling the number taking Chinese will require a mindshift in the way the British public

The economic benefits of learning languages – for individuals, not just for businesses and the the country’s GDP – have been well attested for decades, and yet the number of students in UK schools who take a language has sharply declined since 2004. (2) That was when the government of the day announced that it would no longer be compulsory for pupils to study a foreign language up to the age of 16. We cannot expect the economic benefits alone significantly to increase demand for languages, much less double it.

To get to the point where only one in ten 14 year olds would consider it to be in their best interest to opt out will require a profound mindshift in the way that the British public as whole thinks about languages – especially in an era of simultaneous digital translation powered by Artificial Intelligence.


(1) and