It used to be compulsory in the UK for students to learn a foreign language until the age of 16. In September 2004, this was dropped by the government, and studying at least one GSCE level in a foreign language subject was no longer obligatory in state schools.
Since then, the number of language teachers has fallen significantly, now making it one of the “priority subjects” in the governmental PGCE scheme, alongside Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Maths and Computer Science, due to lack of applicants. According to UCAS, the number of universities offering language degrees in the UK is now 30% fewer than in 2004. Two or three language departments are closing every year.
According to an analysis by the Press Association, the numbers of applications for degree courses linked to European languages have fallen by almost a quarter in the past five years, while the numbers for other language courses have dropped by almost a fifth. According to this report, from 2012 to 2016 the amount of students studying French and German A-Levels has also dropped by over 25%.
The dropping of languages as a compulsory subject may have a severely detrimental effect to the UK, not only educationally (and the cultural, historical and social awareness that comes with it), but in the world of business and diplomacy.
Now, more than ever, the world is incredibly small. You can be 12000 miles away in less than a day, setting off from thousands of airports around the globe, and the ease and convenience of global travel has meant that our daily working lives have developed into an eclectic melting pot of language and expression.
The exhibition industry is no different. No matter where you are in the world, it would be difficult to walk more than 10 metres and not encounter exhibitors or delegates who speak at least two languages. Being able to introduce yourself in your client’s native tongue would create an instant rapport that would be appreciated and not forgotten.
I fear that we Brits (and many other English-speaking nations) may be at a huge disadvantage. Our lack of language learning doesn’t only degrade us linguistically (and yes – “dos cervezas por favor” will probably only get you so far at a company conference!), but the cultural and communicative skills that are developed when exploring another vernacular leave us lacking in the ever-competitive world of business.
The argument that everyone speaks English unfortunately doesn’t justify our ignorance; we should be encouraging future generations to develop linguistically in order to thrive in any potential business environment, remaining one step ahead of the competition, rather than taking away a skill that could leave them under par compared to their European compatriots. As the prominent business world becomes more and more international, we should see an increase in British students learning Russian, Arabic, Mandarin and Japanese, developing these skills to set them apart on the world’s business stage.
I was very lucky to submit my language GCSE choices when it was still compulsory to do so. Not every 14-year-old wants to learn a language, and sometimes the luxury of choice may be detrimental to their future success. At school I learnt French and German from age 10; I then went on to study French and Portuguese at the University of Southampton, graduating in 2012 with a focus on translation, linguistics, history and politics. On the side I did an evening class in Italian, an online course in Esperanto and learnt Spanish grammar at home. I’m currently (attempting!) to learn Russian. Every single working day I find an opportunity to use the skills I have learnt to maximise client relationship success.
Frequently in the exhibition world I see brilliant sales men and women who end up losing out on a lead to those who are able to communicate with potential clients in their own mother tongue; this skill creates a personal connection between client and supplier and an increased confidence in the quality of the service.
The beautiful thing about language is that we’re all hard-wired to do it. You’re never too old to pick it up, and it could be the personal development that takes you from a good businessperson to a brilliant one.