The British Council, which works with foreign exchange students in the UK and British students abroad, as well as culture and education in general, says if the world is going to be the country’s future oyster, it will need more and more professionals fluent in a language other than English.
Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic and German are recommended in that order.
The UK will also have to work hard on reinforcing its bilateral relationships with individual EU member States, since they are closer geographically and will still be important for trade, the British Council says.
“A global Britain means being multi-lingual is going to become essential, although the current linguistic reality in the UK is very different,” says the report.
“We have to get out of the mantra that ‘English is the international language for business’ and start to understand the importance of learning other languages, and of the various circumstances in which they are being used either concurrently with, or at the cost of, English.
“This is a critical moment, and the country will need citizens capable of reinforcing economic, political and cultural relations with our European neighbours.”
The British Council’s Teresa Tinsley, the main author of the study, spoke to international news medium ABC in London in perfect Spanish when she explained that the research had taken into account ’10 factors with contrasting figures’, including ‘economic, cultural, diplomatic, educational, business, government, leisure and cultural interests’
As for why Spanish is the first language the UK needs to be fluent in, Ms Tinsley says: “Firstly, for tourism; Spain is the number one destination for British holidaymakers, which is why it’s the top language learnt by adults and now the second language taught in schools after French.
“Secondly, because of the sheer number of countries who speak Spanish, which means learning it offers a clear diplomatic and commercial advantage.
“We have to understand that although English is the lingua franca in many multi-national fora, in bilateral and trade relations, both languages are of equal importance.
“Also, Spanish is one of the main languages of the United Nations.”
Ms Tinsley says language teaching in UK schools has historically been very poor and relegated to a subject of lesser importance, despite being part of the core curriculum.
French is still the first language taught at school, although Spanish is largely overtaking German as the second.
“We urgently need to recruit more language teachers,” Ms Tinsley says.
“Only 34% of young people learn a language up to a basic level by the age of 16, and the rest do not even get that far.
“This could be why the UK has such a low number of Erasmus scholarship students compared with other countries, because our own students don’t feel ‘safe’ enough living somewhere that does not speak English. Barely 15,000 British students studied abroad via Erasmus in 2013, compared with 40,000 Spaniards who did so, and our report calls for the Erasmus format to be retained intact post-Brexit or, at least, bilateral foreign exchange programmes created.
“But we need to be conscious of the fact that unless we improve our language skills, Britain is not going to go anywhere in terms of world trade.”
Spain already represented a market of 15 billion pounds (€16.8bn) for the UK in 2015, and Latin America’s largest and fastest-growing economies, including México, Chile and Colombia are major opportunities for post-Brexit world trade.
These three countries alone are home to 185 million Spanish-speakers who, in general, have a poor or non-existent level of English.
México is expected to become the seventh-largest economy in the world before 2050, and the UK – currently its fifth-largest investor – wants to climb higher in the country’s rankings.
Historian Manuel Lucena from Spain’s High Council for Scientific Research (CSIC) said the report was a ‘positive result’.
“The UK has now realised that Spanish is a global language, but that as Britain’s former empire means millions of people worldwide speak English or are actively learning it to give themselves a competitive edge, the UK has not put in as much effort as it should have done and is likely to be left behind.”