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Foreign Languages: Economic Value

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the research by Professor Wendy Ayres-Bennett and others The economic value to the UK of speaking other languages, published on 22 February; and in particular, the finding that the removal of language barriers with Arabic-, Chinese-, French- and Spanish-speaking countries could increase annual exports from the United Kingdom by around £19 billion.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper and declare my interests as co-chair of the All-Party Group on Modern Languages and as vice-president of the Chartered Institute of Linguists.

My Lords, the Government believe in the importance of languages and welcome the report’s findings on removing language barriers to benefit the economy. We support language teaching through the recent modern foreign languages GCSE review, the MFL hub programme and the Mandarin Excellence Programme, among other initiatives. We are considering the report alongside other available research and exploring other ways in which we can expand the pipeline of fluent speakers to meet the country’s future needs.

My Lords, the Mandarin Excellence Programme has shown that high standards can be achieved in state schools without impinging on other priority subjects, so will the Government launch an equivalent programme in one or more of the other three languages which could result in economic benefits? Secondly, given the finding that in specific sectors such as energy, services and mining other languages matter at least as much as English in reducing trade barriers, will the Minister undertake to speak with colleagues in the Department for International Trade and the Treasury to identify how language skills can be improved and funded in these sectors?

The Government welcome the results of the report, which do indeed highlight the notable achievements of the programme to date. We continue to explore how we can provide greater support for the study of other languages. Regarding the Department for International Trade, the noble Baroness will be aware that we recently announced a refreshed export strategy, Made in the UK, Sold to the World, giving UK exporters support services to seize the opportunities secured through our trade agreements. This is focused on market barriers such as language. I am happy to talk to colleagues there and at the Treasury, as the noble Baroness suggests.

Has my noble friend seen the evidence given just a few days ago by a former British ambassador to Moscow to a Lords committee, in which he lamented the decline of foreign language skills in the Foreign Office, especially Russian? Does she agree that it is quite important that diplomats who represent the United Kingdom in and promote exports to foreign countries should be able to understand and speak a foreign language? Can she therefore tell the House what progress has been made to improve foreign language skills in the Foreign Office?

I absolutely agree with my noble friend. The FCDO has some 800 specially trained linguists qualified in 46 languages, operating in 111 posts around the world. This figure includes almost 80 heads of mission.

My Lords, speaking other languages is very good for warding off Alzheimer’s, as well as playing a significant part in international trade, which is the point of this Question, so it is a win-win. Are the Government still serious about ensuring that the UK can compete on a global stage post Brexit? If so, how will they measure the success of the measures they are taking to ensure that the woeful decline in modern language learning stops and is turned around?

I do not have time to answer the noble Baroness’s question in full, but I remind her that the uptake of French GSCE is slightly up between 2017 and 2021, Spanish is up very substantially from 85,000 students to 109,000, and 41,000 participants in the Turing scheme, 48% from disadvantaged backgrounds, have been allocated funding this year.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a diplomat or business person trying to negotiate in a foreign language which they have not mastered can be dangerous, but nevertheless a basic knowledge of the language can ease the path to good negotiation?

I absolutely agree with the noble Lord. Indeed, returning to diplomats, more than 70% of FCDO staff in speaker slots, which require language skills, now have a valid exam pass in their target language compared to 39% in 2015.

My Lords, Willy Brandt put it best when he said “If I am selling to you, I will speak your language, but if you are selling to me dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.” Clearly, German manufacturers got the point because this century Germany has been one of the two most successful manufacturing exporting countries in the world. Why is this fundamental truth so elusive to British exporters?

I think it is not elusive to British exporters. There are a number of mechanisms for improving our competitiveness on the world stage; language is one of them. However, English is a global language in the way that Deutsch ist nicht.

My Lords, developing the point just raised by the noble Lord, Lord Sherbourne, in the European Union two-thirds of adults of working age can speak more than one language, yet two-thirds of Britons cannot hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue, so I am sure the Minister will be as concerned as I was to see the latest figures on A-levels in modern languages decline by a further 5% between 2017 and 2021. Yesterday, the schools White Paper pledged a network, I think it was called, of modern language hubs with CPD for teachers of those languages, yet the numbers of those teachers are falling. Will the cuts made last year by the Government in bursaries for language students, from £26,000 to £10,000, be reversed to support the development of those modern language hubs?

We were very pleased to announce in the schools White Paper the network of modern foreign language hubs. We are also increasing the languages bursary to £15,000 for 2023 to incentivise candidates. In 2020-21, the number of postgraduate modern foreign language trainees increased by 300 to 1,687.

My noble friend’s reference to native languages stirs me to point out that, while I of course totally agree with the Question and with the Minister’s replies, there is far more to modern languages than simply improving the terms of trade. There is the question of deep cultural enrichment and, in these islands, understanding the culture of these islands more deeply. As someone who was brought up bilingually in Britain, I think that is important.

I absolute agree with the noble Lord and that is why I referred to the Turing scheme, which we hope will be part of creating that richer picture of the world we live in.

My Lords, the Minister cited a statistic for the success with French and Spanish, but they are languages of the EU, with whom our trade has fallen, according to the Dutch Government, by 14% in the three months to January compared with two years previously. I wonder whether the Minister can say something about our success in teaching the languages of those new markets in which we are going to succeed.

The noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, referred to the Mandarin Excellence Programme, but I point out that, as the noble Baroness understands, French and Spanish are very widely spoken outside the EU.

My Lords, the Erasmus programme was reciprocal, so tuition fees were not paid. In my noble friend’s experience, how many European universities have waived tuition fees under the Turing programme to enable UK students to apply without paying tuition fees?

I do not have that data to hand and I am not sure whether it is yet available, given the newness of the Turing scheme, but I will write to my noble friend to clarify that.