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Which languages are most useful for British students?

There have been two quite widely reported recent surveys on the issue of which languages are most useful. The first, from 2012, was a CBI/Pearson Education and Skills survey of 542 employers entitled "Which languages do UK managers value?" You can find the headline figures here. French and German dominate, followed by Spanish, then Mandarin, Polish and Arabic. This should come as no great surprise since we do so much business in Europe with fellow major economies, the largest being Germany and France. To me it is a slight curiosity that Italian features nowhere.

The second survey from the British Council, published this year, called Languages for the Future is here. This survey uses 10 indicators to establish a pecking order of languages: export trade, language needs of business, UK government trade priorities, emerging high growth markets, diplomatic and security priorities, the public's language interests, outward visitor destinations, the UK government's international Education Strategy priorities, levels of English proficiency in other countries and the prevalence of other languages on the internet.

Clearly, this second survey is not just about the current needs of business, but delves into future needs and government policy too. Its hit parade is topped by Spanish, followed by Arabic, French, Mandarin, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese. One can see, given the indicators chosen, why these languages might feature.

Where do these two surveys leave schools in terms of which languages to prioritise?

Interestingly, one indicator which is not mentioned anywhere is ease of learning. If this factor were prioritised, then the non-European languages would fare worse. If teacher supply were factored in, then the same would apply. I am left thinking that the current focus on French, German and Spanish is not an unsensible one. These languages are favoured by business, they are spoken nearby so are likely to be of more use on holiday. What's more the cultural similarity - in terms of literature, film and history, for example - of these countries makes them more attractive languages to many learners. As business and cultural contact with China develops it is easy to envisage a slow growth for Mandarin.

The more languages we can learn, the better!

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