The UK is not only “mired in the relegation zone of European linguistic proficiency” (Editorial, 4 November); there is also an enormous cost to British businesses from reliance on English. Government figures show that the UK economy loses about £50bn a year in failed contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce. Yet studies abroad show that GDP can increase by about 10% if native bilingualism is exploited. But that is not all that is lost. In the words of Richard Hardie, senior adviser of the investment bank UBS: “A deep understanding of foreign languages is often essential to the combination of cajolery and seduction many companies require in their international negotiations.”
Native English speakers cannot simply rely on the rest of the world’s desire to learn their language. Just as monolingual Britons will not grasp the subtleties of interactions in international business, they will not know what gets lost in translation either. After Brexit, trade agreements with China, Russia and other developing markets will lead to missed deals for the UK if negotiations are only conducted in English.
The time has long passed for a strategic investment in languages – the scale of the losses is already known.
Author of Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism?
• The language situation for Brits is even worse than your editorial suggests. While the Académie Française argues over minutiae such as whether gender-neutral text is acceptable (French language board says ‘non’ to neutrality, 4 November), making it unlikely that French will replace English as the world’s primary lingua franca, the English used by the vast majority who speak it as their preferred second language, and who probably account for over 80% of the world’s English users, is not the English of British (or American, or any other) native English speakers: it’s the phenomenon known as English as a lingua franca.
And research over the past 20 years shows amply that English as a lingua franca differs in numerous ways from native English. It also shows that native English users, with their expectation that the world will/should speak “their” English, are often poor English-as-a-lingua-franca communicators by contrast with the non-natives. So as well as needing to learn other languages, Brits need to learn how to use English effectively with the majority of the world’s English speakers.
Professor Jennifer Jenkins
• “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, it goes to his head. If you talk to a man in his language, it goes to his heart,” said Nelson Mandela. Say no more (except perhaps that he should have said a woman or man).
• As a lifelong linguist I agree that the decreasing number of students learning languages is a cause for concern. Being able to converse with someone from another country in their native tongue is the only way to fully understand what makes them unique, and how they are both the same as and different from us. But the difficulties of learning another European language nowadays are underestimated, and I fully sympathise with young people when they don’t bother. When I first went to live in Germany in 1978, the cost of an international phone call home was prohibitively expensive and there was only German on the TV. Admittedly there were a fair few Germans who spoke better English than I did German, but you could avoid them if you tried. It was harder to avoid my fellow English students there, which held back my linguistic development for a while. Nowadays there’s the internet, with its 24-hour access to home and friends via social media and the news.
Your editorial was devoid of solutions to this problem, and I too struggle to envisage a way to turn the tide, but the answer has to lie in a drastic change in attitude to language teaching in educational policy. Recent governments have paid lip service to the problem, without ever giving the impression they really cared. After all, when was the last time we had a foreign secretary who spoke French or German? Nick Clegg’s multilingualism was at least one reason to regret his departure from parliament. The time has come (once again) to make learning a foreign language compulsory at GCSE and to make students aware that maths, science and English, important though they undoubtedly are, are not the only paths to professional and personal fulfilment in life.