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Wednesday 29th May 2024, 2:00 PM (BST)

CBI study highlights language skill shortage in Britain

CBI study highlights language skill shortage in Britain

A serious lack of language skills could hinder businesses’ growth intentions, according to the Confederation of British Industry.

Businesses are looking to break into new and high-potential markets around the world, but a new study suggeststhat they may be held back by a shortage of talent with the right language skills.

The latest Education and Skills Survey from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and Pearson shows that nearly two out of three businesses that responded said there was a need for foreign language skills within their organisation.

Although the full details of the study have not been published yet, CBI says that figure could well grow as firms become more interested in exports, especially given the government’s recent moves to rebalance the economy in favour of international trade.


More than four in ten felt that knowledge of foreign languages could have a positive impact on their business, while just under three out of ten said it helped to develop effective relationships with contacts overseas.

That may seem low, but could potentially be a product of so many companies around the world choosing to do business in English.

Given that the EU is still Britain’s biggest export market, it may not be surprising that half of businesses said French was a useful language to know, while only slightly fewer said the same of German.


Some 44 per cent cited Spanish – which could also be related to the success of Latin American nations such as Mexico – while a fifth said that Polish was a significant for them. Just over a tenth said that Portuguese was helpful, which may also be related to the growth of Brazil as an emerging market.

But languages from further afield are becoming more important as UK trade is becoming more diverse. Three out of ten said Mandarin skills would be useful, while 16 per cent said the same of Cantonese. A total of 15 per cent said it would be useful to have Japanese-speaking talent, and 23 per cent said Arabic would be of biggest use to them.


Katja Hall, CBI deputy director-general, says that the UK needs to work harder to produce staff with these all-important skills. Education is where that effort begins.

“It has been a worry to see foreign language study in our schools under pressure with one in five schools having a persistently low-take up of languages,” she explains.

“Young people considering their future subject choices should be made more aware of the benefits to their careers that can come from studying a foreign language.”


Heather Robertscentre manager at The Language Gallery, agrees that Mandarin and Arabic should be promoted more in schools. But she also feels an untapped resource is being ignored.

“The truth is that our schools and colleges, especially in the major cities, are rich in bilingual students who are fluent in languages such as Urdu, Polish, Somali, Russian, Arabic and Chinese,” she explains. “These students are a resource that schools are failing to either recognise or tap.

“Often bilingual children are seen as a problem, as they may require additional support in class as they learn to separate both of their mother tongues, or need extra help in one particular skill in one of those languages. Seeing these students as problematic is both old-fashioned and short-sighted.

“We need to recognise the social and economic value of the language skills brought by migrants and their bilingual children, and find a way to use it inside the classroom, to the benefit of us all.”

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