The UK has an alarming shortage of people able to speak the ten most important foreign languages for the country’s future prosperity and global standing, according to a report published today by the British Council.

The Languages for the Future report identifies Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese as the languages most vital to the UK over the next 20 years. They were chosen based on economic, geopolitical, cultural and educational factors including the needs of UK businesses, the UK’s overseas trade targets, diplomatic and security priorities, and prevalence on the internet.

But, according to an online YouGov poll of more than 4000 UK adults commissioned by the British Council as part of the report, three quarters (75%) are unable to speak any of these languages well enough to hold a conversation. French is the only language spoken by a double-digit percentage (15%), followed by German (6%), Spanish (4%) and Italian (2%). Arabic, Mandarin, Russian or Japanese are each only spoken by 1% – while Portuguese and Turkish are each spoken by less than 1%.

The report calls on policymakers to introduce a broader range of languages into every child’s education and give languages the same prominence as STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). It suggests that more schools should draw on the language skills of native speakers and cultural organisations in their local communities. The report also calls on businesses to invest in language training for staff, and encourages everyone in the UK to learn the basics of at least one of the ten languages identified in the report.

John Worne, Director of Strategy at the British Council, said: “The problem isn’t that we’re teaching the wrong languages, because the most widely-taught languages like French, Spanish and German all feature in our top ten. But the UK needs more people to take up the opportunity to learn and, crucially, get using these languages – along with new ones like Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.

“If we don’t act to tackle this shortfall, we’ll lose out both economically and culturally. Schools have their job to do, but it’s also a problem of complacency, confidence and culture – which policymakers, businesses, parents and everyone else in the UK can help to fix. Languages aren’t just an academic issue – they are a practical route to opportunity for the UK in business, culture and all our lives.”

According to official JCQ figures, less than half of GCSE students (44%) took a foreign language exam this year – despite a record number of students taking Spanish and an overall improvement on recent years, widely believed to be due to the introduction of the English Baccalaureate. The number of foreign language A-Level entries dropped this year to a record low.

Employers stress the importance of foreign language skills for the UK workforce. This year’s CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey revealed that 70% of UK businesses value language skills, but only 36% are satisfied with those of their employees. In June, the British Chambers of Commerce called for foreign languages to be made compulsory up to AS Level and encouraged financial incentives for businesses to provide language training for staff.

Martyn Heather, Head of Education at the Premier League, said:”Language skills are just as important for a young aspiring footballer as they are for someone who wants to enter the world of international commerce. Being able to speak another language opens up a world of opportunities to play and coach in football leagues across the globe. It is the people who understand languages and feel confident with other cultures who will be able to make the most of these opportunities and thrive the most overseas.”

Barney Ely, Director of Hays Human Resources, comments: “Although English remains the global business language, organisations will hugely benefit from hiring staff who are fluent in other languages and including language skills in graduate training. Job seekers should look at what languages can give them a vital edge and what will be useful in the future.”

With Brazil having overtaken the UK to become the world’s sixth largest economy, fluency in Portuguese will become increasingly useful. The ability to communicate with clients and colleagues in the rapidly growing Russian market will also be advantageous. Poland was one of two EU member’s to avoid the recession and with the business ties to the country becoming more valuable than ever, 20% of UK employers rate Polish language skills as useful. Candidates who have fluency in French, German, Spanish, Mandarin or Japanese remain highly sought after. Even those with some knowledge demonstrate a desire to cultural connect with their overseas colleagues and customers.

Fay Drewry, Managing Director, The Language Gallery has her own thoughts: “With approximately 1 billion English language speakers in the world, non-native speakers now out-number native speakers by 3:1. The comparative ease with which the rest of the world is acquiring English, whilst Britons remain a largely monolingual nation, can be attributed more to the way in which we teach languages in schools, than our innate inability to learn foreign languages.

“English, for the last 25 years, has been taught using the Communicative Method, which focuses on fluency and speaking, and builds confidence in the second language. Whereas in the UK our approach has been somewhat outdated, presenting language as a set of grammar rules to be digested and memorised. Inevitably from school to adulthood, along with the fact that ‘most people speak English’, Britons have been put off from skilling-up in this area and now face the challenge of competing with those who not only speak two languages fluently, but potentially three or four.”