THE BLOG
09/03/2015 19:30 GMT | Updated 05/05/2015 06:59 BST

Want a Job? Learn a Language - See Your Barista for Details

What do Lloyds Bank and Everton have in common sounds like a typically frivolous pub quiz question.

The answer is far from frivolous - apart from being British, the bank and the football club share one very important thing - they both owe their recent success to non-British managers.

Last week on Radio 4's Today programme Lloyds' Portuguese Chief Executive António Horta-Osório explained in near perfect English - one of his five foreign languages - how the bank had managed to pay its first dividend since it was bailed out by the taxpayer in the 2008 financial crisis.

Switching the dial, I happened on Roberto Martinez, Everton's suave Spanish manager, talking in eloquent English about the 'Toffees' being the only English Premier League Team to make it to the last 16 of the Europa League.

Later I came across a news item on a House of Lord's Committee report bemoaning the 'alarming' lack of foreign language speakers in the Foreign Office, which it blamed on a 30 percent cut in government spending. There are too few linguists to speak with locals and assess the mood on the ground at critical times, particularly in the Middle East and Russia. Further cuts 'could be disastrous and costly', warned Sir Richard Ottaway, Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Commission.

Lloyds, Everton and the FO are unlikely bedfellows, but they all speak to a chronic and increasingly threatening issue that the UK is only now addressing - our inability to speak any language other than our own.

As a modern languages graduate, translator and teacher of English as a foreign language, it's an issue close to my heart.

For the past couple of years I have been teaching English to foreign students in London, most from Europe but an increasing number from Russia, Asia and the Middle East, the majority of whom are preparing for exams to win a place on a Masters or PHD programme at a British university - ironically still considered among the best in the world, despite their linguistic insularity - or boost their chances of getting on the corporate ladder in this country where employments prospects are better than in most European economies.

These students are among the brightest and most engaging young people I have met and some of them have a better command of, and interest in, English grammar and its myriad nuances than my native British friends.

A good number of them are highly qualified, many with more than one degree, and work weekends and nights in low paid jobs in cafés and restaurant chains across London to finance their studies and pay the highest rents in Europe.

Walk into any Pret a Manger, Starbucks or Eat in London and your latte or cappuccino will more than likely be served by a Spanish, Italian or Portuguese barista. Regulars to these outlets accept this as a given. What the City types don't realise, as they are handed their flat whites, is that the over-qualified barista may one day be taking the jobs we thought were ours.

It's no secret that we Brits are the worst linguists around - bar our American cousins, who we should thank for spreading our language around the world. Ask a Brit if they speak a foreign language and they're likely to mumble something about GCSE French or a Rosetta Stone CD they haven't quite got round to taking out of its packaging. They can, though, ask for the bill or order a beer - well at least in Spain and France. Portugal is pushing it.

This stereotype used make a Brit smile - in a rather superior way - but now we are slowly beginning to realise our linguistic languor could cost us dear.

A European Commission survey of 14-15 year olds in 2012 able to speak a second language placed the UK at the bottom of 14 nations with just nine percent (and that figure was probably bloated by children of immigrants who could speak, for example, Polish, Urdu or Somali). Sweden topped the poll which showed an average of 42 percent of 14-15 year olds in the other 13 countries surveyed could speak a second language.

The situation got even grimmer in 2004 when modern languages were dropped as a compulsory GCSE subject - an open invitation to cash strapped schools to sack language teachers to balance the books, which of course they did.

The number of students taking GCSE foreign languages went into immediate freefall - from 75 percent in 2002 to 43 percent in 2010.This had a knock-on effect at A level and eventually on entrants for degree courses. The trend has snowballed with the number of foreign language undergraduates declining by 16 percent between 2007-8 and 2013-14, according to the latest dismal data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency a couple of weeks ago.

The smug response from most native English speakers is that our language is the lingua franca of the global economy, so why should we waste our time on 'dying' tongues that have no place in the modern business world.

Because our job prospects depend on mastering foreign languages is the blunt answer. Almost two thirds of some 300 firms polled by the CBI in 2014 said they preferred staff with these skills - an open job invite for the Italian, Spanish, Portuguese students working a night shift at Starbucks.

The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey predicted that languages would become increasingly important 'as ambitious firms look to break into new, fast-growing markets.'

Apart from the obvious advantage of being able to communicate with their foreign peers, those speaking more than one language also possess an array of skills attractive to employers, from cultural awareness and sensitivity to greater flexibility and problem solving skills.

Something to think about when you next pop in for your morning brew - the person behind the counter might just be the future António Horta-Osório.