The Blog

Chinese: Can't Swim, Won't Swim

When it comes to languages we're like a nation of committed non-swimmers faced with a swimming pool - no appetite for diving in and no idea of the benefits and joys of taking the plunge.

Just the other week, celebrating European Day of Languages and Global Confucius Institute Day, I found myself giving a speech at London's Institute of Education to headteachers, policymakers and exams bodies on the topic of Chinese Teaching in UK Schools.

And you certainly can't fault the Chinese for the support they are giving the UK. Hanban: the home of Confucius Institutes are currently investing £22m - some of it via the British Council - in helping the young people of the UK become better Chinese speakers, supporting teachers, Chinese resources and Chinese Language Assistants in UK schools.

The good news is both the number of schools teaching Chinese and the number of learners studying it is increasing - albeit gradually, from a low base.

Hooray, job done!

Er, no.

The British Council recently did some joint research with Hanban into both the supply and demand for Chinese language learning in the UK.

And what it showed that our relationship with China is a 'mega opportunity'. But one that business, educators and young people - indeed the entire nation - risk missing if we don't do some things differently.

At the moment, goods dominate UK-China trade. The UK imports goods from China worth five times what it exports. In services we run a small surplus of around US$1 billion, but that is tiny compared to the trade deficit in goods of US$37 billion, according to a report by Oxford Economics.

Services are the UK's strength - but, despite young Chinese people considering the UK as one of world's most attractive countries for culture, creativity and education (rank #2, only beaten by the USA), China contributes just 1% of the UK's service exports - it ranks 20th.

We can do it when we put our minds to it; we know more Chinese people now watch Downton Abbey than people in the UK - but there's a long way to go.

When it comes to tourism - another huge UK attractor - we have fallen from 20th in 1995 to the 28th favourite destination for Chinese visitors.

And although we welcome more Chinese students to UK universities than any other country bar the USA (nearly 100,000 and indeed more students come here from China than from the rest of the world combined), as China's own vast universities rise up the world rankings, the UK cannot be complacent in attracting bright young Chinese minds.

All of a sudden no-one speaking the lingo looks a lot less clever.

The British Chambers of Commerce in 2012 found that up to 96% of respondents in their business survey had "no foreign language ability for the markets they served, and the largest language deficits are for the fastest developing markets".

Compare this with the views of a Chinese industrialist who commented that "a China-based organisation would not attempt to do business in the UK without knowledge of the English language and business would be greatly improved if UK-based organisations shared this mind-set."

Our research suggests three reasons why they don't:

• First, most obvious and most corrosive is complacency. The wide acceptance of English as a global language and lingua franca for politics, business and trade, means businesses may believe that can carry on regardless - with just English.

• Second, UK companies, who don't have in-house Chinese capacity don't know what they are missing out on. As one stakeholder pointed out "For companies to tell you that they have a problem, they have to know that they have a problem."

• Third, a weak supply of language skills is means low expectations creating and compounding a vicious circle of monolingualism. Employers tend to cover-up language deficits in the UK workforce by hiring interpreters and native speakers, ignoring language requirements in job adverts, or focusing their business solely on regions where English is the dominant language.

When it comes to languages we're like a nation of committed non-swimmers faced with a swimming pool - no appetite for diving in and no idea of the benefits and joys of taking the plunge.

What's clear is we need more opportunities for more UK young people to practice their language skills and more of them to study and work overseas - and in so doing develop their intercultural skills and an international outlook. The British Council is on the case here with our Study, Work, Create website.

But we also need to think more about languages as an additional string to a young person's bow. There are real salary and employability benefits from combining languages with other professional, business and technical skills. Languages with other professional skills are good for young people and good for business.

The good news is policymakers, educators, business and the British Council are all pulling together and in the right direction. That meeting at the Institute of Education was another step in pulling together the growing 'coalition of the willing' committed to ensuring that Chinese can be a realistic choice for a critical mass of UK schools and young people.

But perhaps the most important thing we all need to continue to combat is the argument that commentators and opinion formers all too often espouse that languages are a waste of time.

A few weeks ago I wrote to the Financial Times to challenge Simon Kuper's piece setting out why learning a foreign language is pointless:

As I said in that letter:

"Languages speak to the heart and are food for the mind - at any age. That is why we owe it to ourselves to try."

And for anyone who is fearful or thinks they can't, have a look at our blog on what's great about learning Chinese along with these links to a world of languages - or any of these other languages. Go on - have a try!

Arabic: more accessible than you think

Russian: beautiful, complex, and a window onto the unknown

Turkish: a fascinating structure and huge influence

The French language: romantic, precise, close to English

German and hipsters: the perfect match?

Single Japanese words can contain whole worlds of experience

How good is Italian for business?

Spanish: learning to speak the language of 400 million people