Double economic return for languages investment – report

A new study from the University of Cambridge estimates a benefit-to-cost ratio of at least 2:1 for investing in the teaching of Arabic, Mandarin, French or Spanish

Today sees the publication of a study suggesting that investing in the study of foreign languages could see a doubling in return for the UK economy.

The report, The economic value to the UK of speaking other languages, by the University of Cambridge and not-for-profit research institute, RAND Europe, found that the benefit-to-cost ratios for increasing Arabic, Mandarin, French or Spanish education would likely be at least 2:1, meaning that spending £1 could return about £2.

Boosting the number of languages shared with trading partners, claim researchers, would lead to a rise in UK exports. Specifically, they estimate that removing language barriers with trading partners in Arabic-, Chinese-, French- and Spanish-speaking countries could increase UK exports by around £19bn a year.

“This study provides a new economic estimate for some of the UK’s untapped language potential,” said Wendy Ayres-Bennett, the study’s lead author and professor of French philology and linguistics at the University of Cambridge.

“However, the UK has experienced a sharp decline overall in the uptake of languages since 2004. At a time when the UK government seeks to reset its global economic relationships, such a decline in language skills could impact on the UK’s ability to compete on a global stage.”

This study provides a new economic estimate for some of the UK’s untapped language potential – Wendy Ayres-Bennett, University of Cambridge

The warning comes in the wake of concerns over proposed government changes to the teaching of languages at GCSE level. While many language teachers have expressed support for a move towards teaching the most commonly used vocabulary, grammar and pronunciations, the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference fears that the proposals will “further widen the academic step up for students moving from GCSE to A-Level languages”.

The report notes that although the UK does enjoy a comparative advantage thanks to English commonly being used as a lingua franca in international trade, it is not the sole driver in such key trade sectors as services or mining and energy.

Researchers modelled the impact on UK economic performance between now and 2050 if more pupils aged 11-16 learn to speak one of four different languages to a level that could later be used effectively in business.

Using a range of education cost estimates per pupil per year for each of the languages, researchers calculated a cost-to-benefit of £600 to £800 for Arabic, £480 to £720 for Mandarin, and £240 to £600 each for French and Spanish.

By that reckoning, the study estimates that a 10 percentage point increase in UK pupils learning Arabic in KS3/KS4 could increase UK GDP by between £11.8bn and £12.6bn over 30 years.

Applying the same rise in Mandarin learning would increase GDP by between £11.5bn and £12.3bn; French between £9.1bn and £9.5bn; and Spanish between £9.1bn and £9.7bn.

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