Why Europe’s English-Language Boom Is a Bust for the U.K.

One of the more poignant moments of the Brexit referendum two years ago was provided by a Leave supporter who called in to a radio show. He said he would be voting to leave the European Union because he was upset by what had recently happened to his daughter. She had been passed over for a job for which she was well-qualified because she only spoke one language. The successful candidate was bilingual in English and Polish. “How was she supposed to compete with that?” he said.

 

As millions of vacationing Brits prepare to fan out across Europe to undergo the annual humiliation of trying to make themselves understood in a foreign language, this question is worth revisiting. A recent survey by the British Council laid bare the U.K.’s dire—and deteriorating—record of language learning. Only 47% of secondary-school pupils took a standardized final high-school exam in a modern language in 2017, down from 76% in 2002. These statistics arguably understate the problem, since they include those taking exams in second languages spoken at home, such as Arabic and Urdu, rather than ones learned at school. The number of pupils taking final exams in French has fallen from 21% in 1997 to 8% in 2017, and a quarter fewer state schools even offer final exams in German than did just three years ago.

 

Contrast this with the rest of Europe, where the numbers speaking second languages is markedly higher. Secondary-school pupils in the remaining 27 EU member states study an average of 1.6 foreign languages each. For the vast majority, one of these languages will be English, which has emerged as Europe’s common second language. In the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden, English is now spoken proficiently by more than 70% of the population, according to the World Economic Forum.

 

The triumph of English has been remarkable. Most major European multinational companies adopted English as their boardroom language more than a decade ago. English has long since overtaken French as the de facto language of the EU. Increasingly, Europe’s leading national politicians speak English when they meet each other bilaterally. In the past 14 months, Spain, France and Poland have all acquired new fluently English-speaking leaders, replacing monoglot predecessors.

 

Of course, the all-conquering spread of English largely explains British complacency about other languages. Why bother to learn a language when the rest of the world speaks your own? Indeed, the dominance of English has been an undoubted competitive advantage for the U.K. for many years: Along with its convenient time zone, use of common law and gloriously long, hot summers, the English language is often cited as one of the main reasons why the U.K. has traditionally been so successful in luring foreign investors looking for a base to access the European market.

 

Now this competitive advantage is being rapidly eroded. For many businesses today debating where to locate new pan-European operations, the key consideration is no longer whether they can find English-speakers but whether they can find employees who speak all the other languages needed to build good commercial relationships with suppliers and customers across the continent. The U.K. scores well here too, not because of the linguistic talents of the native population but because of its success in attracting multilingual migrants to provide an unmatched talent pool—as the pro-Brexit caller discovered. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the City of London, where Brits hold an ever-shrinking proportion of the top jobs.

 

But the U.K. can’t count on even this competitive advantage lasting forever. That isn’t just because Brexit risks making the U.K. less attractive and accessible to both investment and migrants. More important, other countries seeking to win a greater share of that investment are recognizing that attracting multilingual migrants is vital to moving their economies higher up the value chain. For example, business groups across Eastern Europe, from Poland and Latvia to Bulgaria and Romania, say one of the biggest constraints on foreign investment is the difficulty in attracting relevant language speakers to staff pan-European operations. But this dearth is in turn prompting civic leaders in those countries to turn their focus to providing the infrastructure and amenities that will lure higher-skilled migrants, including transport links, education, health-care services and cultural amenities. Nor should anyone underestimate the determination of countries that historically stood at the crossroads of major trading routes from the Baltic to the Black Sea to rediscover their multilingual, cosmopolitan, commercial heritage.

 

Indeed, in this regard, no continental country is standing still. Many of Europe’s top universities now offer courses entirely in English—a direct assault on a sector where the U.K. has long been pre-eminent and has often appeared impregnable. Two years ago, Sciences Po, one of the grandest of France’s grandes écoles, switched all of its courses into English. Its dean, former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta, responded to the inevitable criticism from the French establishment by pointing out that he was doing more for the promotion of French than any political initiative to protect the language, since every student who came to study in Paris was bound to end up learning French as well.

 

British politicians blather about global Britain, yet monoglot British citizens are learning to their cost that they have been badly let down by their education system over many decades. Soon they will be up against a new generation of EU citizens, many of whom will be trilingual as a matter of course.

 

How are we supposed to compete with that? asked the despairing Leave voter. The answer is surely obvious.

Source: The Wall Street Journal

 

 

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