Will learning a language get me a job?

From the UK, interesting developments in the debate on language learning. The British Academy for the Humanities and Social Sciences is undertaking a research project, Born Global, on “the extent and nature of language needs in the labour market and the implications for language education from school to higher education”.

The project is being advised by a steering group comprising a who’s who of British corporate life, including the Chief Operating Officer of the Confederation of British Industry, the Chair of UBS Ltd, and a former director of Reuters and Deutsche Bank, as well as linguistics experts and government representatives.

In late 2014, the Academy held a symposium to discuss the interim findings. The summary of those findings, available on the website, kicks off with a quote from Australia’s very own champion of language learning, Professor Jo Lo Bianco of the University of Melbourne:

“There are two disadvantages in global language arrangements: one of them is not knowing English; and the other one of them is knowing only English.”

The report highlighted a growing divide between government and private schools, and found that language learning, or lack of it, was in itself an indicator of educational inequality:

“Between 2004, when languages ceased to be a statutory requirement for fourteen-year olds, and 2010, the percentage of state-maintained schools retaining compulsory languages dropped from 30% to 20%. Meanwhile the Independent Sector appeared to be prioritising languages, with figures for compulsory language learning rising from 75% in 2004 to 89% by 2010.”

This lack of language skills acquired during school had impacts later on: very few UK graduates are studying or working overseas.  And while young people from other countries are clamouring to join the European Union’s Erasmus student exchange program, applications from Britons are declining. The report traces this back to a lack of confidence and motivation.  Not surprisingly, in an increasingly globalised and globalising economy, employers are alarmed.

“Missed opportunities to take up international places leaves young people less equipped with the attributes they need to work in a global labour market. Such attitudes may also affect the propensity to export of many small- to medium-sized companies.”

Some lessons for Australia, perhaps?



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