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The economic value to the UK of speaking other languages

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Peer-reviewed

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Article

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Authors

Ayres-Bennett, Wendy 
Hafner, Marco 

Abstract

English – though important as a lingua franca in business worldwide – is not the sole driver behind existing trade flows across different business sectors. Our study demonstrated how sharing spoken languages can reduce trade barriers. We estimated, for instance, that if the populations in the world who speak Arabic, French, Mandarin, and Spanish could communicate with the UK population without difficulty, then UK exports would increase by £19bn a year.

We considered how these potential financial benefits might be realised through the establishment in UK schools of an intensive language programme for Arabic, French, Mandarin or Spanish, akin to the government’s Mandarin Excellence Programme (MEP). We found that a 10% increase in the UK Key Stage 3/4 pupil population undertaking such an intensive programme in Arabic, enabling them to use this language later in a business setting, could improve the UK's GDP cumulatively over 30 years by between £11.8bn and £12.6bn. This corresponds to about 0.5% of the UK's 2019 GDP. We estimated economic benefits of comparable magnitude for Mandarin (£11.5bn-£12.4bn), French (£9.2bn-£9.9bn) and Spanish (£9.1bn-£9.8bn). If more pupils were engaged in such a programme, the cumulative benefits would be higher.

Comparing these benefits to their potential costs, we found that £1 spent today could return £2 by 2050.

Based on our findings, we offer the following policy recommendations:

  1. In formulating policies to promote ‘Global Britain’, more attention should be given to the importance of language skills in the globally integrated business community, especially with the growing geopolitical and economic importance of countries like China, where English is not the official or main first language. As a country, the UK cannot be complacent that English is enough.

  2. Programmes such as the MEP should be developed and expanded to other strategically important languages so as to combat concerns about the quantity and quality of languages education in the UK and the decline in entries for languages at GCSE and A level.

  3. The economic case for languages in terms of the cost-benefit analysis provided should be used to try to secure more funds for languages education and to promote, both in government and in society more widely, the value of languages for the UK’s prosperity.

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Languages, Society and Policy

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Languages, Society and Policy

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