The UK's languages deficit is bad for business abroad - University of Sheffield's Neil Bermel

It’s no secret that the UK has a languages deficit – we assume everyone speaks English and we don’t bother to learn the languages of the places we visit or do business with

But if we learned another language or two it could help us grow our economy and tackle some of the big challenges we’re facing at home and abroad.

The number of British people who can speak another language has long been in decline. If we continue on this current path the UK will be giving up on languages and on skills that could be crucial to our economy, international relations and security in the coming years.

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In business, our languages deficit means British companies are more hesitant to enter foreign markets because they don’t understand them or have the staff who can help them to do so.

People learning a new language. Pic: AdobeStock.People learning a new language. Pic: AdobeStock.
People learning a new language. Pic: AdobeStock.

This is hitting our ability to import and export goods, limiting the growth of our economy – the British Academy says our GDP is 3.5 per cent smaller as a result

There are many countries in which fluent English is difficult to find. Lots of them are highly industrialised nations with competitive economies and are closer to home than you might think – meaning they could be great places for UK companies to do business with.

One such country is the Czech Republic. With low unemployment rates compared to the rest of Europe, the Czech population has increased spending power that could benefit UK businesses. Its position in Central Europe also gives UK exporters easy access to Germany and other Central and Eastern European markets.

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However, there is a barrier to UK companies trading with the Czech Republic – there’s a shortage of people who can speak the language alongside English. People who can speak native-level English with fluent Czech are highly sought after in business and government, not just in the Czech Republic but also in the UK. With only 27 per cent of Czechs claiming to speak English, according to the Eurobarometer report, there are opportunities we are missing.

Here at the University of Sheffield, we’re one of only four UK universities that teaches Czech. Czech graduates from Sheffield have gone on to develop successful careers both in the UK and the Czech Republic. They serve as an example of how being able to speak multiple languages can not only benefit their own individual careers but also the businesses they work for.

But it’s not just Czech that we have a deficit in. There are similar shortages in some of the other languages of Central and Eastern Europe and filling this shortage could be key for the UK over the next few years.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is having a major impact on its neighbouring countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Huge numbers of people have fled Ukraine and headed for safety to the likes of Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

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As the UK works with these nations to respond to the threat of Russia and manage the fallout of the war, we need people who are specialists in the languages and cultures of these countries. These specialists are the young people who are studying modern languages degrees, but we need more of them.

At the University of Sheffield, our degrees not only teach students the languages they wish to learn, but also the culture and history of the nations who speak it.

Language graduates from Sheffield understand instinctively why the reaction to Russia’s invasion has been so visceral and sharp across Central and Eastern Europe: they have lived in countries that were client states of the Soviet Union and suffered invasions of Warsaw Pact troops in living memory.

These skills and understanding are vital if the UK is to successfully work with these countries to respond to the war in Ukraine and the threat of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

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The UK and the West have rolled out extensive sanctions on Russia, but our security and the work of those who keep us safe also rely on British people who are specialists in the Russian language and culture. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 90s, the UK expanded its capabilities in Russian and Slavonic Studies. The war in Ukraine, which has changed the face of Europe for the next generation, means we need to invest in those capabilities once again.

Yes, we need engineers to close the skills gap in many of our industries, we need scientists to keep us at the forefront of innovation and we need doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals to work in our NHS, but we also need people with language skills to help us thrive and maintain our place in the world.

- Neil Bermel is Professor of Russian and Slavonic Studies at the University of Sheffield.