Britons are missing out on jobs at home and abroad

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at
Mon Sep 22 13:44:06 UTC 2008

Learn languages or lose out on a jobEU chief warns that British
students are missing out as firms increasingly opt for bilingual

Liz Lightfoot The Observer, Sunday September 21 2008

Britons are missing out on jobs at home and abroad because of their
inability to speak languages other than English, the European Union
commissioner for languages has warned. Leonard Orban, the EU
commissioner for multilingualism, says that small- to medium-sized
companies in the UK are increasingly turning to foreign nationals to
fill jobs that call for more than one language. His comments came as
it emerged that the European Commission is facing such a severe
shortage of native English-speaking interpreters that meetings are
being cancelled. The commission also warns that it may have to cut the
number of documents it translates because of the dwindling number of
British students with degrees in French and German.

Since 2002, member states have been committed to a policy of working
towards all citizens speaking their mother tongue plus two other
languages. A league table to be in place by 2010 will show the
competence of students in different EU countries at the end of
compulsory schooling. It is widely accepted that Britain will be near
the bottom . 'British graduates are missing out on some of the best
jobs at home and abroad because they are on the whole monolingual,'
said Orban, a Romanian who speaks English, French and Italian. 'An
English mother-tongue candidate with additional languages has an even
more competitive edge, but let's not forget that only about 25 per
cent of the world's population speaks English. If you know the local
language and culture, you are more likely to clinch that lucrative
business deal, so it is an economic problem for Britain as well,' he

Likening himself to a doctor helping to cure Britain's poor language
skills, Orban said research shows that employers see students with
languages as more flexible and better able to build relationships with
clients in other countries. 'It is important to promote language
learning in the UK in order to give UK citizens the possibility of
being more employable, because companies even in this country are
hiring people of other nationalities who have better linguistic
skills,' he said.

Marco Benedetti, the EU's director-general for interpretation, says
that a generation of staff who joined when the UK became part of the
EU are about to retire and that young people are not coming out of
universities to replace them. 'If we don't do something very soon,
there will be more and more non-native English speakers obliged to
interpret into English,' he said.

The British government's decision to allow pupils to drop a modern
foreign language at 14 has been blamed for the downturn in GCSE and
A-level candidates. The numbers taking GCSEs began to decline in 2002,
when Estelle Morris, the Education Secretary at the time, announced
that languages would no longer be compulsory for 14 to 16-year-olds
from 2004. Many schools pre-empted the policy and stopped entering
weaker candidates before the deadline.

The number of 16-year-olds taking GCSE French fell again this year,
with 201,940 UK entries compared with 347,007 in 2001. Only 76,695
students sat GCSE German, down from 135,133.

That trend is translating into a fall in the number studying languages
at university. Only 610 students started degree courses in German last
year, compared with 2,288 a decade ago, according to a study by the
School of Oriental and African Studies. The number taking French fell
by a third, from 5,655 to 3,700, over the same period.

Modern foreign languages are increasingly seen as elitist, kept alive
by the independent sector and selective grammar or specialist language
colleges in the state sector, says Fiona Harris, the multilingual
officer at the EU's offices in London. 'Already some meetings are
being cancelled because they haven't got interpreters,' she says.
'It's not all doom and gloom because we are seeing an increased
take-up of Mandarin and Arabic, but that doesn't help us because we
need people speaking English, French and German, the three procedural

UK graduates who do have a command of French and German are not always
suitable to work as interpreters because of their poor knowledge of
English grammar and wide use of slang, says Brian Fox, the EU's
director of interpretation. 'Many of the youngsters coming in now
speak as if they were talking to their friends when they should be
moving up a register. Their command of the English language isn't
there any more,' he warns.

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