business languages

What languages will your business need in the future?

business languages

The British Council has recently published an updated report called Languages for the Future, which looks at the linguistic challenges the UK government, businesses, organisations and individuals face in an international marketplace. Last published in 2013 the new report is set against a very different economic and political landscape than four years ago, and this provides a stark reminder of the importance of languages to our ability to succeed as a global nation.

The UK’s departure from the EU is a significant driver in our need to improve language skills. It will reduce the extent that we can rely on English as the ‘international language of business’, and necessitates an urgent need for linguists who understand the language and culture of the countries we wish to communicate with. The report also highlights the UK’s poor track record in promoting the value of languages, as well as provision for language learning in schools.

As translation service providers we are only too well aware of the disparity between the UK’s collective language skills, and those of the countries our international translators and interpreters come from. Recruiting British linguists to translate content from another language into English is generally harder than the other way around. Fortunately we do have many excellent English language translators on our team; but they are in the minority as fewer people in the UK are choosing to study foreign languages at GCSE, A’ Level and in higher education.

The British Council’s report identifies those languages that are likely to be most useful to the UK in the future. Using the 10 indicators shared below to weigh up the importance of different languages to the UK – including economic, non-market and balancing factors – it signposts those languages we (government, businesses and organisations, and individuals) should be investing in:

Economic factors

  1. Current UK exports – our largest non-English speaking export markets are Germany, France and the Netherlands. However goods exports to Switzerland, Italy and China have increased since 2012 (Source: ONS Balance of Payments and annual geographical tables) and therefore could be markets to watch.
  2. The language needs of UK business
- French, German and Spanish are the top three languages cited by companies as the most useful for business. Mandarin and Arabic are rated in 4th and 5th place, overtaking demand for Portuguese, Russian and Scandinavian languages
  3. UK government’s future trade priorities
- 50 overseas markets have been identified by the Department for International Trade for UK business development, post-Brexit. The report extracted the relevant languages from this list and the opportunities advertised on the government’s Exporting is GREAT website to rank each language.
  4. Emerging high growth markets
- Thinking Global, the route to UK exporting success, published in October 2016, provides the data for this indicator. The top five emerging markets identified were India (Hindi, English), Vietnam (Vietnamese), Ghana (English), Indonesia (Bahasa Indonesia /Malay) and China (Mandarin).

Non-market factors

  1. Diplomatic and security priorities
- according to the report the most important languages for UK diplomacy and intelligence are currently Arabic, Mandarin and Russian, followed by French, Spanish, Farsi, German, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese and Turkish.
  2. The public’s language interests
- not everyone learns a language for economic or diplomatic reasons, demand for language courses can be down to personal preferences and the availability of tuition. Currently in the UK Spanish, Italian, French, German and Mandarin/ Chinese are the most accessible languages in terms of beginner-level courses available.
  3. Outward and inward tourism
- whether it’s communicating with people in their native language when travelling abroad or welcoming overseas visitors to the UK, the countries we visit and the countries who visit us also influences the top ten. Travel trends in 2016 puts Spain at number one for outgoing visits from the UK, and France for incoming visits to the UK.
  4. International educational engagement
- the UK attracts many international students, has important international research collaborations in place, and many UK students currently study overseas. Leaving the EU will have an impact on this, but at this stage it’s very much an unknown factor. However currently the top languages for international education are: French, German, Mandarin, Dutch, Spanish and Italian (ranking equal), Danish, Hindi and other Indian languages, Arabic and Malay.

Balancing factors

  1. Levels of English proficiency in other countries
- do we need to learn other languages, or can we continue to rely on English? The British Council assessed the levels of English proficiency in 72 countries to help determine which languages should be a priority for the UK.
  2. The prevalence of different languages on the Internet – English is the most widely used language on the Internet (at 26%) but Chinese is not far behind at 20%. Other notable languages that may influence global strategies include Spanish (8%), Arabic (5%), Portuguese (4%) and Malay (4%).

Top 10 languages for the future

Using these indicators, The British Council’s team extrapolated the data and has drawn up a list of the most important languages for the UK. They are (drumroll please):

  1. Spanish
  2. Mandarin
  3. French
  4. Arabic
  5. German
  6. Italian
  7. Dutch
  8. Portuguese
  9. Japanese
  10. Russian

What does this tell us? Clearly three of the top five languages (which incidentally scored much higher than those further down the list) are spoken by EU member states. As near neighbours and with long established relationships, we might expect to continue to engage with these countries after the UK’s departure from the EU. Mandarin Chinese and Arabic are no real surprise either. Mandarin Chinese is ranked 1st globally with nearly 900 million speakers, and Arabic is ranked 4th globally with 300-430 million speakers worldwide.

This study confirms trends we’ve also witnessed in language translation; the top five are also our top five languages we provide translation services for.

While the report calls on government, educators and businesses to do more to improve language skills within the UK, in the short to medium term many businesses and organisations will require language support such as translation services to compete on an international stage. Now’s the time to build a strong relationship with a translation partner, a provider who really aligns their services with your needs and goes out of their way to understand your business’ global strategies.

If you would like to explore working with Comtec and have a chat about your language requirements, please get in touch. Call +44 (0) 1926 335 681 or email

I would also recommend downloading the British Council’s report Languages for the Future here to get more insight into the UK’s top language priorities and how these are relevant to your organisation.

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