Reform Scotland

Breaking the languages barrier

The UK Government estimates £48bn is lost to the economy each year because of poor foreign language skills, yet the number of school pupils studying these subjects is continuing to fall.

With Brexit imminent and the international power balance shifting towards Asia, Scotland’s future economic success and influence will increasingly depend on having a global outlook and skills – the facility to use other languages is a critical part of this.

As a result, the report calls for a major restructuring of our approach to language learning, suggests a new model focused on practical, everyday use of foreign languages, and advocates pilot schemes to explore this fresh approach.

Specifically, the report argues for an end to the outdated distinction between ‘community’ and ‘modern’ languages – Urdu and Chinese are more commonly spoken around the world, and in Scotland, than French and German. Scotland has growing Polish, Arabic, Urdu and Chinese communities, presenting a rich opportunity not only for pupils to engage with native speakers and learn from their peers, but to use these language skills on a daily basis.

If we want to see genuine growth in language skills in Scotland, rather than just paying lip service to the idea, we need to rethink our approach. There is a danger the languages currently on offer within the education system are not keeping up with Scottish or global society. We also remain focused on formal qualifications that are often of limited use in the real world, rather than on giving pupils the practical skills to communicate effectively.

We need to think much more freely – as many other countries do – about how best to equip ourselves to thrive in the modern global economy. Brexit, the shift of power from West to East, and Scotland’s pressing need to secure greater economic growth, all demand fresh ideas and we believe this report is a step in the right direction.