A new study by the British Council reveals that Arabic is a more important language for children to learn in school than French, and Mandarin will be more vital than German to the United Kingdom over the next 20 years.
The study, Languages for the Future, rates Spanish as the most important language to learn. The study urges policymakers to introduce a broader range of languages into every child's education, writes Richard Garner of The Independent.
"The problem isn't that we're teaching the wrong languages because the most widely-taught languages like French, Spanish and German all feature in our top ten," said John Worne, director of strategy at the British Council, the UK's international organization for educational opportunities and cultural relations.
Worne said the UK needs more people to take up the opportunity to learn and, crucially, get using these languages – along with new ones like Arabic, Chinese and Japanese.
"If we don't act to tackle this shortfall, we'll lose out both economically and culturally. Schools have their job to do but it's also a problem of complacency, confidence and culture – which policy makers, businesses, parents and everyone else in the UK can help to fix," Worne said.
The report compiled its top 10 of the most useful languages to learn by using a sophisticated ranking system – which gave weight for current export links with the countries concerned, UK government trade priorities, diplomatic and security priorities and holiday destinations.
According to the report, the UK had an "alarming" shortage of people able to speak any of the 10 languages identified – with three-quarters of the population unable to speak any of the languages fluently enough to hold a conversation in them.
French was the only language where fluent speakers were in double figures with 15%. It was followed by German with 6%, Spanish with 4%, Italian with 2% and Arabic, Mandarin, Russian and Japanese, all 1%. Fewer than one in 100 could speak Portuguese or Turkish, which made up the 10.
The Joint Council for Qualification, the umbrella body representing exam boards, released figures showing that less than half of GCSE students took a language exam this summer despite an improvement on recent years.
Even football chiefs joined in the condemnation of the UK's performance in languages with Martyn Heather, head of education at the Premier League, warning a lack of language skills would make it difficult for UK players to play or coach abroad. "Language skills are just as important for a young aspiring footballer as they are for someone who wants to enter the world of international commerce," he added.
The report said that "six Arabic speaking countries appear among the UK's top 50 export market in goods with a combined value to the economy of over £12 billion – more than the value of UK exports to Spain, China or Italy.
According to a spokesman for the Department for Education, its reforms "will ensure that hundreds and thousands more young people will study languages every year". The reforms will make languages compulsory from the age of seven and include it as a compulsory subject for the English Baccalaureate league table ranking.