Britain Must Harness the Language Skills of Its Diasporas

Gillian Lawie

Brick Lane street sign in English and Bengali. Photo: James Cridland

Brick Lane street sign in English and Bengali. Photo: James Cridland

The UK has a palpable and worrying deficit of language skills. Our judgement of foreign language necessity appears to be clouded by the notion that ‘everyone speaks English’. A 2013 investigation by the Confederation of British Industry reported that just 2% of British companies are ‘very satisfied’ with the language skills of graduates. The British diplomatic service in particular is known to have a rather embarrassing deficit of foreign language skills, particularly Arabic and Russian speakers. A 2013 report by the British Academy noted that the UK’s language deficit is now threatening our diplomatic influence and national security.

This problem becomes all the more perplexing when you consider that the UK already comprises of several strong diasporas, offering an abundance of foreign language skills. We can count sizeable diaspora communities of Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and many people of eastern European origin: a wealth of potentially bilingual citizens already residing within our borders. Additionally the growing movement of people from Arab nations who are fleeing conflict and terror could result in larger Arabic-speaking diasporas in the UK over the coming generations. The UK could be reaping the benefits of thousands of bilingual citizens, but the wide range of existing language skills within our borders are not being utilised to their full potential.

The children of immigrants, or second-generation immigrants, are of particular note in long-term language transfer. Many maintain strong ties to their familial country of origin, often possessing dual citizenship or making frequent return visits. They represent a unique value in terms of language transfer, with many becoming bilingual or even trilingual through the use of familial languages at home and learning national languages at school. If host nations can encourage second-generation diasporas to preserve their native languages, this could open the door to direct foreign investment in their countries of origin, more cross-border trade and stronger political ties.

However not enough is being done to encourage the development of native languages in the UK; particularly those languages not commonly taught in school. Policy-makers need to implement community engagement projects and community-led language training schemes with established diasporas, to promote the growth of languages such as Bengali, Hindi, Arabic, Russian, Polish and others that are already present in our society. The government also needs to harness this language potential throughout primary, secondary and tertiary education, to better integrate these languages into the British workforce. The UK already boasts a generous ‘brain bank’ of languages but is allowing it to fade away.

Flipping the view, there is a sizeable British diaspora abroad that could fit into this policy as well.

One of the potent forces for language transfer are international students, who often find themselves immersed in foreign languages through daily life and academic study. Upon their return, students can transfer their new language skills back to their native communities, allowing the UK to tap into a highly skilled global workforce who can operate in multiple languages and navigate many cultures. The UK does offer university language exchanges through programs such as Erasmus, but policy-makers need to address the language deficit at an earlier age; providing more language exchanges for secondary school children before they reach university. By cementing our foreign language skills at an earlier age, children are more likely to continue their language training into tertiary education and adulthood. Many young adults who study abroad may choose to emigrate on completion of their studies, subsequently providing the UK with a strong bilingual diaspora.

Promoting the UK as the centre of diasporas, both as a host and a country of origin, can build stronger ties to new markets, greater foreign investment for British businesses, more cross-border trade and closer diplomatic ties through the kinship and trust build by shared languages. Time to get talking.

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