Investment in Languages Education Could Return Double for UK Economy

For Release

Tuesday
February 22, 2022

  • An increase in secondary school pupils learning one of four different languages could increase UK GDP by billions of pounds over 30 years
  • Benefit-to-cost ratios for promoting Arabic, Mandarin, French or Spanish education estimated to be at least 2:1
  • Decline in language learning in UK schools likely to have negative effect on the UK's ability to compete internationally
  • English not the sole driver in certain key trade sectors, such as mining & energy, and services — other languages matter equally, if not more, in reducing trade barriers.

A new study from the University of Cambridge and the not-for-profit research institute RAND Europe, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, shows that investing in languages education in the UK will return more than the investment cost, even under conservative assumptions.

By quantifying the wider economic benefits to the UK economy of extending languages education in schools, researchers found that the benefit-to-cost ratios for increasing Arabic, Mandarin, French or Spanish education are estimated to be at least 2:1, meaning that spending £1 could return about £2.

Researchers used a macroeconomic model to examine UK economic performance between now and 2050 if more pupils aged between 11 and 16 — Key Stage 3 (KS3) and Key Stage 4 (KS4) — learned to speak one of four different languages so they could later use it effectively in business. The modelling was based on the Government's successful Mandarin Excellence Programme, in which extra hours are devoted to language learning without affecting other EBacc subjects and lessons are fast-paced and engaging.

The analysis showed that a 10 percentage point increase in UK pupils learning Arabic in KS3/KS4 could cumulatively increase UK GDP by between £11.8bn and £12.6bn over 30 years, compared against a baseline scenario in which the current levels of language provision in schools do not change. This corresponds to about 0.5% of the UK's GDP in 2019.

An increase in pupils learning Mandarin would increase GDP by between £11.5bn and £12.3bn. For French, the benefit is between £9.1bn and £9.5bn, and an increase in Spanish is estimated to be between £9.1bn and £9.7bn.

“Languages play a significant role in international trade, and having a common language can, all else being equal, reduce trade barriers and foster trade,” said Wendy Ayres-Bennett, the study's lead author and Professor of French Philology and Linguistics at the University of Cambridge. “This study provides a new economic estimate for some of the UK's untapped language potential.”

“However,” Ayres-Bennett continued, “the UK has experienced a sharp decline overall in the uptake of languages since 2004. At a time when the UK government seeks to reset its global economic relationships, such a decline in language skills could impact on the UK's ability to compete on a global stage.”

Researchers calculated the benefit-to-cost ratio by applying a range of education cost estimates per pupil per year for each of the four languages under consideration: £600 to £800 for Arabic; £480 to £720 for Mandarin; and £240 to £600 each for French and Spanish.

The resulting findings of a 2:1 benefit-to-cost ratio for each language demonstrated that there are identifiable returns for investing in languages education, not just in economic terms but also in producing workers with the language skills needed for the UK to compete internationally.

The report notes that while the UK does have a comparative advantage because of the global nature of English as a lingua franca, English is not the sole driver in certain key trade sectors such as mining & energy and services — and other languages matter equally, if not more, in reducing trade barriers.

UK exports are predicted to rise if there is an increase in the number of languages shared with its trading partners. The report shows that the removal of language barriers with trading partners in Arabic-, Chinese-, French- and Spanish-speaking countries could increase UK exports annually by about £19bn.

“The analysis presented in this study demonstrates that investing in languages education could recoup its cost,” said Marco Hafner, report co-author and senior economist at RAND Europe. “But the idea behind the analysis was not in any way to substitute or diminish education in STEM or other EBacc subjects and replace them with languages. The intent is to demonstrate the value of improving the quality and quantity of languages education of secondary school pupils across the UK.”

Professor Christopher Smith, executive chair, Arts and Humanities Research Council, said: “The Arts and Humanities Research Council remains committed to the importance of learning and researching languages as an experience which opens up opportunity both for individuals and for the UK's economy and society. We welcome the findings of this new report.”

The research was funded through a Follow on Funding grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (grant AH/V004182/1) awarded to Ayres-Bennett.

Other authors of the report, The economic value to the UK of speaking other languages, are Eliane Dufresne and Erez Yerushalmi.

- ENDS -

Notes to Editors:

  • To request a copy of the embargoed report or arrange an interview with one of the researchers on the project, contact Cat McShane on cmcshane@randeurope.org or +44 (0) 7525 967 079.
  • The RAND Corporation is a research organisation that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous. RAND is non-profit, non-partisan and committed to the public interest.
  • RAND Europe, an affiliate of the RAND Corporation, is a not-for-profit research organisation whose mission is to help improve policy and decision making through research and analysis.
  • The University of Cambridge is one of the world's top ten leading universities, with a rich history of radical thinking dating back to 1209. Its mission is to contribute to society through the pursuit of education, learning and research at the highest international levels of excellence.
  • The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), part of UK Research and Innovation, funds internationally outstanding independent researchers across the whole range of the arts and humanities: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages and literature, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. The quality and range of research supported by AHRC works for the good of UK society and culture and contributes both to UK economic success and to the culture and welfare of societies across the globe.

About RAND

RAND is a research organization that develops solutions to public policy challenges to help make communities throughout the world safer and more secure, healthier and more prosperous.