Language proficiency far greater in Europe than England, Scotland, Wales and NI

  • Only 23% of UK know at least one foreign language, falling from 35%* in 2016
  • 54% believe learning a language at GCSE level should be compulsory
  • 72% think learning another language would change their life

The number of people able to speak a foreign language has dramatically fallen in the last four years with less than 23% of the UK able to do so, according to Rosetta Stone.

In 2016, when the UK was dubbed the least language proficient nation in Europe, that figure sat at 35% compared to 65% across the rest of the continent. Data from Eurostat* found Sweden was the most proficient nation with 97% – almost three times higher than the UK figure.

Meanwhile, research highlighted in a report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has found that people between the ages of 15 – 30 fall far behind our European neighbours once again when it comes to reading and writing – only 32% of those in the UK feel confident doing so in more than one language compared to the EU average of 89%. 

This highlights a worrying decline at a time when the UK needs to engage deeply with its European partners to negotiate post-Brexit trade agreements but that’s not the only benefit to being a bilingual nation. Knowing other languages can help us individually by improving memory, helping us be better multi taskers and even making our brains bigger. 

So what puts us off getting to grips with the likes of French, Spanish, German, Italian, Chinese, Japanese or Arabic? While we recognise the value of knowing another language, with 56% of us wishing we could speak one, a lack of time is the No 1 reason (20%) with 19% being put off by their school struggles.

Despite our challenges in the classroom, more than half (54%) of us admit that it should once again be compulsory to learn a language at GCSE level, noting that being able to speak another language would help us to travel more easily (49%), improve job prospects (31%) and increase salaries (17%).

Meanwhile, one in ten (11%) feel they have missed their chance to learn a new language as they did not have the opportunity to lay foundations while at school. This should not get in the way however, with Rosetta Stone saying those who are interested in learning a new language are able to do so at age  despite having no experience.