Learning the lingo: Will Brexit affect second language demand?

Brits aren’t well known for their foreign language skills. More than 75 per cent of people in the UK are unable to hold a conversation in any of the top ten languages that the British Council considers the most important for the future, according to YouGov.


The poll was performed in 2013, but our own research suggests a similar trend among corporate governance professionals. Only 20 to 23 per cent of British citizens working in risk management, security and resilience, internal audit and compliance roles can speak a second language. In-house lawyers buck the trend, with nearly two-thirds (65 per cent) well versed in another country’s lingo.


While learning another language may not have been a priority for British employees in the past, businesses and jobseekers may find these skills become increasingly important in the near future.

The impact of Brexit

Brexit continues to drive a wedge between MPs across the political spectrum. The EU has always been a deeply divisive issue for the Conservative Party, and ongoing tensions regarding prime minister Theresa May’s strategy have led to high-profile resignations and calls for a second referendum.


With the March 2019 deadline rapidly approaching, recent developments will no doubt concern the general public that a ‘hard’ Brexit is still on the table. The exact blueprint of a no-deal separation from the UK is difficult to predict, but economists fear the effect on the UK’s growth and business environment could be considerable.


Depending on how the rights of EU workers are handled post-Brexit, businesses could see both an exodus of existing staff to EU countries and a growing reluctance among overseas candidates to apply for jobs in the UK. LinkedIn figures have already shown migration from EU27 countries to Britain has slumped 26 per cent over the last year, with the country suffering a net loss of talent in the first quarter of 2018.

Are UK professionals ready for overseas moves?

British citizens are considering their options abroad if Brexit hinders their career progression in the UK.


More than half of corporate governance professionals we polled last year claimed they would consider relocation, although the figures varied from function to function. While 60 per cent of risk managers would look for opportunities outside the country, only 43 per cent of security and resilience employees said the same.


But UK jobseekers could struggle to compete for plum positions in countries where English isn’t the native language, especially against home-grown talent. In Europe, that’s essentially everywhere except Ireland.


“Our foreign language capacity is not yet where it needs to be,” said Dr Adam Marshall, director-general of the British Chambers of Commerce last year.


“Progress in the uptake of languages in schools has lagged, and this means young people are entering the workforce without sufficient language skills … Businesses can and should do more to emphasise the value of foreign language skills.”

What are the most in-demand languages? 

French and German are the most common second languages that corporate governance professionals already speak, but what should candidates be learning? Last year, the British Council updated its top ten Languages for the Future. These are:

  1. Spanish
  2. Mandarin
  3. French
  4. Arabic
  5. German
  6. Italian
  7. Dutch
  8. Portuguese
  9. Japanese
  10. Russian

The council noted that the first five are consistently ranked as the most important, while the remaining languages on the list trail some way behind.


However, 2017 research from Adzuna showed Asian languages were the most lucrative for British workers in the wake of the EU Referendum result. People who spoke Japanese or Chinese commanded the highest average salaries – £32,355 and £31,119, respectively. German, which topped the rankings in 2016, slipped to fourth on £31,030, as France crept into third (£31,079).


Despite Asian-language speakers enjoying slightly higher salaries, they had far fewer opportunities. For example, 8,154 vacancies in the UK sought people who spoke German, while fewer than 2,500 jobs needed Chinese language skills.

Preparing for a post-Brexit Britain

Unfortunately, the impact of Brexit on recruitment is unlikely to be truly known for some time. The government has so far failed to alleviate concerns that a hard Brexit could rock the country’s economy and business landscape.


UK businesses could experience a brain drain of their best EU workers, resulting in a drop in foreign language skills across their employee base. Similarly, British workers may be considering their opportunities abroad if they believe Brexit could harm their careers.


In both cases, a surge in demand for foreign language skills could be on the horizon. But with UK citizens lacking in these capabilities, and EU jobseekers more hesitant to apply for jobs in the country, are we about to see a new skills gap emerge?


Our Market Reports combine our review of the prevailing conditions in the corporate governance recruitment market with the results of our latest employer survey.


Image credit: XiXinXing via iStock