New British Academy report highlights importance of language skills

sculpture of human head
Katrin Kohl

The British Academy has launched a landmark report entitled The Right Skills: Celebrating Skills in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS), presenting the outcomes of an investigation into the value of the transferable skills developed in the arts, humanities and social sciences. The report offers powerful arguments for fostering disciplines which are increasingly under pressure as the government’s focus on the value of STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) drives GCSE and A-level choices.

The report provides data on the skills that courses in the arts, humanities and social sciences generally give their graduates, data on skills that come with specific courses, and data on skills where employers see gaps and potential demand. The evidence is wide-ranging, including useful and often thought-provoking case studies and new analyses of data on graduate employment outcomes. The very breadth of disciplines the report covers and the commonalities discussed indicate the high value of interdisciplinarity for a rapidly changing world in which individuals will need the agility to learn new skills and respond to new challenges.

As the title indicates, the evidence is set in a context of celebrating the skills AHSS graduates contribute to society – skills that enhance our understanding of evolving human societies and cultures, including our own, in ways that are vital for developing inclusive social policies and community relations. Much is rightly made of the creative industries as a national success story – an area where the UK indeed punches far above its weight internationally. But the report by no means underplays the deficits. Alongside gaps in basic mathematical and entrepreneurial skills, it stresses the UK’s need for more people with language skills coupled with an understanding of the societies and cultural contexts in which the languages are used.

Towards the end of the report, a section is devoted to The Ability to Thrive in a Global Context. It builds on the British Academy’s earlier reports Born Global and Lost for Words in highlighting the crucial importance of language skills, intercultural understanding and area studies: every government department and agency consulted sees language skills as having an important role to play in enabling them to meet their objectives; some 70% of UK small and medium-sized companies surveyed anticipate that future executives will need language skills, with more than half of the companies agreeing that graduates who only speak English are at a disadvantage in an increasingly global market; and British Chambers of Commerce found that over half the non-exporters surveyed saw language and cultural barriers as critical in their decision-making concerning exports.

These headline findings from the areas of the economy and diplomacy are briefly set in the context of the vital role of communication as a key AHSS skill. This might have been stressed more fully as a skill – or skill-set – fostered by the study of foreign languages, above all when this is integrated with a study of the relevant societies and cultures. Responding appropriately to diverse audiences, the ability to listen, and team-working skills that encompass diplomacy, negotiation and empathy are vital to all spheres of human activity, as is evident from other sections of the report. More attention might also have been given to ways in which universities, and AHSS courses, might enable the UK to benefit from the huge potential that currently lies unexploited in the community language skills used in UK families, schools and workplaces.

The report highlights the British Academy’s important collaboration with other organisations such as the ESRC, AHRC and HEFCE in its efforts to give an impetus to more effective policy- making on languages. Joint initiatives are designed to enhance understanding of the value of languages and language learning, and provide the necessary evidence base. The British Academy’s research provides an excellent benchmark for the work of the four programmes that make up the AHRC’s Open World Research Initiative – Creative MultilingualismCross-language Dynamics, Language Acts and Worldmaking, and Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS).

The report includes the following welcome and apposite recommendations:

  • Development of a national strategy for languages at all stages of education in communities, schools and higher education.
  • Making resources and opportunities available to enable all students to learn a second language, whatever subject they study in higher education.

The Right Skills makes an eloquent case for developing a strong skills base through the study of the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, and it draws a roadmap in which a knowledge of languages, embedded in the other skills fostered by AHSS subjects, is essential. The UK needs to equip itself for a future in which its citizens will need to be mentally flexible, creative, and communicatively confident. The world is unlikely to abandon its linguistic and cultural diversity, and it will certainly not stop at Calais.

Katrin Kohl is Professor of German Literature at the University of Oxford. She is Principal Investigator on the Creative Multilingualism research programme and leads the first strand: The Creative Power of Metaphor.

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