06 DECEMBER 2015

Are you Ready for a Global Future?

Are you Ready for a Global Future?

There are many reasons why everyone should learn a language, even if you happen to have the distinct advantage of speaking a world language as your first. Yet in England too many people believe that English is enough. European survey data[1] show that 61% of English people speak no other language apart from English. This compares with an EU average of 56% who speak at least one other language in addition to their first language. The case for increasing language capability can be made on a number of grounds: for reasons of trade, international diplomacy and national security[2], as well as for extending our global influence as individuals and as a country through science, humanities and the arts. So why do so many young people seem unaware of the value of language learning? What should our young people be studying to equip them for the future? How should schools and universities prepare the next generations for professional life 2020 – 2030 and beyond?


For anyone with a stake in education, the first consideration must be that the world in which we live, study and work has fundamentally changed and will continue to evolve at a rapid pace.[3]  Advances in technology, shifts in economic power from West to East and demographic trends, including unprecedented levels of international mobility are creating a new unpredictable and dynamic ecosystem. In 2009, the World Health Authority[4] reported that our urban populations outnumbered rural dwellers for the first time. We face ageing populations in some established economies, contrasting with an explosion of young, highly educated and ambitious talent entering the labour market from newer emerging economies. Human resources directors in leading companies and employer organisations report skills shortages in key disciplines at both graduate and entry levels. The hunt to find the right person, with the right skills in the right place at the right time is a common problem domestically and internationally. Technology, including the proactive use of social media, means that the search for talent is a global concern. For young people entering the labour market now and in the future, competition for the top jobs will be fierce, but the opportunities for international travel and personal advancement will be more diverse and richer than ever before, if our young people are prepared to face the challenge.

Preparing for a global future will bring with it new expectations, assumptions and cultural norms. Young people from Gen Y (or the millennials)[5] are already studying in international universities and working in multinational companies across the world. The next cohort of young people, born from 1995 through to 2009 can truly be called the ‘Born Global Generation’[6]. By comparison with Gen Y, the Born Global Generation will be even more internationally mobile, tech savvy, cosmopolitan and hyper-connected. It is from this generation that we will source future leaders of local and global companies, building the social fabric of our communities and networks worldwide. This is the generation that will not only grapple with the ethical, economic, environmental and socio-political dilemmas of the future, but will be the architects of new solutions, working with organisations and governments at regional and national levels in new kinds of partnerships and configurations, that will be supported by technological advances that we have not yet even envisaged. For this generation, those who will be the most successful will be defined by their willingness to adapt to different circumstances, and their flexibility to fit in with different cultures in different locations. The key to success will come from cultural and intellectual agility, arising from international experience and the ability to speak more than one language. 

So, what does this mean for the monolingual British student, who may have given up language learning at 14?  Speaking only English is unlikely to guarantee a prosperous future as they consider their career options. Economic turbulence and demographic shifts have already made an impact on both talent supply and demand. Research shows unequivocally the labour market advantages for multilingual candidates who can demonstrate an international outlook, a global mind-set and cultural intelligence.[7] Consequently, it becomes advantageous for any undergraduate student of any discipline to seek out opportunities to extend their language portfolio, and experience life through another cultural and linguistic lens. Universities offer a rich programme of Institution-Wide Language Provision in a range of different languages at different levels, including ab initio courses. It is never too late to start the journey into a new language and culture.

Employers state that they look favourably on candidates who can distinguish themselves from the rest of the field. Those who can describe their involvement in international projects, their participation in cross-border cultural events or competitions, and their ability to learn a new language, perhaps through lived experience abroad or through completing an intensive course provided by a cultural organisation like the Goethe Insitut[8], Instituto Cervantes[9] and l’Institut Français[10], are all regarded positively. Involvement in a JET scheme (Japan Exchange and Teaching Programme)[11] or taking up an Erasmus[12] Year in any country can enhance the personal profile of a candidate at interview by showing how engaging with another culture is character building and transforming.

There are strong messages for young people who already speak another language in the home. Recent research findings from surveys[13] investigating employers’ dispositions towards the value of languages in general show an overwhelming consensus that bilingualism is a great advantage: 95 per cent of people with language skills working in executive or middle management roles in larger companies; 90 per cent of ‘language active’ Small-to-Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) that use  two or more languages to run their business operations ; and even 89 per cent of those SMEs that operate through English only, agree that young people who speak a different language at home should regard bilingualism as an asset in the workplace.

So, the central message that we can take forward as we prepare for a global future is that every language is an asset, whether it is learned as part of formal education or spoken in the home. Language capability, a global mind-set and cultural competence[14] are essential attributes for future employability, and the future of Britain is multilingual.

Bernardette Holmes is Principal Researcher for the Born Global Policy Research Project funded by the British Academy, Campaign Director for Speak to the Future and a Bye-Fellow of Downing College, University of Cambridge


[1] Special Eurobarometer 386 Europeans and their languages. European Commission 2012


[4] Chapter 1: The Rise of Modern Cities  in HIDDEN CITIES: UNMASKING AND OVERCOMING HEALTH INEQUITIES IN URBAN SETTINGS (2009) World Health Organisation

Available at: http://www.who.int/kobe_centre/publications/hiddencities_media/ch1_who_un_habitat_hidden_cities.pdf

[5] Gen Y is a term used by demographers to describe young people born from 1980 to 1994 inclusively.

[6] The Born Global Generation is a term coined by the author to describe those born from 1995 to 2009.

[7] Born Global Summary of Interim Findings (2014)  British Academy

Available at: http://www.languagepolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Born-Global_Summary-of-Interim-Findings-17-Oct-2014-3.pdf

[13] Born Global Languages at Work Survey conducted September 2014 and SME Survey conducted October 2014 (awaiting publication 2015)

[14] Born Global Final Report (in preparation 2015)


Bernardette Holmes is Principal Researcher for the Born Global Policy Research Project funded by the British Academy, Campaign Director for Speak to the Future and a Bye-Fellow of Downing College, University of Cambridge. Read Bernardette's full career profile.