Is a Languages Strategy Essential for Britain’s Economy to Prosper Post Brexit?

By Gabrielle Hogan-Brun

Britain hopes to draw on the trade relationships of the former Commonwealth to grow its economy post Brexit. Could this place too much reliance on English as the language of trade? What do we know about the benefits of a languages strategy for the economy? Gabrielle Hogan-Brun explores.


Wake-Up Call

Following the EU Referendum there was a feeling that Britain could rely on a far larger range of economies post Brexit, in particular trade relationships with the former Commonwealth (presumably through English). Some people are in support of this proposition, others find Empire 2.0 a poor substitute for the EU.1 Or has the rest of the world moved on? After all, Australia, New Zealand and Canada only take around 3% of the UK’s exports, and the US is promoting a phase of trade protectionism.

Seeking fresh trade relationships outside the Commonwealth, Britain may well come up against a language barrier. With growing markets from Brazil to China, and from Turkey through Indonesia to Vietnam, more languages are going to feature more prominently in commercial exchange patterns worldwide. Hence, as the global economy diversifies, the role of English as the language of international communication may well change. A possible characteristic of a Globalisation 2.0,2 such diversity could further challenge western, liberal market-based democratic values.

Can the UK afford, post Brexit, to ignore the multilingual reality in this diversifying global market? Should it consider how to communicate with new trade partners overseas after it loses its reliance on the multilingual capabilities of the EU? Could Brexit be a wake-up call for a languages strategy? Indeed, does the UK have the political will for an education policy to grow a languages capacity?


Opportunity Cost

British businesses already suffer setbacks in export markets due to a deficient multilingual skills base. According to figures recently released by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, the UK economy is losing around £50 billion a year in failed contracts because of a lack of language skills in the workforce.3 They also show how this shortfall in foreign language skills leads to a reluctance in tackling new markets: over 80% of small to medium sized enterprises operate only in English, yet over half say language skills would help expand business opportunities and build export growth.4

The above figures suggest that loss of turnover and profitability is in a large part affected by communication barriers across language boundaries. Now that Britain is leaving the EU, there will be greater pressure to address its language related economic shortfall. Arguably, without a languages strategy, trade relations and export performance will suffer even more post Brexit.

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About the Author

Gabrielle Hogan-Brun is the author of Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism?” (Bloomsbury Academic, 2017). She is Senior Research Fellow at the University of Bristol, UK, and has worked with various European organisations on language policy in multilingual settings. She is Series Editor of Palgrave Studies in Minority Languages and Communities.



1. Blitz, J. (2017) Post-Brexit delusions about Empire 2.0. Financial Times, 17 March 2017.
2. Barber, L. (2016) Globalisation 2.0 – an optimistic outlook. Financial Times, 24 February 2016.
3. Quoting Baroness Coussins, in: Richardson, H. (2014) Modern languages “recovery programme” urged by MPs. BBC News, 14 July 2014.
4. Brexit and Languages: A checklist for Government negotiators and officials. All-Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages (APPMFL).
5. Competing across borders. How cultural and communication barriers affect business.The Economist. Intelligence Report. Perspectives, 25 April, 2012.

6. Quoted in: Reisz, M. (2014) Language degrees: when the words are not enough. Times Higher Education, 11 December 2014.
7. In: Linguanomics: What is the Market Potential of Multilingualism? (2017: 79 f). London/New York: Bloomsbury Academic; see also: “This Post-Brexit Linguanomics”, in: Kelly, M.H. (Ed.) (2017) Languages after Brexit. How the UK speaks to the world. London/New York, Palgrave Macmillan.
8. Grin, F., Sfreddo, C. and Vaillancourt, F. (2010) The Economics of the Multilingual Workplace. New York/London: Routledge.
9. Rogers, R., Alsop, W. et al. (2017) Leading architects: EU nationals must not be used as a Brexit negotiating chip. The Guardian, Letters, 14 May 2017.
10. Echoing this sentiment across the Atlantic is US economist Lawrence Summers’ Tweet (2017, January 8). @LH Summers 7:45AM.
11. Examples are Switzerland, Quebec and Catalonia. For more information see: Gazzola, M. and Wickström, B-A (Eds) (2016) The Economics of Language Policy. Cambridge MA; MIT Press.
12. Hutton, W. (2016) Trade is the lifeblood of humanity. Closed doors lead to closed minds. The Guardian, 13 November 2016.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.