Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank


Brexit and the rise of China mean Scotland must take a fresh approach to foreign languages in the 21st century, says think tank

Reform Scotland, the independent think tank, has published its latest report, Breaking The Languages Barrier, which argues for a revolution in language education.

The UK Government estimates £48bn is lost to the economy each year because of poor foreign language skills, yet the number of school pupils studying these subjects is actually dropping.

With Brexit imminent and the international power balance shifting towards Asia, Scotland’s future economic success and influence will increasingly depend on having a global outlook and skills – the facility to use other languages is a critical part of this.

The report notes the following trends:

  • There is an ongoing decline in French and German exam entries in S4, mirroring a similar drop in other European countries.
  • At the same time there has been a significant increase in the take-up of Spanish and Chinese.
  • Scottish pupils are actively speaking – if not studying – more languages, particularly Polish, Urdu and Arabic. Schools and communities should take advantage of bilingual and multilingual pupils and parents.

Breaking The Languages Barrier calls for a major restructuring of our approach to language learning, suggests a new model focused on practical, everyday use of foreign languages, and advocates pilot schemes to explore this fresh approach.

Specifically, the report argues for an end to the outdated distinction between ‘community’ and ‘modern’ languages – Urdu and Chinese are more commonly spoken around the world, and in Scotland, than French and German. Scotland has growing Polish, Arabic, Urdu and Chinese communities, presenting a rich opportunity not only for pupils to engage with native speakers and learn from their peers, but to use these language skills on a daily basis.

The full report can be read below.

Commenting, Reform Scotland Director Chris Deerin said:

“The Scottish Government has a stated ambition for children to learn two languages in addition to English, starting in primary school. This is laudable, but it’s not clear how it can or will be achieved. The number of pupils being examined in French and German has declined and the number of secondary school language-teachers has fallen. Most councils do not employ language teachers at primary school, even though the Scottish Government expects pupils to begin learning a second foreign language in Primary 5.

“If we want to see genuine growth in language skills in Scotland, rather than just paying lip service to the idea, we need to rethink our approach. There is a danger the languages currently on offer within the education system are not keeping up with Scottish or global society. We also remain focused on formal qualifications that are often of limited use in the real world, rather than on giving pupils the practical skills to communicate effectively. In particular, we should look at how best to utilise the rich resource that is Scottish pupils, parents and communities where a second language is already spoken.

“We need to think much more freely – as many other countries do – about how best to equip ourselves to thrive in the modern global economy. Brexit, the shift of power from West to East, and Scotland’s pressing need to secure greater economic growth, all demand fresh ideas.”

Dr Thomas Bak, Reader at the University of Edinburgh’s School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences added:

“This is a very relevant, timely and constructive report. It is relevant, because language skills are an indispensable part of a diverse, open minded and globally successful society and economy. It is timely, because recent research suggests that learning, knowledge and use of languages can have beneficial effects throughout the whole lifespan, including improved attentional skills at any age, slower cognitive ageing, a later onset of dementia and a better cognitive recovery from stroke. It is constructive because it offers a practicable and affordable solution by making use of the already present linguistic diversity of Scotland.

Indeed, overcoming the counter-productive distinction between “modern” and “community” languages could not only provide a boost for language learning and teaching, but also contribute to a stronger social cohesion by recognising the value of all languages spoken in contemporary Scotland.”



  1. Reform Scotland’s Breaking the Languages Barrier report below. 
  2. Reform Scotland is an independent, non-party think tank that aims to set out a better way to deliver increased economic prosperity and more effective public services based on the traditional Scottish principles of limited government, diversity and personal responsibility. Further information is available at
  3. Media: Message Matters (Andy Maciver, [email protected], 07855 261 244)


Breaking the Languages Barrier