Arabic is ranked as a more important language for children to learn in school than French in a report published by the British Council.
The study, Languages for the Future, also rates Mandarin as more vital than German to the UK over the next 20 years. Spanish, though, is considered the most important language to learn.
The report calls on policymakers to introduce a broader range of languages into every child’s education.
The British Council report compiled its top 10 of the most useful languages to learn by using a sophisticated ranking system – which gave weight for current export links with the countries concerned, UK government trade priorities, diplomatic and security priorities and holiday destinations.
It concluded the UK had an “alarming” shortage of people able to speak any of the 10 languages identified – with three-quarters of the population unable to speak any of the languages fluently enough to hold a conversation in them.
French was the only language where fluent speakers were in double figures (15 per cent). It was followed by German (six per cent), Spanish (four per cent) Italian (two per cent) and Arabic, Mandarin, Russian and Japanese (all one per cent). Fewer than one in 100 could speak Portuguese or Turkish, which made up the 10.
According to figures from the Joint Council for Qualification – the umbrella body representing exam boards, less than half of GCSE students (44 per cent) took a language exam this summer despite an improvement on recent years.
On Arabic, the report said: “Six Arabic speaking countries appear among the UK’s top 50 export market in goods with a combined value to the economy of over £12 billion – more than the value of UK exports to Spain, China or Italy.