AN OXFORDSHIRE businessman has told the Government that schools must teach more foreign languages for British businesses to thrive.

Gary Muddyman, chief executive of translation agency Conversis, based in Chesterton near Bicester, spoke in the House of Lords to highlight the issue.

He warned that the deepening language skills shortage is affecting UK competitiveness abroad.

Mr Muddyman, who also lives in Bicester, addressed The All Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages session last month.

He argued that in order for UK businesses to continue to trade successfully, the nation’s attitude to languages must change.

He said: “No longer should languages be dismissed as ‘soft skills’.

“As business becomes increasingly borderless in years to come, the language skills and cultural competencies of our business leaders will become critical to our economic health.”

Young people are becoming less and less interested in learning foreign languages – last year saw a 40 per cent drop in universities offering language courses, and the number of pupils taking language A-Levels hit an all-time low.

Dr Robert Vanderplank, director at the Oxford University Languages Centre, added: “Everyone should be able to know a foreign language to a reasonable level, even if it’s not fluent.

“Oxford is a great place for learning languages because there are so many wonderful teachers here.

“We are seeing more and more students saying they are learning to get ahead in their careers.”

Mr Muddyman, 54, said while the UK was taking steps in the right direction by making languages a compulsory part of the curriculum for primary school children aged seven years and over, it was “too little, too late”.

He explained: “It could take between 20 and 40 years for teachers to be trained, youngsters to be taught and for business people with the right combination of language skills and cultural competencies to emerge to lead our businesses.”

Baroness Coussins, chairwoman of the Modern Languages group, agreed. She said: “We have robust evidence in the UK showing that our national shortage of language skills amongst school leavers and graduates is detrimental to our economic growth, to employability, to intercultural understanding and to our influence internationally.

“Speaking English is a huge advantage, vital even, but speaking only English is a serious drawback.”

Despite speaking no foreign languages fluently himself, Mr Muddyman said that Conversis, which also has offices in Brazil and the US, mostly hires non-Brits because they have better language skills.

“This is for no reason other than we find candidates from Europe generally have stronger skills in the required areas,” he said.

“Considering the seriousness of these consequences it is surprising there is less awareness of the problem or action being taken to address it.”

Some Oxfordshire schools are already ahead of the game. Didcot Girls’ School champions the teaching of languages and boasts that 80 per cent of its students take a language at GCSE – a massive difference to the national figure of 20 per cent.

Its Mandarin teacher Lucy Marsh has urged students to studying languages to help with their careers.