I want to attend a language course but my employer says this is not essential for my job. What can I do?

If you are older than 17 and have six months' service or more with your employer and are employed by an organisation with 250 or more employees, your employer’s legal obligation is to consider your request. Employers must comply with statutory time limits and procedures relating to that request. For example, within 28 days of making your request, the employer must normally have accepted it or met with you to discuss it (giving its decision within 14 days thereafter).

If your request is turned down, consider whether your employer has complied with these requirements. If not, you may be able to challenge its decision in an employment tribunal. If your request has been lawfully turned down, and you remain keen to learn a language, you will have to accept that this will have to be studied in your own time and financed by you.

There are a variety of different learning opportunities for studying a language some of which may mean you can learn at home via video, CD ROMs, online courses, etc.

Learndirect has information about potential language programmes in your area.

There is also a growing number of free courses, known as ‘MOOCs’ (massive open online courses), some of which include language modules. For example, have a look at the website of online MOOC provider Futurelearn, which is owned by the Open University.

If you are aged 16 or 17, not in full-time education and have not attained a certain standard of achievement (for example, grades A-C in five subjects at GCSE), there is a legal right to time off work, with pay, for study or training.

The amount of time off must be reasonable, taking into account the requirements of your study or training, together with the circumstances of your employer's business and the effect of the time off on the business.

Pay for such training should be at the normal hourly rate. You can find out more about time off to study for workers aged 16 and 17 on the GOV.UK website.

The TUC’s learning arm – Unionlearn – provides courses, for example on maths, English and ICT. You can find more information on its website.

Remember also that the right to request flexible working is now available to all employees with at least 26 weeks’ service. You can make a request for any reason, such as for time off to complete your language course. Your employer must consider your request reasonably and can only reject it for good business reasons. If your new language skills would benefit your employer, it would be worth spelling this out in your request.

Any change to work arrangements as a result of a request to work flexibly is a permanent change to the employment contract, unless you agree clearly that the change is temporary. Also make sure you agree what is to happen when you finish the course. If you expect to revert automatically back to your previous work arrangements without your employer’s consent, you need to agree this clearly. Browse our section on Flexible Working for tips on making the request.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.

What is WorkSmart?

A career coach that works for everyone.


Enjoy bite-sized activities delivered to you every week.

Lightbulb brain

Equip yourself with essential skills to be the best you yet.


Get the guidance you need to stay focused and reach your goals.

Worksmart circle