Up until the age of 18, I had the experience of learning four different foreign languages: two within the home, and two at school. When I look back, I had my challenges with each one.
Bangla is my ethnic language, but growing up, I was anything but fluent. Unlike many British-born Asians, I spoke English with my parents from an early age. My nursery teacher gave my dad the absurd advice that we shouldn’t speak Bangla in the home, as it would harm our chances of learning English properly. Naturally this worried my parents, but I don’t know of anyone whose English language learning was adversely affected by speaking their mother tongue first (my friends who learnt English later have all performed well at school and many now enjoy successful careers). So as a result, my family visits to Bangladesh meant I had to endure the humiliating ordeal of speaking to relatives with a heavy English accent and be the brunt of many jokes. Arabic was also another language we were required to learn in order to read our religious scriptures. Arabic is not an easy language, what with the grammar and extremely precise pronunciation. At school, French and German were the focus. I dropped German at GCSE, but carried on with French up to A-level. French GCSE was a walk in the park, but learning how to order an orange juice in a cafe didn’t exactly prepare me for reading and discussing entire novels and pieces of literature in French six months later.
Thankfully, my spoken Bangla and Arabic reading has massively improved (sadly I didn’t keep up the French), but back then I perhaps never truly appreciated the valuable role languages can play in our lives. Over the last 20 years of education and work, I’ve definitely developed a different outlook. I had the privilege of studying in two of the most renowned and culturally diverse universities (one of which specialises in the teaching and learning of African and Asian languages), and this gave me the opportunity to interact with multilingual students from across the globe. Some of my classmates could speak at least four languages fluently, which was really inspiring. And my work as an international careers adviser, also supporting foreign language students, has really highlighted a major point for me: the need to change our mindset when it comes to language learning and types of careers where we can use our linguistic skills.
The state of language learning and skills in the UK has been of ongoing concern. Last year, the Guardian and British Academy launched the Living Languages report to examine the reasons behind the UK’s shortage of foreign language skills, and look at the importance and value of learning this skill. It is ironic that as generally the take up of languages in A-level and higher education has been in decline, employers and businesses are crying out for “global graduates” and people with cultural and language skills. Recent reports show that the UK loses almost £50bn a year in lost contracts due to poor language skills in the workforce (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, 2014). The latest Confederation of British Industry (CBI/Pearson) Education & Skills survey shows that almost 50% of businesses recognise foreign language skills as beneficial to them.
It’s been really interesting to see the range of languages sought after and in use across the job market. Whilst traditional languages such as French, German and Spanish remain at the top of the list, we are also seeing a huge increase in demand for non-European ones too. Global economic and political changes means that Mandarin and Arabic feature highly, and this is reflected in the recruitment strategies of organisations such as GCHQ. Interestingly, the Metropolitan Police announced that their eligibility criteria to become a police constable now includes the ability to speak a second language, such as African and Asian languages.
Speaking both European and non-European languages has been a huge advantage for Safia Saeed, a finance professional, who worked as an Internal Audit Manager for a global telecoms distributor across the Europe, Middle East and Africa region. Through this role, she was able to use her knowledge of German and Spanish, but also her ability to speak Urdu and Hindi was of great help in communicating with the Indian finance team in Dubai. “Languages were basically a great way to connect with people and develop good working relationships; people respected the effort to engage and communicate with them,” states Safia.
Using languages in a business context, like Safia did, is just one example of how we need to look beyond the “traditional” and obvious career options of teaching, interpreting and translating for languages students and graduates. Whilst languages is certainly important for the above areas, there are many different sectors where linguistic skills could be useful. Business services, cultural consultancy, travel and tourism, legal, public sector and education are just some examples, and you can find out more on a guide I produced for TARGETjobs called Using Your Language Skills.
I certainly believe any language is of benefit, but from an employability point of view and in terms of demonstrating a unique skills set to potential employers, you can’t go wrong with speaking diverse languages. And when it comes to considering your career options, again keep an open mind and don’t restrict yourself to traditional areas. Think outside the box; you never know what fascinating role awaits you!
If you speak or know anyone who uses a rare or unusual language in their career, please do get in touch with me.