Fast Track: Voulez-vous get a job?

A second language will make you a first-class candidate for the position you want.
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You only have to observe the British on holiday for proof that we are the worst language learners in the world. Whether it's in a cafe in Paris or at a tiny taverna in rural Greece, we have a cringe-worthy tendency to simply expect locals to converse in English. But with politicians increasingly referring to the world as a global village, it's high time those who want to get ahead in business changed their tunes. The good news for graduates? According to Emma Taylor of Graduate Appointments in London, they have the most to gain from either having a background in languages or starting to learn a new one now.

French, Spanish and Italian are today's most sought-after languages, she says, with employers in sales, customer services, finance and banking on the look out for university leavers who speak them. Indeed, for some companies, language proficiency is the be-all-and-end-all. Alec Richmond, group audit controller at Cadbury Schweppes, explains: "Here, language skills are more important than a background or degree in finance."

In addition, learning a second language means you can take full advantage of opportunities for careers in Europe, which have never been so good. European pharmaceutical companies, car manufacturers, banks, and drinks and tobacco businesses are all currently on the look out for British graduates. Language graduates are also wanted in the telecommunications and IT sectors - professions which never needed languages before - as companies throughout Europe strive to keep up with developing technology.

Graduates should try to keep their language skills up-to-date, advises Emma Taylor. Even graduates who have a combined languages and business degree may find that they are not using languages in their first job because they don't have enough work experience.

"If you are fairly fluent and don't need more tuition, conversation is the best way to keep up," advises Teresa Lawlor, head of Languages at Kingston University. Like many universities, it offers students the opportunity to learn a language alongside their degree course. "We've had an increased take-up from 500 to 900 in six years," she says.

Amanda Gardner has reaped the benefits. "In my first job as a sales administrator, I spoke German every day. When the company relocated, I was determined to find another job which needed German." Gardner, who graduated two years ago, now works as a marketing executive at Lego Media International, where she uses her language skills - and earns a higher salary.

For those that aren't so fluent, however, do not fear. Kingston University's course, like many such evening language courses, doesn't have to take up too much time. "Survival skills" rather than fluency are taught. "Students learn enough to take a client out to dinner, or take part in a business meeting," explains Lawlor. "Just a few words in the local language makes all the difference to foreign clients."

Whatever language you learn, be aware that evening classes once a week might not get you much beyond ordering a beer on holiday, unless you're already quite advanced. But choose carefully and you could find a course tailored to business needs. If you want to learn at home and can't afford private tuition, language tapes are the most popular way. The market leader Linguaphone has helped seven million people to speak another language since 1924.

Whichever method you use, success depends on commitment, as Brigitte McDevitt, a French teacher, explains: "There's no single reason why someone is good or bad at languages. Lack of patience is why adults fail. They want to do things at speed and find learning a language properly is frustrating and takes too long."

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is one of the few employers who will pay for language tuition. Graduates may combine lessons in London with some study in the country they're about to work in. "It's not essential for graduates to have a language degree, but they should have an aptitude," explains a FCO Fast Track recruitment spokesman.

Graduates are too often unaware that language skills can help them get a better job and higher salary. Even learning the basics in French or German alongside your job-searching will ease your way round the global village of the future.