Languages: Super secretaries who speak in tongues

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The Independent Culture
Being fluent in one or more foreign languages can be a real boost to a secretary's career, writes Annabelle Thorpe, but you've still got to be able to type.

When Clare Scott picks up the telephone, she may answer it in English. Alternatively, she may speak in German or French, each language following as easily as her mother tongue. After three years at university and two years working in Germany, she is as fluent in German as in English, and her French isn't far behind.

As a multilingual PA and researcher working in the mergers and acquisitions department of a merchant bank, she finds that her day is busy and varied. "It's my job to keep people up to date on what's going on abroad," she says. "I do have secretarial duties - answering the phone and typing, but I also do a lot of research. I usually spend a part of my day trawling French and German newspapers for relevant items and I do a lot of talking on the phone, researching different companies. No two days are the same and I use my languages constantly, for reading and talking."

Clare admits that becoming truly bilingual takes more than studying to degree level.

"When I left university I felt I was totally fluent and was prepared to go for interviews and say that. But when I moved to Germany and started work I realised that the German I had learnt was quite different from what was spoken in everyday life. Two years later, having worked nine hours a day in an office environment, I finally felt I could honestly say I was bilingual."

Sarah Goldsmith, 24, who works for Sharp Electronics, agrees.

"It wasn't until I'd spent a year in Japan after my degree course that I really felt I was fluent. Before that I wouldn't have got through an interview."

Although Sarah's job is mainly secretarial, she does use her Japanese every day.

"Because Sharp is a Japanese company a lot of the staff are Japanese, and it's great to talk to them in their own language. On a business level I use my language mostly for translating - faxes and correspondence that comes in, or relevant newspaper articles."

Although the demand for oriental languages is increasing, German is the most useful language to speak if you're looking for work. According to David Shacklock, MD of Euro London Appointments, most financial institutions need German speakers.

"It's the number one language in Banking and Finance, far ahead of any others," he says. But the demand is there for other languages.

"We get asked for a lot of Scandinavian speakers and have even been asked for Farsi. Over the next couple of years we're expecting an increase in demand for people speaking Mandarin and Cantonese - China is the last great untapped market, and anyone speaking those languages fluently will have no trouble finding work."

But the demand for unusual languages is principally in London. Sarah found it virtually impossible to find a job requiring Japanese outside the capital.

"I live in Leeds and wanted to stay up here. I registered with agencies and they were constantly offering me work in London, but I didn't want to move. I eventually found my present job, but it took some time."

Both Sarah and Clare believe that spending time abroad is the only way to become truly fluent and the interview procedures necessary for bi- and multilingual secretaries certainly weed out those who are not fluent.

"Our interviews take more than an hour," says David Shacklock. "We have grammar and oral tests in the relevant languages as well as the normal secretarial tests. We then have a full interview with the candidate, usually conducted in both the mother tongue and their other language."

With salaries usually in excess of pounds 20,000, bi- and multilingual secretaries are well rewarded for their skill, but languages are not enough on their own.

"I may be fluent in German," says Claire, "but if I didn't have strong secretarial skills I wouldn't be employable. You may spend three years studying a language, but that doesn't mean you'll be any use in an office environment. Employers are looking for all-round skills - and that includes word processing packages, good typing speeds and administration skills. Being able to chat to a client in German is one thing. Being able to make the conversation into a report by the end of the morning, while answering the phone, typing other letters and making endless rounds of coffee, is quite another skill altogether."