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Speaking their language

Fluency in a foreign tongue makes a world of difference to employers. Roger Trapp reports
Recruitment specialists are generally agreed that the ability to speak at least one foreign language can make the difference between getting to the interview and securing the job.

Terry Benson, chief executive of Michael Page, said that an accountant with an international company in Brussels or Amsterdam or possibly even Paris might get by without languages. But they are increasingly expected of the young professional seeking advancement in global organisations.

To that extent, French and German are almost taken for granted. The real premium is on East European languages. Companies are prepared to pay 20 per cent more for candidates who can add fluency in Hungarian, Polish or Russian to an otherwise strong academic background, said Denis Waxman, managing director of Accountancy Personnel.

Caroline Stockdale, of Robert Walters, is not sure whether proficiency in languages would give a candidate the edge over a rival with a slightly better overall CV. But she is certain that if both academic backgrounds were the same, the multi-linguist would win out.

Some recruiters suggest that the expanding markets of the Far East are not necessarily fuelling a demand for people able to speak the languages of the region. Companies there are buying in particular skills, particularly from Australia and Britain, and "you do not have to speak a particular language", said Mr Waxman.

However, Ms Stockdale sees strong candidates with Mandarin or Cantonese as "extremely marketable". And it is not just commercial companies based in this country or abroad that are recruiting them.

In the past two to three years, she has detected management consulting firms not attached to the big accounting practices moving away from their reliance on MBAs to hire accountants. And with many of these firms - such as McKinsey & Co, Arthur D Little, Boston Consulting Group and Bain - having a global reach, languages obviously become important selection factors, she added.

But if linguistic ability is becoming almost as important as knowing how to interpret a balance sheet, there is little evidence of young accountants making strenuous efforts to improve themselves in this area. The ability to speak French or German has often been acquired at school or university. But, according to Mr Waxman, most of those who can speak Polish or Hungarian do so because of some family connection.

The message then would appear to be that all those young accountants who have signed up for information technology programmes should be attending foreign language courses, or at least playing a few instruction tapes in the company car. After all, as Ms Stockdale stressed: "Everybody wants languages, even McDonald's. You only have to look at where the expanding markets are."