Mind your languages and reap the rewards

Employers want linguists for their analytical skills and maturity as well as their fluency, says Hester Lacey

Go for a language degree and you'll have real problems getting a job when you graduate, because languages just aren't vocational. And languages are really difficult at degree level; you'll have a better chance of getting in to university if you pick something easier. Anyway, who needs languages? The whole world speaks English these days.

Go for a language degree and you'll have real problems getting a job when you graduate, because languages just aren't vocational. And languages are really difficult at degree level; you'll have a better chance of getting in to university if you pick something easier. Anyway, who needs languages? The whole world speaks English these days.

If you have a feeling for French, a talent for German or a yen for a tongue that's even more exotic, don't be put off by myths like these. They are simply untrue, according to Professor David Head, head of the international business department at Plymouth University and chair of the Standing Conference of Heads of Modern Languages in Universities.

"The message isn't getting through that modern languages are one of the most vocationally relevant subjects in the curriculum," says Professor Head. "And that applies to all types of language degree, from the traditional language-and-literature to the more applied courses. Linguists have an adaptability and mental agility that is rare in undergraduates." These talents, he says, are highly rated by employers. "A lot of jobs require the skills that linguists possess, quite apart from straightforward knowledge of their language. Oral and written communication skills are among the most important of these, and the year abroad is very clear evidence of independence and maturity for language graduates."

The idea that it's hard to get onto a language degree course is another misconception, adds Teresa Tinsley, head of communications at the Centre for Information on Language Teaching and Research (CILT). At GCSE, the numbers of students taking languages has steadily increased; but relatively few follow up with A-level studies. "If you're a student with a language at A-level, that's good news," says Teresa Tinsley. "University entrance is not so competitive."

There's hard evidence to back this up; both Professor Head and Teresa Tinsley point to research carried out by Dr Keith Marshall in the modern languages department of the University of Wales, Bangor. Dr Marshall has shown that, while unemployment among new graduates in 2000 ran at 5.5 per cent, for modern language graduates overall it was at 4.3 per cent. Only medicine, veterinary science and education had better employment rates than French and German graduates, which were both experiencing just 3.1 per cent unemployment. More than half of these modern language graduates had gone into business services, manufacturing and finance-related jobs; while less than 6 per cent had gone into teaching, which is often (and wrongly) seen, alongside translating, as one of the only options for linguists.

Based on UCAS figures for 2000, Dr Marshall also notes that the ratio of applicants to places across the range of modern languages is better for the applicant than in any other subject area. As for the shout-loudly-and-you'll-get-through-to-them approach that renders languages supposedly redundant, in fact 75 per cent of the world's population don't speak English, and more than 60 per cent of British trade is with non-English-speaking countries.

"We make ourselves increasingly less competitive if we rely on others to speak English," says Liz Ashurst, manager of the Subject Centre for Modern Languages at the University of Southampton. "And if all we can speak is English, all we'll understand from others is what they want us to hear."

Ashurst adds that studying languages doesn't necessarily mean staggering under the weighty tomes of Goethe and Molière. "There is a huge variety of ways to study language at university," she says. "You can specialise in the politics of your chosen country or in linguistics or film. You can combine your language with another subject such as law or business or psychology."

And, for many linguists, there's another important factor: the sheer enjoyment of mastering another tongue and the draw of living abroad for a whole academic year. "The gap year is so popular at the moment, but people don't seem to realise that they can go abroad as part of their degree," says Teresa Tinsley. "This makes for a much more structured approach to the year. Fewer students teach English on their year abroad; these days more are going to study at foreign universities or doing paid work experience placements."

Professor Head says if you have an affinity for languages, then exploit it – for the satisfaction you'll gain, as well as with an eye to future profit. "If you pursue subjects you enjoy, you have a better time. A lot of students today find themselves doing what they feel they ought to do rather than what they enjoy."

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