Oxford University's Julie Curtis and Katrin Kohl discuss how foreign language studies can lead to career opportunities at home and overseas

Why study languages?

English has become established as the lingua franca of business, diplomacy and travel ­ so why should English speakers bother to learn foreign languages? The main reason is that languages give an insight into cultural diversity. They're crucial in overcoming misunderstandings, prejudice and ignorance of other cultures.

British business has the worst language skills in Europe, with companies losing millions of pounds every year because employees cannot speak their customers' languages. While other European countries treat high-level competence in English and other languages as a basic skill, the number of British linguists in the sixth form has dropped dramatically. Nine out of 10 stop learning languages at 16, university language departments are contracting or even closing, and there is a critical shortage of language teachers.

A coherent approach

2001 was designated the European Year of Languages. Thousands of events have been organised to raise awareness of the importance of languages. Participation in the UK has been encouraging, with schools and universities showcasing their activities and celebrating their achievements. Conferences, drama productions and a "language race" have demonstrated that language learning is still very much alive.

Meanwhile, policy-makers are considering a more coherent approach to language skills, although there's still a long way to go, according to the Nuffield Languages Inquiry. Language colleges have been set up, with additional funding to promote language learning. Their experiences will influence policy-making. The literacy strategy should create a broader understanding of language and a greater interest in communication.

Language teaching methodology has been straitjacketed in recent years. Policy has often been based on the false assumption that adults learn foreign languages in the same way that a child learns its native tongue. The Oxford Modern Languages Forum was set up to bring schoolteachers, university teachers and policy-makers together to discuss research, identify needs and explore ways for schools and universities to address the current crisis. The chair, Gillian Shephard MP, has been asked by the Government to explore what can be done to increase participation and raise standards in language learning.

A competitive advantage

The dearth of language skills in the UK is good news for anyone who wants to study languages ­ the ratio of applicants to places is currently more favourable for modern languages than any other subject area. Employment rates for graduates in modern languages are among the highest (see box) as languages graduates are needed as translators, interpreters and teachers, and in various other sectors, ranging from law and marketing to the catering trade.

Language skills may be a crucial qualification that enhance prospects in journalism, politics, administration or financial services. As Roger Hirst, an international investment banker, explained at an event for the European Day of Languages: "If job applicants haven't got a language skill, they're not even going to get an interview."

Transferable skills

Modern languages graduates are not successful just because of their language competence. They often have the edge when it comes to key skills.

The maturity and experience a Modern Languages graduate gains during a year abroad ­ working as an assistant in a school, going to a foreign university or gaining career experience ­ can prove invaluable. For many, this taste of foreign culture is the deciding factor that makes them seek jobs abroad.

The right course

Courses range from vocational, geared towards translating and interpreting, through to academic, which develop language skills in the context of a broad introduction to the history and culture of a country. You can focus your degree on one or two languages, combine a language with another subject, or take a language module as part of another course. Visit www.ucas.com and check out websites of individual language departments.

Don't assume that a university course will offer the type of language learning you have had at school. Often sixth-formers think they don't want their language course to include literature but later find that they gain an enjoyable insight into a national culture while developing reading skills and their understanding of communicative strategies. Learning languages is a challenge and it's hard work. But it's worth the effort!