Britons have always been famously bad at languages, yet a command of a foreign tongue has long been valued by the British government. Several hundred years ago, London was keen to recruit Turkish speakers in order to keep tabs on the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. These days, Farsi or Chechen speakers might be more in demand, but the principle remains the same. Linguists are essential to the smooth working of many government departments and agencies, and are particularly valued in the covert world of the intelligence services.
"Being a linguist says a lot about you as a person," says Teresa Tinsley at the National Centre for Languages, Cilt. "An international perspective is highly valued; it's not just about the language skills." And cultural awareness – combined with languages – is essential in much government work, be it in shaping European environmental policy, gathering intelligence, or helping UK nationals abroad.
While worldwide demand for the likes of Arabic, Russian and Mandarin is growing, central government still requires more commonly taught European languages. French remains an official language of many European bodies and, in some cases, the Government trains linguists in rarer languages according to demand. There are 23 official languages spoken in the EU and the Foreign Office deals with about 80 languages and dialects in total. "If you've learnt one language to a high level, you can acquire another," says Tinsley.
Routes into government and agencies vary from the centrally controlled civil service to individual recruitment by intelligence agencies. This year sees the return of the Civil Service's European Fast Stream, suspended in 2007. This is the only arm of Civil Service recruitment to specify a language requirement for applicants. High flyers with a minimum C grade in A-level French or German can apply via the Civil Service website until the end of November. Ten successful candidates will be posted in government departments with a strong European focus, and will then be encouraged to compete with counterparts from elsewhere in Europe to find work within European institutions, such as parliament and the commission. To do so, they must take the "concours", the EU's stringent recruitment tests, which are conducted in French and German. "It's competitive... but we'll help enhance your languages in preparation for the tests," says Margaret Prythergch, chief assessor of the European Fast Stream. "It would be good to see more candidates with other subjects as well as a language," she adds. "This is standard in the rest of Europe." Salaries begin in line with other Civil Service fast-stream posts at £25,000 to £27,000.
While most fast stream diplomatic recruits to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) aren't language graduates, having a language in hand is certainly a bonus. All FCO employees take a language aptitude test when they join. Before any overseas posting, diplomatic staff will be given full-time, intensive training in the relevant language – sometimes up to 15 months for languages such as Vietnamese, Japanese, Mandarin or Arabic. But don't underestimate the importance of more commonplace languages such as French or Spanish, says Marta Nunez, head of language policy and the standards team at the Foreign Office. She deals with some 15 schools and universities across London, and immersion centres all over the world to co-ordinate language training for diplomatic staff. "Learning how to speak to media, how to listen to media, what to say in meetings or just knowing how to make small talk is all so important for a diplomat," she says. "They have to have the right social skills." At all levels, staff and spouses of those working abroad will receive some sort relevant language tuition before a posting. "Opportunities for training are fantastic," says Nunez.
By far the biggest government employer of linguists is the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) at Cheltenham, where nearly 300 language analysts monitor electronic communications worldwide. Recruits must have two European languages to degree level or similar, or a single, rarer language such as an Afghan or African dialect. Unsurprisingly, since GCHQ can only recruit British citizens, it struggles to find candidates fluent in these languages. Speakers of French and German and other European languages still form the backbone of the staff, and they might be trained in rarer languages. GCHQ routinely covers some 40 languages from Arabic to Zulu, and has a capacity for about 70 different tongues. The agency recruits through its website; candidates can expect a good grilling and rigorous language tests, but aren't expected to have qualifications beyond degree level or equivalent. "We also won't turn away candidates with rarer languages, though, just because their knowledge is rusty," says Chris Hughes, head of language externals and engagement.
Staff work in teams of between six and 100 linguists and focus on areas such as counter-terrorism, organised crime, or geographical groupings. Most of the work is passive – transcribing or translating electronic communications. Language analysts are expected to be experts in the subject matter or country they specialise in, and will filter and highlight information that might be sent on to the military and other government departments. So, above all, GCHQ wants people who have good analytical skills too, says Hughes. "Often the language analyst will lead a team or at least have a senior role. You need to be able to read between the lines of information and have a good cultural awareness." Salaries start at about £24,500.
The Government's two other intelligence agencies, MI5 and MI6, also known as the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS), are bound by the same strict nationality laws as GCHQ. Recruitment notoriously used to take the form of a quiet word from university tutors, but both agencies now advertise openly through their websites, and have even been known to attend careers fairs and advertise in newspapers. SIS recruits and trains language specialists who serve as translators and interpreters based in London. "After completing my probation year, I was offered the opportunity to learn a new, non-European language – every linguist's dream," writes Lucy, a graduate in French and Spanish, who joined SIS as a language specialist. "I have already had occasion to use my new language within the service, which was very interesting and motivating." MI5 runs a language unit and is currently searching for speakers of Somali, Pashto, African languages, Russian and Chechen, among others. "An in-depth knowledge and understanding of a variety of communities, cultures and languages isn't just an advantage, it can be absolutely critical," explains MI5 on its website.
Other parts of government all need to draw on language skills and will recruit as appropriate. For example, the Ministry of Defence's need is obvious, both within the military and Whitehall, while the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has many staff working in Brussels on a wealth of European policies. See individual websites for further information.
"Having a language is never a disadvantage," says a spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office. But they're only part of the picture, and should complement other skills and experience rather than stand alone in order to impress government recruiters. "I often hear complaints from graduates: 'I've got these languages and I can't get a job'," says Tinsley, "but languages need to be part of a wider skill set."Reuse content