'Language skills have given me focus and direction'

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The Independent Online

'I really love the independence this work gives me'

Zahara, 39, is a freelance interpreter working in London. (Her name has been changed to protect her identity.)

During a spell living and working in Kenya before moving to London in 1995, Zahara, a native Somalian, had learned Swahili in addition to her native Bravan (a dialect of Somali). Having devoted herself to her three young children for a number of years, she decided to learn how to interpret professionally – something she'd had a taste of when helping her family to access local services like hospitals and schools.

Zahara joined a London Development Agency-funded course delivered by Making Training Work, which enabled her to develop her customer service and professional interpreting techniques. The training gave her a huge boost in confidence. Since 2008, she has progressed to work through interpreting agencies in Romford, Dagenham and Newham.

Zahara has found she needs to react quickly to interpreting assignments in both Swahili and her native Bravan. Clients frequently need help the same day, and there may be little or no briefing before she gets there. Working across different parts of London, there's also a lot of travelling involved. But she has no regrets.

"I really love the independence this work gives me. I've learned new things about schools, housing and healthcare that have proved really useful, and it's nice to have such frequent contact with people from different backgrounds. It's been a huge change in my life."

'I get a real buzz from using the language'

Claire Taylor, 21, is a waitress at the Novotel restaurant in Leeds.

"Mum, I want to work in Tokyo," is not something British parents hear every day. Those that do could be forgiven for dismissing it as a phase. But Claire Taylor was serious, and is well on the way to achieving her ambition.

Taylor went to Queen Mary's High School in Walsall, a specialist language college. One of only 20 schools in the country offering Japanese at A-level, they also gave students the chance to visit Japan on an exchange. Ten days in the country and Taylor knew she'd want to go back.

She is now studying Japanese at the University of Leeds, and also works as a team member in the Leeds Novotel restaurant. The hotel encourages languages skills. "I get a real buzz from using the language with Japanese guests," she says. "They're so relieved to see the Japanese flag on my badge. Just helping them to understand the menu can make such a difference."

Her long-term goal is to work in international trade and is helping the hotel to market itself to Japanese tour companies. She makes it seems easy, but isn't Japanese difficult? "It's really difficult. You need to be very committed to the learning process, but the rewards in the end are huge. You don't meet many native English speakers with Japanese, do you? Well that's what I'll have when I look for work in Tokyo next year. I can't wait."

'I need to get across deep knowledge in French'

Eric Thompson, 38, is a guide working for Blue Badge Guides, London.

You might say Eric Thompson was born to be a tour guide: 6ft 3ins (no need for the brolly held aloft) with a voice that carries across courtyards and galleries, he has enjoyed leading tour groups since picking up part-time work during his Masters degree. He studied French at school and university (gathering a smattering of Spanish and Italian along the way) and ended up in publishing. But with no obvious use for his French at work, he got involved in international tour management on a full-time basis.

One assignment saw him showing French ministry of defence staff around HMS Victory in Portsmouthocal naval facilities. It is his enthusiasm for facts, figures and history which sets him apart.

Thompson is now working as a Blue Badge Guide in London, using French and English. It takes immense dedication to qualify – three days a week for the best part of two years. Trainees spend time in the classroom and on-site at tourist destinations.

"Qualifying to do this job was one of the hardest things I have ever done," says Thompson. "You need to be able to get across detailed knowledge – in both languages – and react quickly to difficult situations, remaining calm and patient. Imagine leading 40 overseas visitors through the underground at rush hour, and you'll begin to get the picture."

'Close relationships mean understanding cultures'

Lynne Hamlyn, 56, works in sales for Centrax Gas Turbines, Newton Abbot.

When Lynne Hamlyn was 19, she went to Spain and stayed for 12 years, working for an insurance company serving ex-pat communities in Mallorca. On her return to the UK, she quickly saw how attractive her fluent Spanish was to British companies.

Centrax, a manufacturer of gas turbine generator sets, needed a switchboard operator who could converse with Spanish clients. Lynne fitted the bill perfectly, and was quickly drawn to the export sales aspect, where language skills are just as vital. She soon went to work in the sales office, and now uses not only her Spanish but the Italian that she has learned in evening classes paid for by the company. A typical day involves working on newsletters – in English and Spanish – as well as preparing quotations and answering emails. Overseas trade shows also give Lynne the chance to use her languages to win over clients.

Centrax's market already spans the whole of Europe, with Russia and India becoming increasingly important. So what's the secret to winning overseas sales? "We like to build close relationships with our customers and that means understanding their culture," says Hamlyn. "Socially it can be so easy to get it wrong, so it's important to take time to get to know less familiar cultures, like Malaysia and Algeria."