Why there's a growing demand for linguists

Undergraduates may be snubbing language courses, but there's a fluent future for those who don't, says Tim Walker

Few employers would argue that linguists are not a boon to their workforce. CILT, the national centre for languages, recently established the "languages work" website, which demonstrates to linguists and prospective linguists the value of their languages.

"Any career you care to mention you can practice in an international arena," says Teresa Tinsley, CILT's assistant director of communications.

"British graduates are competing in a global jobs market with multilingual people from other countries. Companies aren't looking for specific nationalities; they're looking for people who can do the job, and languages are assets for any potential recruit."

CILT's recent survey found that translators are most in demand in the finance, IT and law professions, reflecting the international reach of those sectors, but, as Tinsley argues, "Languages are also useful for any job that involves interfacing with the public - sales and marketing, customer service and so on. Those aren't necessarily graduate jobs, but they are useful ways for graduates to get started in work using their languages."

By the same token, any graduate recruit to a multinational company may find that a language allows them to move more freely through the ranks. "One case study we have for the languages work project is a lady who moved from Motorola's offices in Cheshire to their office in France," Tinsley explains. "She had an electronic engineering degree, but had studied French for GCSE."

The UK languages community are concerned by the decline in numbers on university language degrees, and by the vast discrepancy between the numbers of Erasmus exchange students from the UK (around 7,000 a year and falling) and those from other EU countries such as France and Spain (around 20,000 each a year).

As many young people of other nationalities also speak English, British graduates are at a distinct disadvantage in the international workplace without a second language. "If someone doesn't have experience of living and working in another country, then they don't have that edge," says Tinsley. "Eighteen-year-olds will be at a huge advantage in three years' time if they take a language at university. Thankfully, there has been a huge increase in demand for language modules and extra-curricular language courses that people take with their degrees."

The demand for linguists in business reflects the current export market, which means that British businesses are still looking for French and German speakers, with Spanish increasing in popularity. Chinese is likely to be the vital business language of the future.

Linguists can, however, make a niche for themselves by speaking a less popular emergent language. Tinsley says, "The job pages reflect growth in Vietnamese, Turkish, Korean, languages from the larger Eastern European countries, such as Poland, and Arabic - not necessarily for business, but for international relations."

Middle Eastern languages are becoming more popular, for obvious and slightly less obvious reasons. Controversial proposals to hold terror suspects for up to 90 days are partly due to the need for translation of material evidence, and the police actively recruit linguists for community work. In the media sphere, the BBC World Service recently announced that it is launching an Arabic television news channel, which many see as a reaction to al-Jazeera's planned English language channel.

One major employer with a particular current interest in Middle Eastern and African languages is Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), a vital arm of the intelligence and security services. GCHQ takes on an average of 30 or 40 linguists each year - with a wide range of different languages - to work on everything from translation of text to writing reports and liaising with other government departments and the military.

Echoing CILT's concerns, GCHQ has found that the reduction in college teaching of rare languages means it is unable to take on so many linguists with immediately usable languages. Instead, it intensively trains competent language learners in new languages once they have joined.

A bonus for multilingual recruits is that they merely need to demonstrate their fluency in a foreign language - few employers, and certainly not GCHQ, will demand a specific language qualification.

"We are looking for recruits from a wide range of backgrounds," explains Scott Harvey, head of languages at GCHQ, "including language graduates and native speakers."

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