In today's world it pays to speak up

The perks of linguistic study go beyond career enhancement. They enrich society globally – and even bring health benefits

"You taught me language; and my profit on't is, I know how to curse," spits Caliban at Prospero in Act I of Shakespeare's The Tempest. "The red plague rid you for learning me your language!" While the UK's attitude towards language learning may not quite reach Caliban-like levels of disenchantment, we're not a nation known for our willingness to embrace it.

Despite our multicultural society, a CBI Education & Employer Taskforce report in November 2011 chided us for having "the worst foreign language skills in Europe". Conversely, this year's CBI/Pearson education and skills survey noted that some 73 per cent of employers consider language skills to be of value.

Clearly, there's a gap between the skills we need, and the number of people who have them. Yet learning a language has personal and professional benefits to both individuals and society at large that make it worthwhile.

"Language is at the heart of any culture," says Professor Ann Caesar of the University of Warwick's Italian department. "Everything from democracy, human rights and tolerance is sustained by language."

Language learning can come in a variety of guises. Academic study at undergraduate or postgraduate level, usually with a year spent abroad, is just one option. There are also numerous self-teaching courses that combine home study with online elements, professional courses organised by businesses and evening classes taken outside work. Some universities even offer language options alongside degree programmes, allowing non-language students to improve.

According to Professor Caesar, the key is to find the right programme for you, and to overcome the traditional perception that haunts British language-learning ambitions. "The idea that the British can't learn languages is a myth and it makes me very cross," she says firmly. "After all, we've all learned at least one language – English. The learning environment has to be sympathetic, and it is harder for some than others, but if you're not too inhibited, your skills will improve."

It's not necessary to achieve fluency in another language before your skills become useful in conversation or even attractive to employers, according to Kate Board, head of languages at CfBT Education Trust. "A basic conversational knowledge and a willingness to 'have a go' will be valued by speakers of other languages. In a work context, it may be the difference between winning or not winning a contract, or getting or not getting a job."

From an employer's perspective, Carole Donaldson, manager of resourcing at John Lewis, notes that good communication skills also demonstrate adaptability and motivation. "While not all jobs require a person to speak more than one language, having that ability shows employers that you have passion for learning."

Michael Gentle, head of consumer marketing for Monster UK & Ireland adds that language skills are vital in an increasingly global marketplace. "Many companies have offices or clients based in other countries and being able to converse in their mother tongue can be invaluable from a business development perspective – you could become a useful asset to the company with possibilities for travel."

Language skills mean more than being able to read, write, hear and converse. Acquiring a language can also lead to an increased cultural awareness that can be helpful in the workplace, whether that's understanding the different working hours of Spanish counterparts, or knowing that a child's 15th birthday is of special note in Latin America and therefore appropriate cause for a day off.

"Language and cultural learning go hand in hand," says Nick Rines, CEO of the Institute of Diplomacy & Business. "Any effort to understand etiquette is important when doing business overseas." Currently the languages most valued by businesses (according to CBI research) are German, French, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese. English may well be the current language of international business but with 75 per cent of the world's population not speaking it, relying on our mother tongue may not always be practical. This is certainly true when travelling, another area where language can be hugely useful. "The first thing that even a few words of the local language says is that you're interested in the people and culture of the place you're travelling to," says Lonely Planet's Tom Hall. "Even trying and getting it hopelessly wrong usually breaks the ice and results in smiles."

In addition to smoothing your path towards getting the nice table or even medical attention, a smattering of language can also make even the furthest reaches of the globe feel less alien. "You'll get much more out of meeting locals who'll be much more likely to extend the hand of friendship," adds Hall. "A language takes you out of the tourist bubble and gives you confidence."

A short home study course or evening class might be all a traveller needs for a weekend break, but there are also in-country options (the town of Antigua in Guatemala is a Spanish language-school hotspot, according to Hall) that offer an immersive learning experience to those who wish to stay longer. "Many travellers find it easier to learn a language while they're in the native-speaking country," says Marcus Sherifi of gapyear.com.

"If you're looking to travel extensively in or relocate to any country that doesn't have English as a native tongue, a language course will really enhance your experience," he adds.

Wherever they're studied, courses don't have to be limited to modern languages. Ancient systems of spoken and written communication still reward students in many ways, argues Dr Aaron Ralby, CEO of online language training platform Linguisticator and himself a student of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic tongues.

Knowledge of ancient languages like Latin can help students tackling Italian or Spanish, he explains, while the etymology of languages can help us understand our history, too. "We might be amazed to learn that Malagasy of Madagascar belongs to the same language family as Taiwanese, Maori, Tahitian and Hawaiian, indicating the prominence of an Austronesian culture of navigation and exploration that spanned thousands of miles."

This ripple effect of acquiring secondary benefits in addition to primary language skills can apply to all languages and all methods of instruction. Language study can be both fun and challenging, and also makes us better learners, says Board. "Language learning stimulates our ability to make connections and draw conclusions between different things learnt."

There are many important benefits away from language acquisition too, with some US studies suggesting that the mental activity associated with language study is of the problem-solving kind linked to delaying the onset of Alzheimer's disease.

There's also a strong case for personal development and furthering your understanding of English itself, says Paul Barnes, language adviser at Bournemouth University. "Even at basic levels, learning how a language clicks together makes you much more aware of how your own language works," he says. "People who are learning other languages become much better communicators in English."

For those tempted to take the plunge, the key is an immersive approach. Watching films and listening to music can help tune the brain into a language, and conversation is vital, says Sylke Riester, director for Europe at language learning provider Rosetta Stone. "What's the point of knowing all the grammar in theory if you freeze when faced with a foreigner?"

To that end, Riester recommends choosing a course that will help you converse with native speakers. But whatever the course and whatever the level of proficiency students are aiming for, the rewards are more than worth the effort you have put in.

"It's like you've just reinvented the wheel the first time you're in a bakery and you successfully manage to order everything in a different language," she says. "You'll get goosebumps – it's absolutely fantastic."

So although Caliban may not have approved, those of us not in thrall to a vengeful sorcerer have much to gain from learning languages, from career advancement to better communication skills and a few lightbulb moments when we put them to use. We might even end up knowing ourselves a little better, says Caesar in conclusion. "You change when you move into another language. Your persona alters slightly and it gives you a dimension of self-awareness, and that's no bad thing."

'We need more multilingual staff'

Maria Panagiotidou has a degree in English language and literature and a Masters in translation. She works for the language team at publishers Publicis Blueprint.

"My role is to organise and manage translation projects and liaise with freelance translators. I enjoy combining languages with management, and I'm well positioned to give advice to clients about translation problems and potential localisation problems when translating English into other languages.

I would say that now globalisation has brought together people from all over the world, through the web and social media, knowing languages is a very important asset, especially for younger generations.

From my experience, employers are more appreciative of candidates with languages in their CV, as more and more companies are becoming global and the need for multilingual staff has increased significantly. Also, through learning a language, there's more to just learning syntax and grammar rules. There's a lot to be learned about a country's culture, which I believe helps people be more open-minded and receptive to anything that's different."

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