'I can't imagine a future without my languages'
Alex Rawlings, 21, won a 2012 competition to find the UK's most multilingual student. The Oxford University student works as a language ambassador for Collins Language.
"I couldn't believe it when I won Harper Collins' competition. There was this crazy week when I was doing lots of interviews. I hadn't realised my abilities were unusual. I speak 11 languages – English, Greek, German, Spanish, Russian, Dutch, Afrikaans, French, Hebrew, Catalan and Italian. As my mother is half-Greek, that became my second language from a young age. Then my dad moved to Japan for work when I was four and that introduced me to other languages. I met people from other places and wanted to be able to talk to them. I can remember thinking, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to talk to anyone anywhere?'
I got A*s for the languages I took at GCSE and A-level and I'm now at Oxford University, studying German and Russian. I chose Russian because I wanted the challenge of a new language. I chose German because I'd like to do a Masters there and in the current economy, Germany is one of the only countries with jobs.
My year out was life-changing. I was in a regional town in Russia for eight months. Every day was fascinating. I arrived unable to ask for a glass of water and left understanding TV shows. There was no choice other than immersion because nobody speaks English. I then spent six weeks in an internship in Berlin at the Greek Embassy. I spent a lot of time translating from German to Greek, which was challenging.
I'm not sure exactly what I want to do career-wise. But I'm working part-time as a language ambassador, and I couldn't imagine my future without languages. They constantly open up opportunities. I feel sorry for my non-lingual friends who are opting for some graduate schemes they're not interested in just because there's nothing else on offer."
'I get to go to parts of Russia I've never even heard of'
Sarah Gale, 37, is an executive secretary for St Gregory's Foundation, a charity which changes the lives of vulnerable young people in Russia.
"I get to use my Russian on a daily basis. That's not just on the phone – I also travel regularly to St Petersburg and off the beaten track to small towns and villages further north to visit projects we support, helping orphanage- leavers, young disabled people and disadvantaged youngsters.
For me, the job is perfect. I get to go to parts of Russia that I'd never have visited and, in many cases, even heard of. I also get to meet inspiring people – real innovators and people with unbelievable energy. The charity sector in Russia is quite new, on account of charities not having been allowed in Soviet times, so it requires a kind of pioneering approach that you don't get so much in the UK sector.
As a child, I was always fascinated by foreign lands. I can remember being interested in the Greek alphabet. Like most people, I had the opportunity to learn French and German at secondary school. Then, when I was 13, our school introduced Russian. We had a great teacher, which was fortunate as the grammar was so hard!
A couple of years later, an ex-pupil came back to our school who had lived in Russia and she put me in touch with a girl who was looking for a pen-friend. I started writing to her and she wound up asking my whole family to come and stay with her, which we did.
I loved it and went on to study French and Russian at Cambridge University and volunteered for the charity I now work for. I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do when I left university. Some of my friends went to work in the City, but I knew that wasn't for me, so I went back to Russia to teach English for eight months while I thought about my future and then returned to work in publishing. It was a wonderful job, but sadly didn't involve speaking Russian. So when the person who ran this charity prepared to retire and they asked me to take over, I absolutely jumped at the chance.
We are a small charity. In fact, I'm the only employee in the UK, so it's essential that I speak Russian and understand the culture. It's a fantastic job that includes getting involved with all the different projects that we support, talking through their plans and working out how best to support them. I'm also a fundraiser and I co-ordinate the volunteers. I feel very lucky to be doing this job."
'It enables me to build up people's trust'
Diane Bouzebiba, 53, is MD (UK and Ireland) of Amadeus, a travel technology and transaction processing company.
"I'm naturally very curious and hate not being able to understand people. That's what has always attracted me to languages. I studied French at university and particularly enjoyed my year in Paris where I started to communicate with people. Later, when I lived in Algeria, I learned Arabic so that I could get close to the people there, too.
Back in those days, the 1980s, languages were seen as no more than a nice-to-have. I can remember when I told my father I'd decided to study French at university, he said, 'Fine, but what real studies are you going to do?' So I combined it with management studies.
That view has changed dramatically. While, like in many international companies, our overall working language remains English, the ability to speak other languages as well is where you can really make a difference. In an increasingly competitive marketplace, I believe that's the case more than ever.
So, for example, when I was based in the south of France for 11 years, I could have got by speaking English. But speaking French enabled me to understand how the people I worked with tick. It enabled me to build up people's trust and have a common cultural experience. Ultimately, it ensured I got the best out of people and I have no doubt it helped me reach my current position, where my key role and responsibility is to build up local relationships with the people in our markets and explain the global network solutions that we have on offer worldwide.
An example of where not speaking the language of people I worked with went against me is when I inherited a team in Germany. I don't speak German and made the biggest boo-boo culturally by copying a local manager in on an email I sent to a staff member. That's what we did in Britain, but in German culture, the act as good as said: 'I don't trust you and so I'll copy in your manager just in case.' It took me three months to unravel why people in the German team were being aggressive towards me.
I believe the study of languages is proof of open-mindedness and a keenness to go far in a global market. After all, at university, you don't just study a language – you study the literature and the culture. I'm always impressed when I see a language on a CV."
'I interpreted for Cristiano Ronaldo'
Marc Starr, 39, is a freelance translator and interpreter.
"When José Kléberson moved to Manchester United it was my job to chaperone him. As a Brazilian player, he needed someone to help him on a day-to-day basis. It was about so much more than just interpreting his words – it was also helping him settle in. That's when cultural knowledge comes in. Having spent a lot of time in Brazil myself, I was able to see this country through his eyes.
Around the same time, Cristiano Ronaldo arrived and I worked with him too. When he did promotional work I was sometimes called in to interpret. I also interpreted for him for a couple of interviews.
I've always loved languages, having studied French from the age of six. At 14, I started to learn Spanish too and later, at university, I studied Portuguese as part of my degree in Ibero-American studies. The course gave me language tuition and cultural knowledge, but it was my year out in Brazil when my skills really came on. I got involved with everything local that I could – reading books in the language, playing drums with Brazilian people and so on – and that paid off.
After university, I used my language skills to do some journalism, then I worked for a travel agent. Three years later, I returned to Brazil for six months and it was that trip that took me from degree level to interpreter level. I took a diploma in public service interpreting and became a court and police interpreter, then did the equivalent qualification in translating and have worked on a freelance basis interpreting and translating ever since. I’m also a qualified member of The Institute of Translation and Interpreting and my membership allows me to connect with other industry professionals as well as helping me develop my career through continuing professional development.
While the sport side of my work is obviously exciting, I get more adrenaline when I'm in an interpreting booth at a business conference. I also really enjoy translating. The subject areas are varied, so one week I am given something to do with the environment and the next week, I'm translating a legal document detailing a dispute. Sometimes I'm working on several different projects at once. In many ways, I view the translating as a kind of glorified work puzzle because of all the research and detective work involved."