Speaking languages will open up your future

If you want to create the right impression, don't be tongue-tied, says Dan Poole

Passport? Check. Plane tickets? Check. Toothbrush? Check. Foreign language? Pardon? When you're packing travel essentials for a visit abroad, being able to speak the language of the country you're visiting isn't necessarily first on the list. You might assume that you'll manage by speaking English, but in fact 75 per cent of the world's population won't be able to understand you. Even if they do, you'll be missing out, because being able to speak to people in their own language opens up all sorts of possibilities. You will learn a lot more about a country's culture and, because you are making the effort, you will invariably have the goodwill of the people you talk to. They are more likely to want to help you and, crucially, you'll understand what they're telling you when they do!

Vicky Wright, director of the centre for language study at the University of Southampton, says: "Students tell me that learning a language means finding out more about yourself by learning about others. Those who have been on a year abroad come back saying that they look at their lives in the UK through new eyes."

Studying a language isn't just about learning how to read, write and speak it; skills such as negotiating, analysing and presenting are transferable skills for many careers. Leyla Berksoy, 20, is in her first year of studying Turkish at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. She has enjoyed the different subjects she's covering in her degree: "I studied Turkish culture and advanced translation from English to Turkish this year, and next year I'll be doing literature and hopefully some history too. There are students from all types of different backgrounds so it's interesting to hear their views about Turkey, and we have some interesting discussions."

What's more, learning a language is good for your brainpower. Researchers at University College London found that learning a language alters grey matter - the part of your brain responsible for processing information - in the same way that physical exercise builds up your muscles. Scientists have already shown that the brain can change its structure as a result of stimulation and learning languages is a way of developing this.

Learning a language is a smart move when it comes to your career prospects too. UK graduates in modern languages have been to shown to have one of the lowest unemployment rates, and that's because over 60 per cent of UK trade is with non-English speaking countries but only 1 in 10 UK workers can speak a foreign language. Michael Hutt, dean of languages at SOAS, says: "If the career market is full of people with a BA in economics, then somebody with a BA in economics and Hindi will stand out. It shows the ability to think beyond your immediate cultural and linguistic assumptions."

While there are obvious careers for graduates with language skills to go into - translating or interpreting for example - it can be an advantage across the board. Many companies operate on a global scale and communication is an important element in any industry. Banking, computing, journalism, marketing, travel and tourism are all areas where a modern language will speak volumes on your CV. This variety is also apparent in the subjects you can combine a language with for a joint honours degree; economics, management, music, physics, IT and engineering, to name just a few.

Many degrees offer the exciting option of studying abroad for a year, and not necessarily just language degrees. History students, for example, might take the opportunity of having some work experience in another country, having done a specially tailored language course beforehand. Otherwise, you can invariably study a foreign language as a credited module within whatever degree you are doing, or you could choose to study a language separate to your degree.

That's what Mark Lee is doing. He's 23 and a master of engineering student in his fourth year, studying electronics at the University of Southampton. He's also taking a beginners' course in German at the centre of language studies. It means an increased workload but he says: "English is often the common language in international engineering but if you want to form close partnerships with the people you're working with, speaking their language is a big step towards that."

Above all, learning a language is fun, and you shouldn't be daunted by the idea that you have to understand it inside out and back-to-front. "We have something in our psyche that says if we're speaking a foreign language we have to speak it perfectly," says Isabella Moore, director of the National Centre for Languages (CILT). "But you don't! You can get by with communicating in a foreign country by just having a basic knowledge. Of course there are different levels of competence but it's about having the confidence to come out of your comfort zone." A one-way ticket out of the comfort zone it is then!

Further information

The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS)

There is an easy-to-use course search facility where you can type in the language you would like to study and read a list of the universities that offer it at undergraduate level

The National Centre for Languages (CILT)

This Government-recognised site has information on training and learning and links to language publications and services

Languages Work

Find out why learning a foreign language is such a good idea!

Advice and information on working abroad, long- or short-term.

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