The joys of being bilingual

Learning another language has many benefits apart from aiding research

John Morgan is in the first year of a PhD on environmental history. He faces the challenges confronting most postgraduate students, from managing time to getting the research done. But there’s an added difficulty. “German historians are currently publishing lots on natural disasters and the environment in early modern Europe,” he says. “I’m keen to engage with this literature, but the vast majority is in German.”

Not a German-speaker himself, Morgan, who studies at Warwick University, is following a course at the institution’s language centre to help his research and get his language skills up to speed. “It’s tough going, but I think I’m getting somewhere. Because I’m a total novice, I’m not yet able to read German fluently. But that is my goal. I think it’s worthwhile.”

He’s not alone in this ambition. Some universities report increasing numbers of students looking to learn extra language skills, and classes are offered with postgraduate programmes at institutions up and down the country, often in bespoke language centres. “People learn differently: some want to be at home, some in a dedicated language learning space,” explains Paul Barnes, of the university of Bournemouth. Students can study on site at the university’s language centre, but there is also a virtual learning environment for remote study as well as audio and video programmes. “Our staff can advise on programmes to follow, or students can devise their own,” he says.

Rather than offering academic qualifications, these courses are aimed at non-specialist language learners “who want to pick up skills in addition to their studies,” says Barnes. “Studying a language is open to all students. It’s not part of their degree, but is recognised by us as being an important part of the university experience.”

Depending on the university, courses may simply reward students with improved skills, while others offer some kind of formal recognition. At Warwick or LSE, for example, students follow Lifelong Language Learning or Modern Foreign Language Certificate Course programmes respectively, with graduates receiving certificates for completing a set number of hours of study. The cost depends on the institution. Some of the courses are free; others cost several hundred pounds.

As well as on-campus courses, students can choose online schools, CDbased lessons or podcasts to help them  learn. “You can learn effectively by almost any means, as long as you use the right method,” says Sylke Riester, director for Europe at the language learning provider Rosetta Stone. “A complete immersion approach with a strong emphasis on developing communicative skills is the most effective method.”

Fitting language learning into a demanding postgraduate study schedule can be hard, but Barnes believes that Masters students are well placed to rise to the challenge. “I think they have a better understanding of the importance of it [than undergraduates] and perhaps a more mature attitude to independent study generally,” he says.

For those who make the effort, there are many benefits to learning a language. One of them, says Nick Byrne of the LSE, where about 800 postgraduate students take language as an extra study option annually, is the boost to their academic output. “They’re able to access far more resources than just articles written in English, and can also connect better with academics in other countries.

“There are also all the transferable skills you pick up when studying a language,” he continues. “Communication, intercultural awareness… it’s far more than just language in itself.” 

The learning process can improve students’ abilities in other areas, too. “Learning a language is actually more a cognitive problem-solving activity than a linguistic activity,” says Riester. “The process of learning a language activates the brain in ways that benefit us in learning many other things.”

In practice that might mean becoming a better communicator in English, for example; it can also help with the formal side of academia. “Learning a foreign language can improve students’ awareness of register, formality and so on,” says Barnes. “It’s useful for academic writing.”

And according to Evan Stewart, director of Warwick university’s language centre, as well as enhancing your mental flexibility, creativity and higher-order thinking skills, those extra language skills can benefit your career prospects. “Of course, it’s more valuable in some workplaces and environments than it is in others, but it clearly represents to prospective employers that you are someone who will actively seek out challenges and also that you have an aptitude for picking up new skills.”

He adds that CBI figures (from 2011 Education and Skills surveys) suggest that, for some employers, competence in a second language is hugely beneficial in the interview process regardless of whether it is a requirement of the position. Riester agrees. “It’s not about being fluent in a language: three out of four of employers say that they are interested in basic ‘conversational ability’. In competitive times, graduates and professionals alike must seek to improve their career prospects by acquiring new skills and refining existing ones to stand out in the application process.”

And in an increasingly global workplace, the cultural understanding that comes from learning languages can be just as useful as a nifty turn of phrase with the language itself. “The majority of young people in a Masters programme today can expect either to work abroad or to come into contact with non-English-speaking clients or business partners,” says Riester.

Finally, apart from the academic and professional benefits, learning another language can be intellectually satisfying in itself. “Many simply enjoy the experience,” says Stewart. “Language can open doors into areas of interest that perhaps would otherwise remain undiscovered, and can prove reinvigorating as a different challenge to the main body of work that a student is completing.”

John Morgan certainly believes that his language classes will lead to a better thesis, but he also enjoys the variety they bring to his academic life. “It’s totally different from my PhD work. There are classes and homework, which can be instantly rewarding,” he says. “It exercises parts of my brain I’d forgotten I had, and it certainly won’t hinder my career prospects!”

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