Tim Connell: Learn a language and talk yourself into a job

From a talk by the Professor of Languages at City University to the Nuffield Language Inquiry into employment in London
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It seems generally accepted today that languages are a good thing. "Ooh, it must be lovely to speak French like that," people say, overlooking the fact that there is nothing quite like an evening class or two (there is never one very far away) and that you can do worse for a holiday than go to somewhere nice for a short intensive language course. (In France, they are easy to find – just go to the local off-licence, find the appellation contrôlée of your choice and then look up the local university on something like www.franceguide.com)

Much has been made of how bad the English are at languages. It has almost become a mark of cultural identity, like being good losers at cricket. And yet our classes fill up every autumn (coming back from holiday always puts people in a solemn frame of mind), and we have a hard core of students who come back every year – not because they see a purpose in learning a language, but because it has become an activity in its own right.

The reasons people give on enrolment are fairly predictable – travel, work or family. When asked about work, students are rarely explicit: during the recession of the early 1990s in the City, large numbers of people used their redundancy money to come on retraining courses. The demand was overwhelmingly for computing skills and languages. It was clear that people were not necessarily planning to go to work in France, Germany or Japan – they simply thought a language would make them more attractive to employers.

I also like to think that they found our language classes somehow therapeutic, worthwhile and enjoyable at the same time, in the same way as our full-time students come to a language class as an antidote to hours of number-crunching on screen.

But then languages cover a whole range of key skills that go beyond simply being able to talk in foreign. Students develop complex communication skills: how to listen closely and respond correctly; how to follow a set of paradigms and identify exceptions; how to express yourself clearly and get other people to do what you want; perhaps even how to sort out a problem and talk yourself out of a corner.

Languages are not just a vehicle for use abroad; increasingly we all find ourselves working in a multilingual and multicultural environment. It makes an enormous difference to be able to respond when the phone rings and some lost soul asks whether anyone there speaks German or Polish or whatever (and it is surprising nowadays how often someone does – especially the whatever).

Colleagues who spend the whole day working in English chirp up when someone stops for a chat or simply makes the effort to say something in their home language. And it can be rewarding, as I have found when learning about Mauritian patois by talking to staff in our post room.

Undoubtedly there is a demand for languages by employers. Increasingly, we are working for companies that are not just UK-based, and certainly not wholly UK-owned. Everyone agrees that English is the language of business, the lingua franca when executives meet from more than one country. Equally, people can feel resentful when they all have to switch to English because of one person; they may feel more comfortable dealing with someone who knows something about their country and has taken the trouble to spend a bit of time learning the local language. And to have a staff made up of monoglots is not good for company brand image.

Which may be why employers are increasingly using language skills as a tie-breaker at job interviews. Which is one reason why the new European language portfolios are to be welcomed: people will have to think about what they know, plan what they ought to learn and be able to show employers precisely how much they can do. I am sure there is a language centre near you. Why not give them a ring?