It's good to talk: How being multi-lingual can boost your career

In the multilingual, globalised workplace, knowledge of another language can provide a wealth of opportunities – and boost your salary by as much as 20 per cent

Dominic Luddy
Thursday 23 October 2008 00:00 BST

The world is more connected than ever. You see it in the media, on the internet, in sport, even in the turbulent world of finance. Businesses are constantly looking for new countries to sell to. But are foreign language skills still essential in 21st century communications? Don't we all speak English? Will languages really bring you more opportunities?

Given that 75 per cent of the world's population doesn't speak our language, English is not enough. It's a multilingual world and UK businesses are now realising that they need foreign languages to compete when trading internationally. It helps to speak languages over here as well. More than 300 languages are spoken in the UK, and millions of visitors come to our shores. Public services and the tourist industry need languages too.

This doesn't mean that you need to learn to speak the language fluently. There is room for all levels, and openings from the switchboard to the boardroom. Although fluency will give you more options, basic ability in languages is in demand as businesses look to break the ice with a few phrases in a meeting.

Speaking languages gives you the key to a whole new world. According to recruitment agencies, languages can even help you earn between 8 and 20 per cent more in your job. Jobs involving languages can be attractive. You might get to travel overseas or take on new responsibilities simply because you have the right patter.

Practically any job can involve languages, whether it's based in the UK or abroad. Online businesses, multinational organisations, exporters and public service organisations are common recruiters of people with languages for areas like credit control, journalism, technical assistance, engineering and voluntary work.

Languages may be less central to these careers and are no substitute for specific qualifications or training. But it could be virtually impossible to do the job well without an effective working knowledge of the language – for example if an IT assistant is dealing with computer owners in different countries.

Specialist language occupations, on the other hand, such as interpreting, translation and language teaching, usually require postgraduate qualifications. These are seen as traditional jobs for linguists, but they are truly modern in scope. Telephone interpreting allows instant communication around the world and websites need linguists to help them reach their global audiences.

Looking to the future, the world's biggest show will see linguists in a huge range of jobs. The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will create opportunities in the media, dealing with press from the 205 countries involved. Visitors need to be welcomed at the venues. Services have to be communicated to the thousands of athletes travelling around the country and living in the athletes' village. So you can imagine the demand for interpreters and translators in the build-up to the games. There's also the small matter of 70,000 volunteers required, many of whom will require language skills.

If you still need to brush up your language skills before putting in that job application, it's good to know you've got options. If you are not one of the millions of British residents lucky enough to be brought up speaking another language at home, be sure to take a language GCSE or A-level at school. Other, more vocational, language study options may be on offer too. A new diploma in languages will be rolled out across England from 2011 which will give school pupils the chance to learn about languages at work and in life.

University offers lots of choice. Become a specialist by taking two or even three languages at degree level, or take an optional module at a lower level to give you that basic knowledge that can make all the difference. There are virtually unlimited ways of combining languages with different subjects. Italian and textiles for that fashion career in Milan, anyone?

And remember, it's never too late. Languages are a popular choice for adults as they realise their value at work and in their social life. You can find courses at local schools and colleges or even use self-study materials in the comfort of your own armchair.

For advice on careers with languages, see:Languages Work Cilt, the National Centre for Languages Institute of Linguists 2012 Games

'Having a language just opens up so many doors'

Zoe Glancy, 28, works for Thomson Reuters in Tiverton, Devon

Brokers, investors and traders need the latest financial data. They don't have time to gather all the information out there, or the language knowledge to interpret it. Zoe Glancy helps them to access the data they need in words they can understand.

Since her first German exchange at school, she loved the language and kept up her study right through to university in Exeter. Glancy temped with Thomson Reuters in her summer breaks, and was eventually recruited to work as a market analyst.

Her job involves extracting key financial data from German language sources and translating it into English. The information is then fed into Thomson Reuters' financial products, which keep busy workers up to date with markets worldwide.

Glancy covers Switzerland, Austria and Germany, and she really enjoys the multicultural atmosphere in the Devon office. Her colleagues speak over 20 different languages. Many employees are taken on primarily for their languages, and then trained in finance.

"Having a language just opens up so many doors," she says. "There's this outdated idea that you can only be a translator or an interpreter, working in London. That's so far from the truth."

'Attention to detail is crucial – and perseverance is too'

Raph McCreadie, 36, works for TT Games, Slough

Raph McCreadie has loved video games since the Sinclair Spectrum came out in the Eighties. Combine this passion with experience as a software engineer – plus fluent French learned from his French mother at home – and you have the perfect candidate to work in today's global gaming industry.

Having worked for Volt Europe as games tester for the Xbox, McCreadie joined TT Games in 2008 as quality assurance lester. The smaller operation gives him more time to check the quality and accuracy of each game. TT Games' latest title is Lego Batman and McCreadie has helped with the in-game translations. To get the language right, you really have to know your stuff – so he has had to spend time reading up on the Dark Knight.

Playing games for a living sounds like great fun, but not everybody has the right skills. "Attention to detail is crucial – and perseverance is too," he says. "I have to play the game right through and test every conceivable aspect. French isn't the only foreign language we need. Italian, German, Spanish and Danish are also key. Eastern European languages and Russian are becoming more important as we break into new markets."

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