There are pros and cons about being a native speaker of English. One advantage, of course, is the ease with which English speakers can move around the world, on holiday or on business. But a disadvantage is that it breeds laziness. Far too many of us Brits, either consciously or unconsciously, don't really bother with learning a foreign language.
The flip side, though, is that the relatively few Brits who do have a foreign language string to their bow stick out in the crowd, and consequently have far healthier career options.
"Languages give you so much more flexibility in terms of where you work and how quickly you get promotion," says Teresa Tinsley, director of communications at CILT, the Government-funded National Centre for Languages, which, among other things, provides support and career guidance to anyone who uses languages in their work.
One of Teresa Tinsley's strong beliefs is that graduates in a foreign language have far more to offer potential employers than just the ability to operate in that language.
"Language graduates need to show that through learning a language they have gained international awareness and international business awareness," she argues.
"Language learning gives you such a broad range of skills."
Employers in almost all sectors – including law, accountancy, retail and media, to name just a few – value applicants with a foreign language. Research by CILT into the job market has shown language graduates entering a range of careers. Analysis of job specifications in advertisements shows the strongest demand remains for French and German. But proficiency in Spanish, Mandarin, Portuguese, Russian and other non-European languages can also be immensely useful.
Teaching, of course, remains a well-trodden route for foreign language graduates, despite the many recent oscillations in government policy on language teaching in English state schools. When language learning was made non-compulsory at GCSE level in secondary schools seven years ago, demand for language teachers fell off. But that has been more than compensated for by the sharp rise in foreign-language teaching in primary schools, and a change to the school league tables system introduced by the coalition Government earlier this year. A new measure, known as the English Baccalaureate, has had the effect of boosting the rankings of schools where a high proportion of 16-year-olds get five good GCSEs including a foreign language.
"We are expecting a huge increase in demand for language teachers because of the English Baccalaureate," said Tinsley. "We know anecdotally that schools are already having difficulty recruiting language teachers."
Most teachers of foreign languages in English schools have a first degree in the relevant language and then do a one-year postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE) in the teacher-training department of a university. This combines generic and language-specific teaching skills, with at least a couple of months on placement in a secondary school. Another pathway leading to the same end is to spend the whole training year based in a school, on what's called the Graduate Teacher Programme. The advantage here is that you earn money from day one, but many also say that the learning curve for surviving in a classroom can be steeper and tougher.
To become a languages specialist in a primary school involves following the same route as all other primary teachers, but with extra elements of training specific to foreign language learning. The "Training to teach" section at www.cilt.org.uk has all the details.
Many graduates, with foreign language and other degrees, however, choose to teach English as a foreign language (TEFL), either in the UK or abroad, something for which demand remains exceptionally high.
"There's a huge appetite to learn English all over the world, and it's getting bigger every day," says Tony Jones, senior adviser for English teaching at the British Council. "This is a good time to be thinking of English language teaching, as a long-term career or even as a stopgap."
Although there are numerous starter TEFL qualifications, and corresponding accrediting bodies, the two most commonly accepted are the Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults (CELTA) awarded by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate ( www.cambridgeesol.org) and the Certificate in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (Cert TESOL) awarded by Trinity College in London ( www.trinitycollege.co.uk) – no relation to its namesake at Cambridge University.
But linguists are also involved in many pursuits outside teaching. There are specific routes into translation and interpreting careers (details on the CILT website) and most universities offer Masters courses that mix advanced language learning with other academic or vocational areas. For example, the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London offers the option of taking a language alongside all of its Masters courses.
So, for the gifted and committed linguist approaching the end of a first degree course, there's a multitude of avenues to be explored.
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