How Language Skills Are A Cornerstone For Success
A few weeks ago the classic “Do You Speak English?” comedy sketch from the BBC series Big Train was doing the rounds on Facebook. The scene of a Brit struggling to make herself understood in France makes me giggle, admittedly in a slightly smug fashion, having personally studied Modern Languages. Despite that the sketch is nearly a decade old, it feels more raw and relevant than ever, as we start to untangle ourselves away from our EU neighbours. In post-referendum Britain, how we will build and navigate the new relationship with the other EU states is a sensitive and contentious topic. And, with establishing the parameters of any new partnership, our language skills and how we communicate will play an important role.
Many people assume that having language skills will be less important as the UK leaves the EU and looks further afield for partnerships. Yet to trade with the EU, it could be argued that the UK will need a greater number of high-level negotiators, who are fluent in either French, German and Spanish. Pre-referendum in 2015, the British Chambers of Commerce suggested that foreign language learning should be made compulsory in British schools for children aged between seven and 16, to support trade performance. The bad news for employers is that the number of pupils taking foreign languages to GCSE and A-level has fallen by 22% in the last 14 years, with German being the worst hit.
As the Big Train sketch correctly observes, we British are notorious for assuming that Johnny Foreigner will speak the Queen’s English. Clearly English is still firmly the language of international business. Is there, therefore, any point bothering to learn other languages, when our neighbours have been fluent since the age of ten anyway? From a career perspective, there is still compelling evidence that having second language competency is beneficial for your career:
Opening doors – you may not wish to actively pursue a career in Brexit trade negotiations, yet language skills can be useful in a variety of fields. These include financial services, law, marketing, retail, sales, administration, transportation & tourism, communication, teaching, as well as public relations and government. Having language skills opens new doors and could give your CV the edge over monolingual candidates.
Cross cultural skills – as many firms now have a global footprint, language skills not only help them grow their business, yet ensure the corporate DNA is consistent throughout the whole office network. If you believe the hype, many of our jobs will be performed by robots in the future. Yet, it will take them significantly more time for robots to be good at soft skills, such as cross-cultural relationship building. Knowing multiple languages will help us relate to our peers, form bonds and keep our skill sets relevant.
CrossFit for the brain – The benefit of how we acquire languages and the transferable skills gained from the actual process of learning a language is perhaps more valuable than the language itself. If you look at successful business leaders and entrepreneurs, there are certain traits which have propelled them along their career trajectories, such as empathy, confidence, rationality, creativity and negotiating skills. These are the type of skills which are enhanced when you learn a new language, for example, problem solving (“how best can I translate this idiom?”) or decision making (such as thinking on your feet to quickly articulate a concept).
Avoiding Dory – as we get older, we all have days where we worry about our ability to retain information in our brain, akin to Dory from Finding Nemo. The good news is that not only will learning languages help us become better communicators, but it could help combat the degeneration of our minds, particularly associated with conditions such as dementia. According to New Scientist magazine, studies in Canada have shown that people who are fully bilingual and speak both languages every day for most of their lives can delay the onset of dementia by up to four years compared with those who only know one language.
If you are thinking of learning new languages, there is no single one size fits all method, as our brains and learning styles are unique to us as individuals. Try different ones and use the one that works for you, or a combination. Enrolling in a class will suit those of us who enjoy a structured learning programme. The benefits include interacting with peers in a supportive environment. If you work full time and are time poor, nowadays there are numerous technology hacks which can be fitted around busy schedules. Studies show that ten minutes every day tends to be more effective and manageable than a longer session once a week. Gamification is popular within language learning and apps such as DuoLingo can help enrich vocabulary and master grammar, even on the shortest commute. New platforms, such as Italki offer chat facilities with native speakers, as well as personalised and flexible tutors. Watching television can help absorbing a feel for the language, therefore why not try watching your favourite film in your target language, with English subtitles? For years, cultural influences such as music have played a large role in why your average European teenager has high levels of English fluency. Again, thanks to technology you can easily stream European radio stations, such as the Swiss radio station, Energy, which plays uninterrupted music in channels, which you can set to languages such as German and Italian.
Post Brexit, our new relationship with our European neighbours will no doubt continue to be the subject of ongoing debate. There may still be plenty of isolationist rhetoric in the media, yet keeping communication lines open through the power of language learning could help us shape our careers as well as our futures.