Thoughts on @rebeccarat’s article about the importance of learning #languages

Rebecca Ratcliffe (@rebeccarat) writes in the @guardian about how living abroad as a teenager made her want to teach languages, and I couldn’t agree more.

Well, it’s not that I’m teaching languages, but I’m a strong proponent of language learning, both as a career relevant skill, as well as a way for enriching ones horizons. The first one is easy: language graduates fairly consistently high in Destinations of Leavers of Higher Education statistics. In short, they get more jobs more quickly than many other graduates. At the bottom are by the way IT graduates, but that’s I guess one for another day. Employers recognise language skills and intercultural experience. However, the UK is struggling with language provision in schools, and consequently international engagement in university. Which gives graduates from other European countries a rightfully deserved edge when competing for employment. It’s a free market, and employers can choose. And so they do.

The other is the point of personal growth. When my family was transplanted into the UK as part of a scientific exchange in the mid 70s, my parents could not send me to the German school my parents sent my older siblings to. So they decided upon a predictably successful, but radical approach: they put me – who had never been to school, as German schools start later – into my local elementary school. And lo and behold, after six weeks of constant crying, I had picked up enough English to follow classes and play with my fellow inmates. In the spirit of the times, ‘playing’ still required me to regularly act out the German soldier on the school playground – who inevitably gets shot (often repeatedly, as there were only a few of us Germans around) – but hey, you’ve got to soak up the culture as you go along.

Was I bitter about this experience? At the time, it seemed cruel to me – however, in hindsight it became clear to me that I found school in general probably the greater annoyance than having to learn the language to participate. And culturally, being transplanted later into the Bavarian school system was the much bigger culture shock. The intercultural experience though (and there were many relevant critical incidents) impacted my whole family. It can be traced back to this experience that my siblings and I have all spent considerable times living in a variety of countries, and all of us speak three languages other than our own.

I often say to my non-native speaker graduate clients here in the UK, that they won’t get their first job based on their English language knowledge, but on their native or additional languages. And I do enjoy working for an organisation that it widening language learning rather than cutting down on it. I have also no time for the myopic view of protecting ones labour market in the face of immigration – but I have written about this before.

To summarise: being forced to learn languages from a young age has not only given me the opportunity to experience things I’d never thought I would, but has also shaped my career. As I often say at public forums, if you want to improve the life chances of the generation you are responsible for raising or educating, instilling language learning is the greatest gift you can give.

February 26th, 2014 by