A language graduate view on the benefits of learning languages

What are the benefits of learning languages? The usual trio of answers ‘travel, tourism and travail’ are very much clichéed and despairing, for many in this day and age. More so, perhaps, due to our current economic climate – the vast majority of people can’t see how a language could provide either a clear route into a particular job sector, bar translation or teaching, nor a competitive salary package – figures show that, on average, Arts students tend to earn less than their STEM peers.

We all know that learning a language can be beneficial – if you’re planning on going abroad, have contacts out there or fancy polishing your language skills, doing an activity that you enjoy (such as French and cooking, for example), learning a language can be fun and social. Yet, the benefits don’t just stop there; language-learning not only provides you with a new vocabulary, it also enables you to reflect on your mother tongue, as well as other skills.

Studies have shown that, from learning a foreign language, students achieve greater divergent thinking, creativity and cognitive development, compared to those that don’t. As you learn the grammar, the conjugation and the vocabulary, you can also create links and spot discrepancies within your own language.

Learning about foreign cultures and customs enables you to examine your own culture, your own habits, and get subsequently get a better understanding of social norms – both at home and abroad. Critical and lateral thinking go hand in hand with learning a language – compromise and adaptability are all valuable skills to have. They are also skills that can easily be applied to a multitude of jobs and career paths, such as advertising, public relations, hospitality, banking (and even at GoLearnTo.com!) – the list is endless.

Across the world, people shy away from learning languages as they typically associate them with social activities or academia. Not so, as learning a language can actually improve your CV, as Pauline Swanton, past president of the Association for Language Learning points out: “There is an increasing need for language competence in companies across the UK, but a lot of companies are employing people from abroad. This will leave a lot of UK people disadvantaged.”

The government does, however, need to emphasise the importance of learning languages, not just as an extra GCSE at school, but also to further careers and give British citizens a greater view of the world we live in. The National Centre for Languages, CILT, is trying, with help from the government to improve the situation, making languages appealing to schoolchildren all the way through to Higher Education. Yet the figures speak for themselves – a mere 4% of A-Levels were language related (Sept 2009) and only 3% of students take out a language degree, at university.

Companies such as O2 and HSBC are stirring the waters, however. The British network provider, having recently been bought by the Hispanic giant Telefónica, has started to give its employees Spanish lessons, to increase trade overseas and help them build better relations with their South American colleagues and client base. HSBC is just one of the many companies who have signed up to the Business Language Champions Programme, run by CILT, in order to show young people how valuable languages are, for the future.

This is just the start for a long struggle – ministers need to stress the importance of learning a language at university and these, in turn, need to spread funding across departments. Language departments are notorious for their lack of resources, archaic systems and poor contact hours. With more funding spread fairly across the university system, students would be able to benefit from up-to-date technology and textbooks, thus helping them improve their language skills. Thanks to student exchange programmes such as Erasmus, as well as funded work experience (Leonardo Scheme), students can now make the most of their interests abroad. Sites such as ThirdYearAbroad.com aim to help students, linguists and non-linguists, improve their language skills and job prospects, by providing information about moving abroad – whether to work, study or even volunteer.

Although some politicians, such as Baroness Coussins, are promoting languages as an essential skill to have, it’s still not enough. More funding, more career workshops and more resources are in dire need to make sure that students, young and old, are not only inspired to learn about a new culture, but also made aware of the realm of opportunities open to language learners – at home and abroad.

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