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The watercooler: How languages boost employability

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WatercoolerTom Griffiths, entrepreneur behind gapyear.com, explains how a second language can boost young people's employability.








Young people could bolster their employability and open up opportunities at home and abroad by learning a second language at GCSE level and beyond.

There are serious mismatches between the expectations of young people and employers about what makes school leavers and graduates more employable.

After graduating with a 2:1 in economics from Manchester University I joined the millions fighting to get a foot on the career ladder. To my surprise, employers paid little attention to my degree. Employers were far more interested in my language skills and my cultural and personal experiences gained from my gap year working and living abroad.

Photo of Tom Griffiths"As an employer and recruiter, although language skills are not a direct requirement for all our staff it does set candidates apart from the competition and boost their overall chances."

Now as an employer and recruiter, although language skills are not a direct requirement for all our staff it does set candidates apart from the competition and boost their overall chances.

Not long ago it was automatically assumed that anyone studying foreign languages at A Level or above was destined to be a teacher, an interpreter, or a translator and had no other career options. Obviously there is still a need for people in those professions but there is also an ever-growing need for young people who possess skills in languages in many other careers.

This is a result of increased activity in international business, the inflow of large amounts of foreign capital to the UK, increased internationalisation, and an expanded awareness of the need to conduct not only business but also diplomatic relations in the language of the host country.

Ten years ago during one of my trips across the world I accepted a lift with a Canadian economist. I asked him for one recommendation to get ahead in economics, his answer "learn Mandarin". Certainly China is becoming an increasing force in world affairs, as its drive for commodities, raw materials and markets means it reaches far beyond its national borders, the employment opportunities that speaking Mandarin will bring are immense. But that doesn't mean all young people need to master languages such as Mandarin to enjoy the benefits of speaking a language.

In my experience, even the Latin I learnt at school proved useful to me as a starting point with my modern foreign languages. As the root of 57 romantic languages Latin acts as a passport to many other languages including French and Spanish, which enable people to work all over the world as well as in Europe. If you understand Latin you can read a newspaper in many parts of the world and you'll find it easier to learn and understand how other languages are put together.

More than a third of the staff we have employed speak a foreign language – one even spoke Korean.

As well as having language skills, gap years can also enhance a CV and help to improve self-confidence. With over 230,000 young people taking a gap year before or after further or higher education, having the ability to speak the local language is essential. Not only will languages allow you to communicate with the locals but it will allow you to fully immerse yourself in the culture. Once you have these skills they will continue to provide benefits for years to come. You'll get more out of your holidays and trips overseas if you can communicate or at least try as it's important to try to not always communicate in English.

"According to CBI research, conversational skills are the key to employability. Whether to open doors or clinch a deal, 75% of firms want employees to have conversational ability in a second language."

Achieving fluency is a euphoric feeling but languages aren't just about trying to reach fluency. Having basic or conversational language skills are equally useful and probably one of the most beneficial skills a young person can develop. Many young people may find the thought of mastering a language fluently daunting but even just a few words can make all the difference both in and out of work, opening up new friendships and enabling travel while improving job prospects.

According to CBI research, conversational skills are the key to employability. Whether to open doors or clinch a deal, 75% of firms want employees to have conversational ability in a second language.

Not only do language skills bestow a career edge, they also open up greater possibilities of working abroad and also at home. The UK's tourist industry is a huge market, which hosts thousands of visitors every year and it is desperate for young Brits who can speak the languages of their guests rather than employing foreign staff who can speak English.

But even if you don't want to work abroad or indeed accept a job where you'll be frequently using your languages, just being a capable linguist shows an employer that you're a strong communicator and will help you stand out from the hundreds of other applicants who are limited to English. Wherever you work and whatever you do, knowledge of languages is vital in a global economy.

Learning languages is not just about learning to communicate; it is also learning about a different culture, a different way of life, something that pupils and students who do not study languages unfortunately miss out on.

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