19 AUGUST 2015

Modern Language Degrees and Career Opportunities

Modern Language Degrees and Career Opportunities

Although language learning is on the rise globally and the demand for digital English language learning products has boomed in global education markets, the UK is still behind the international trend. The ‘Languages: State of the Nation’ report indicates that 39% of the UK adult population claim to be able to speak at least one language beside their mother tongue, compared to an average of 54% across 27 European countries. But has it finally been possible to reverse the chronic decline in language study in British schools and universities that we read about every year around the time of GCSE and A-Level results? The latest Language Trends survey by Teresa Tinsley shows a slight increase at GCSE level, but highlights the need to encourage uptake at higher levels, and points in particular to the challenge that language teachers face in convincing pupils and parents that studying a language at A level and beyond is well worth the effort. Yet degrees such as that offered by the Modern Languages Faculty at Cambridge are intellectually enriching, and at our Open Days for sixth-formers, we have demonstrated how marketable the skills acquired on such courses are.

The survey of language graduates conducted by the Cambridge University Careers Service in 2013 show that, despite the unfavourable economic climate, within a year of graduation 63% were in employment and a further 30% in postgraduate training. The job openings for well-qualified linguists are highly diverse. Significant numbers of Cambridge linguists regularly go into communications and other service industries, publishing, arts and recreation, social and community work, banking, management consultancy and business as well as teaching and lecturing. Individual destinations have included the BBC World Service, the international corporate law firm Eversheds, UNICEF in Islamabad, and the doctoral programme in Clinical Psychology at King’s College, London. The need for language skills in today’s globalised workplace is also highlighted by employers’ organisations, even if this may not be immediately apparent from job adverts.

That need was clearly identified in a statement by the British Chambers of Commerce in June 2013. It noted that up to 70% of the businesses that had responded to their survey had no foreign language ability for the markets they served, and it concluded that “addressing the gaps in commercial exporting skills, including language skills, must be a priority for supporting growth in Britain’s export sector”. Another report from 2013, Languages: The State of the Nation, sponsored by the British Academy, contains specific suggestions on how this aim should be achieved. The current shift to an export-led economy is driving the need for UK employees to develop foreign languages skills. However superlative the English of non-native speakers may be (and it is often enviable), there is a strong demand for our workforce to catch up.

The CBI/Pearson Education and Skills Survey also emphasises the need for advanced language skills in conducting international business and shows (p. 54) that French, German and Spanish are still the languages that British employers find most useful for their purposes. Indeed, between 2012 and 2014, 718 job adverts on the Cambridge University Careers website stipulated skills in French as a requirement, 784 wanted German, and 328 Spanish – and these are just the employers who choose to advertise through Cambridge. The British Council’s Languages for the Future report of November 2013 takes this argument further and identifies Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese as “the languages most vital to the UK over the next 20 years”. The well-known adage by the German statesman Willy Brandt – “If I am selling to you, I speak your language. If I am buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen” – has clearly not lost any of its force.

Even those brought up speaking just one language can acquire the ‘bilingual advantage’– better executive functions, and an increased ability to take another person’s perspective – by studying languages at university. This will be of personal benefit to them and will enhance their attractiveness to employers. A degree course in modern languages stimulates the intellect and the imagination, and it opens doors in the global workplace, where language skills and cultural knowledge are increasingly valuable.


Dr Martin Ruehl is Lecturer in German Thought at the Faculty of Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge University and writes for our Thought Leadership Blog. Read Martin's full career profile.