Employees need them, employers seek them: language skills. Teresa Tinsley is a Hispanist with over 30 years’ experience in national organisations devoted to languages education. She researched and compiled the State of Nation report about languages for the British Academy. Here she talks about her major findings including the most common myths about language learning as well as the demand for and supply of language education in the UK.
Foreign languages are in use in absolutely every sector of the British economy. That’s just one of the headline findings of the State of the Nation report I compiled for the British Academy. From legal services to the cosmetics industry, from the charity sector to banking, there is a place—and sometimes actually a pressing need—for speakers of languages other than English.
But the supply of people with language skills coming from our schools and universities is a long way from matching up to what employers need, and there are some key messages emerging for politicians, for course providers, and for individuals wanting to make informed decisions about their future careers.
I found that the jobs market for languages is much bigger but also more complex than we think. Only a very small proportion of it represents the sort of jobs we typically think of linguists doing –— the translators, the interpreters, the teachers, the trainers. Beneath this is a much larger pool of jobs which require languages for the performance of other (nonlinguistic) professional roles. Thirdly, there are jobs for which languages are a desirable extra. This may be made explicit at the point the job is advertised, or it may simply work in the candidate’s favour at job interview. Below this there is another level of implicit demand –— the demand employers express so strongly for international experience, for the ability to work across cultures, for a global mind-set—all attributes which are acquired through having learned a language. And below this again is a huge pool of latent or future demand, expressed in terms of aspiration: ‘we want to expand our business overseas’, ‘we want to exploit our international connections’, ‘we want to be sure we don’t lose out when our multinational company restructures’. In researching the report I found a telling example of this in Scotland, where a petrochemical company had merged with a bigger company and found that it could not bid to host the sales operation in Scotland because it simply did not have the necessary language skills. The loss to Scotland’s economy was reckoned to be £4 million per year.
There are many misconceptions about the languages which are most needed by employers. A classic example of this is the myth that French and German are out, and that it’s Chinese and other world languages that we now need to be learning. I looked at a range of sources of evidence on this and found a very different picture. The story is not so much that other languages are needed instead of those traditionally taught in schools, but that new and upcoming languages linked to high growth economies are needed in addition to a greater supply of the languages we already teach.
I started by saying that demand for language skills is spread across a wide range of different industry sectors. But which sectors of the economy most need language skills? Although the evidence is not conclusive, there are clear indications that the finance and IT industries, transport, storage and communications, and the hotel and catering sector are the industries in which the need for language skills is greatest.
Another misconception is that languages are only needed at a professional or managerial level, that people who are going to be working at other levels in the workforce will never need languages. Well this too is disproved by the evidence. There are certainly skills shortages in languages amongst the professional cadres, but some of the biggest gaps in language skills appear amongst administrative and clerical workers and elementary staff.
All this of course has huge implications for language provision in schools, colleges, and universities. But I’ll report on my findings on the supply side—and why the ‘market’ for languages is not working as it should—another time.