Studying languages : wise or unwise ?

by Fanny Chouc

Conflicting information has recently been released in the press over the career benefits of studying languages, with the Telegraph grabbing headings with a bold statement according to which “Languages graduates are now the least employable in Britain”, according to an ONS survey, while the BBC published data from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which place language graduates above medicine, business and law graduates in terms of earnings. The CBI’s reports on employment skills sought after by employers have also repeatedly stressed the importance and benefits of languages in terms of employability, highlighting that despite the looming prospect of Brexit, “there can be great advantages for British businesses if employees can communicate with at least reasonable proficiency in the language of clients, customers and suppliers”. According to the same study, EU languages are still very much in demand: businesses surveyed have stressed the need for “French (50%), German (47%) and Spanish (30%)”, showing clearly that linguistic skills remain prevalent, not to mention the communication skills and intercultural awareness that goes hand-in-hand with the study of languages.

So who to trust? Should you still consider that language degree, or is it a waste of time and money? Worthy question, particularly relevant in England and Wales when you consider the financial cost of higher education studies. When you are considering paying up to £9,250 a year in tuition fees (caped amount for undergraduate degrees in England), of course, employability becomes a significant factor in your choice of studies.

Part of the answer could possibly be found in the type of studies linguists choose, if we consider the case of Heriot-Watt University graduates: the Languages and Intercultural Studies department (known as LINCS) offers degrees with a very clear professional focus. In keeping with the ethos of Heriot-Watt University, students who come to do a degree in languages … don’t actually do a degree in languages! They do degrees in translation, in interpreting, or focus on an applied use of languages for business. So languages are considered as a field of expertise studied for specific, applied purposes, and students get to grips with very professional uses of the language: how to handle interpreting in a business meeting, how to prepare to interpret simultaneously at an international conference, how to master key CAT (computer-aided translation) tools … and rather than the more traditional and philological approach still noted in more traditional language degrees, Heriot-Watt LINCS students don’t study literature: they focus on developing their understanding and knowledge of modern-day Spain, France, Germany, China, etc … They learn about the way institutions work, what education systems are like in each countries, how politics currently stand in each area, and they study international organisations, business strategies and cultural-specific approaches to corporate management.

Another key aspect of LINCS training is the connection with the industry, another crucial element stressed by the CBI in their report. LINCS works closely with Heriot-Watt University’s Career Services, running regular and innovative information sessions with inspirational speakers from around the world who studied on the degree programmes offered by the department, sometimes using e-communication tools to ensure that students get a chance to speak to talented professionals living and working in distant locations. Students also have access to mentoring schemes, career fairs and tailored support; they receive guidance and advice throughout their studies, and they’re all included in a LINCS-specific mailing list designed to flag internship, volunteering and paid work opportunities.

Does this work? Yes, undoubtedly: based on latest destination survey, LINCS graduates from Heriot-Watt have a very high employability rate. 96% of them were either in employment or further education 6 months after they graduated. It is also very interesting to note that these graduate-attribute focused degrees also open doors in many unsuspected fields: LINCS graduates go into translation and interpreting, of course. They secure positions in big international companies, yes. But some also secure positions in banking, in the film industry, in policy-making organisations, in the media, in accountancy …

So don’t be fooled by headlines: a focused, applied language degree is still very relevant. It will give you a very versatile and highly employable profile, and it could make you richer than a lawyer!




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