Language Studies. Why the world is still your oyster.
If you’re a language student, you’re living in interesting times. There’s been a decline of interest in language studies at further and higher education levels. Whilst this is a challenge, it’s also an opportunity for you in the shape of a less crowded job market. There are also concerns over Brexit and the impact it might have on careers that rely on language skills.
In this feature, we assess the current and future state of the job market for language graduates. We explore how Brexit negotiations might affect your prospects. And we look at why – as someone studying languages – the world is still your oyster...
Farewell, adieu, auf wiedersehen?
Over the last few years, there’s been increasing concern about declining numbers of students studying languages. Tabloids shout about ‘huge’ and ‘dramatic’ shortfalls in the numbers of people studying languages in schools. Reports blame the policy changes in 2004 which made GCSE languages optional[i]. And there’s a general anxiety about the knock on effect this is having on the take-up of languages at advanced and degree level.[ii]
There’s institutional concern as well. A British Academy report in 2013 suggested that the UK is experiencing a deficit of language skills at the very moment when there’s an increasing global demand for language skills. They go as far to say, “a weak supply of language skills is pushing down demand and creating a vicious circle of monolingualism.”[iii] Strong stuff.
But are we really saying ‘adiós’ to modern languages in education and industry in the UK?
There’s definitely a challenge. Latest figures from HESA – a charitable company who collect data on UK higher education – suggest that there’s been a decline of around 11% in the number of students achieving a degree in languages between 2011/12 to 2015/16.[iv]
This arguably has a knock-on effect on the UK economy. The Education and Employers Taskforce report in 2011 estimated that poor language skills were costing the UK £7.3bn a year in trade. And businesses are recognising more than ever that insufficient language skills are preventing them from developing new business opportunities.
Three-quarters of SME respondents to a recent survey, for example, said that executives of the future would need foreign language skills and international experience to succeed in their roles.[v] If you want to get the top you need to know how to explain it in more than one language...If you’re a language student or graduate, this is great news.
These currently lower numbers of candidates applying to under and postgraduate degrees is also an opportunity. In short, it’s easier for you to get places on the best courses – even at the more prestigious universities.
A decrease in applications in the last few years at Russell Group colleges (a group of 24 UK universities widely regarded as being the best) means your odds of bagging the best postgraduate or Masters degree courses increases significantly. A recent analysis by the Guardian, for example, showed the odds of a successful application for a modern languages degree at Cambridge went from 28% in 2010 to 44% in 2014.
But how will the Brexit negotiations affect your prospects in the job market?
Brexit. Lost in translation?
British voters decided to leave the EU in 2016. And by March 2019 the government will have attempted to negotiate a deal that unwinds the UK’s 44-year history with the EU. Amongst other things, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has brought the issue of languages into even sharper focus.
Erasmus+ is a European Commission programme for education. It allows students to spend time abroad completing modules and training. Around 7,000 UK language students currently use the programme to study in other countries and improve their language skills at non-UK universities or working as Language Assistants. Academic and parliamentary groups have raised concerns about the negative impact losing access to this programme might have. They also recommend that the continuation of the Erasmus programmes should be a key part of any Brexit deal.
Open to interpreters
There’s increasing evidence of a shortage of candidates in the fields of interpretation and translation. As English becomes the global language there’s a need for more people who can translate different languages into English. According to recent reports, there’s a shortage of translators working in the offices and institutions of the EU – with a trend towards the current generation of interpreters head to retirement.[vi]
Add to this a shortage of interpreters within the British justice system and you realise another facet to the challenge presented by the Brexit negotiations.
The good news? This is an opportunity! Irrespective of the shape and scope of a deal, there’s a strong argument that the continuing rise of English as the lingua franca will mean that demand for translation services will remain high. Both in the civil service and the criminal justice sectors.
Brexit as a driver for positive change
The Brexit decision has had some immediate positive impacts. One of these has been a noticeable increase in the appetite for Britons to learn languages following the 2016 vote. The languages app Lingvist – an online language platform – says that it has seen a 91% increase in UK users since Brexit.
Their studies of data for nine months before and nine months after the vote saw that the popularity of Spanish courses has grown by 43% amongst British users. French courses saw a 23% increase in popularity, and interest in German grew by 22%.[vii] Signs that political upheaval can effect positive change on the UK languages landscape...
Beyond the EU
Despite the challenges, there remain huge opportunities for UK linguists. As we’ve seen, there are currently fewer undergraduates and postgraduates in the UK with relevant skills. This means you can make a real impact at home, in Europe and further afield.
The importance of being linguist...
There’s little doubt about it. Being multilingual is a skill that’s in high demand in the workplace. In 2012, the CBI surveyed almost 550 companies to ask how important they considered language skills. They found that almost three-quarters of these private sector firms saw a need for foreign languages in their business.
According to the 2016 CBI report, the foreign languages that businesses most often considered in demand were the major EU languages of French (50%), German (47%) and Spanish (30%).[viii]
The changing global voice
But whilst English continues to be the major language used in global business there’s no doubt that other non-EU language skills give you a real advantage in the global job market.
The rise to dominance in recent years of other global economies and regions might very well set the pace when it comes to languages in the future. One such regional economic powerhouse contains the countries known as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa).
Five major emerging economies with a combined nominal GDP of over $16.6 trillion. Combined economies that grew by 3.1% in 2016 and are forecast to continue to do so despite global uncertainty.
Of course, one of the biggest and fastest growing of the BRICS countries is China. And the response to this in the UK has been noticeable. There’s been an increase in the availability and attendance on Mandarin courses and initiatives such as the launch of a £10m Mandarin Excellence programme in 2016[ix]. The project’s aim is to make 5000 state secondary school students fluent in Mandarin by 2020.
The trend continues in FE and HE institutions. There’s been a 30% increase in students taking Chinese language degree courses between 2008 and 2014. Other research suggests that there are several other indicators suggesting there will be higher demand for non-EU or traditional languages in the future.
As well as Mandarin, languages like Arabic, Farsi will become more relevant. And to match the anticipated rise of the BRICS countries, we’ll likely need to be able to speak more Russian, Indian and Portuguese.
The backdrop to our capacity and inclination to put language learning at the top of the agenda remains a fascinating one. And it’s a backdrop that’s affected by ever-shifting and complex economic and political developments.
The world is your oyster
Jobs you can expect to get with your brand new language qualification. In the UK. In Europe. And globally.
· Broadcast journalist
· PR Specialist
· Diplomatic service officer
· English as a foreign language teacher
· International aid/development worker
· Logistics and distribution manager
· Marketing executive
· Patent Examiner
· Sales Executive
Are you a language graduate or studying language as part of your degree or masters course? What are your experiences? We’d love to hear your views on what’s happening with languages in UK universities and businesses. Get in touch and join the debate!
[i] “’Free fall’ fears as puplis abandon languages”; the Guardian; August 2006
[ii] “Dramatic decline in number of university students taking modern foreign languages”; The Telegraph, February 2015
[iii] “Languages: State of the nation”; British Academy; February 2013
[iv] Higher education student enrolments and qualifications obtained at higher education providers in the United Kingdom 2015/16; HESA; January 2017
[v] “Born global: Implications for higher education”; British Academy; 2015
[vi] “Born global: Implications for higher education”; British Academy; 2015
[vii] “How has Brexit affected language learning in the UK?”; Lingvist; 2017
[viii] “The right combination: CBI/Pearson education and skills survey”; CBI/Pearson; 2016
[ix] “Pupils across England start intensive lessons in Mandarin”; gov.uk; 2016