How my language skills led me to a rewarding career

By Judith Ridgway FCIL

I’d like to tell you how my language skills have helped me to have an interesting and rewarding career in industry.  

I studied German and French for A-level, and at university German was my main subject, whilst continuing with French and later Italian. At that time, language degrees focussed mainly on reading and analysing literature and we didn’t really practise speaking German in everyday life. When I arrived in Germany to study as part of the course, I realised how underdeveloped my speaking skills were. But my speaking and listening skills improved enormously during the time I spent studying in Germany. 

You may have tried to practise speaking a language on a holiday abroad.  You can understand the signs over the shops and you try out a few words. But then you don’t understand the reply or the question they ask you, and you freeze. That has happened to me too. But don’t give up.  If you keep trying, it gets easier to speak and understand. And off the beaten track, people often don’t speak English.

I knew I wanted to use my language skills to communicate and make things happen in the world of business. I knew that being able to communicate with people – colleagues and customers - in their own language was essential to creating effective business relationships. 

You may think that it’s not necessary to speak other languages as so many people speak English. I found that communicating with some-one in their own language makes a real difference. People really appreciate it, and are more interested in what you have to say.  

It took a little while to find the right opening but eventually I got a job at the UK branch of an Austrian special steel company. The main working language of the company at that time was German. I was based in the company’s UK office and I was soon communicating every day in German - writing and speaking.  

I also visited one of the group’s steel works in Austria and was able to watch steel-making first hand. As you might imagine, it is a hot, dirty and noisy process. But it was fascinating and I learned a lot about the various processes, including the specialist vocabulary I needed to do my job.

It’s worth bearing in mind that international companies are often keen to hire people with language skills. Foreign companies need staff in their UK offices who can communicate with colleagues and others at head office, and British companies that export to other countries need linguists to communicate with customers in their mother tongue. 

My work was varied - no two days were the same - and sometimes unpredictable, as I never knew what problem might to crop up during the day. The company sold products used in the oil industry and in aerospace, so I attended international exhibitions in the UK’s oil capital Aberdeen and the Farnborough Air Show along with Austrian colleagues.

As my career progressed, I became Business Development Manager for aerospace, and was making trips to Austria five or six times a year. In this position I worked closely with my colleagues to develop materials for the UK aerospace market and to ensure that they were priced appropriately so they were commercially attractive. I was also involved in getting approved as a supplier to UK aerospace companies. I accompanied the customers’ technical inspectors on audit visits to the steel works in Austria. I learned more about steel production and at the same time more of the technical terminology.

My language skills and my increasing technical knowledge helped me to support my customers in resolving technical issues and finding a solution in agreement with the Austrian head office.  

Customers always enjoyed their visits to the works. The company had its own hotel right next to the main site, which was comfortable with excellent food. Where time permitted,  we would also gave customers a whistlestop tour of Vienna, sometimes stopping at the Hotel Sacher for a delicious slice of its famous Sachertorte. I also attended technical seminars that the company organised from time to time for customers which usually included an excursion – such as to the Red Bull Ring motor racing circuit.   

In the course of my work I also visited various European countries, including Germany, France, the Netherlands and Italy. I worked at international air shows in Paris and Berlin, and on separate occasions both Angela Merkel and the then UK Prime Minister Tony Blair viewed our exhibition stands.

Language skills played an essential role in my career and led to tremendous travel opportunities and the opportunity to experience other cultures. 

I really recommend that you continue to study languages because language skills will open so many opportunities for you in addition to your other skills. Nowadays you can combine a language degree course with other relevant subjects, as business studies or economics (which wasn’t an option when I was a student). 

Language skills will make you attractive to international employers and lead to rewarding and interesting careers. Learning a language helps you not only to communicate with customers and colleagues but also to understand their culture. You will meet some fascinating people and make friendships with colleagues from other countries.