Chartered Institute
of Linguists

What’s the point of studying languages if you then don’t use them?



Asset or irrelevance? 

As someone with bilingual Italian language skills and good French and Spanish – but more interested in business than in working as a translator, interpreter or teacher – I have always been puzzled by whether my language skills are an asset or an irrelevance. Do I look for work using my Italian, or is that restrictive? Do I need to live in Italy? Do my language skills pigeon-hole me? And if I am not using my Italian or other languages on a day-to-day basis does that mean I wasted my time learning languages?

Of course, there are plenty of reasons for learning languages anyway: pleasure, literature, holidays, benefits to the brain, etc. But on a practical and work level, what is the benefit in doing a language degree if you then don’t use that language?  


A 'Proper Job'?

In my case, after starting out working in Business Development, occasionally using my languages in my career but more often not, I only had one period in my life where I made full use of my Italian. And that was not working for anyone else - but when I set up my own company helping English speakers buying property all over Italy, and then helping Italians buy property in London. It occupied 11 years of my life and very enjoyable it was too.

But after moving back to England, having a family, and finding that my business was fizzling out and I needed to get a “proper job” I faced this conundrum again. What kind of work to look for? And how to position myself to employers, when the roles that most excited me often didn’t have a specific need for my language skills?   


Hard to Articulate?

And it's clearly not just me. The British Academy’s Born Global research (2016) observed that language graduates were, compared to their peers, “often less capable of articulating the knowledge, skills, and attributes that they have acquired through their degree courses, and how these may be relevant to future employers”.

Although I’ve always had a feeling that my languages somehow give me a plus, a more international outlook and easier understanding of people of different countries and cultures, this is not something I have been able to articulate clearly. My languages do seem to make me more interesting to an employer, even when languages are not a requirement for the specific role. But why?


Puzzle Solved

Professor Jocelyn Wyburd, Director of the Language Centre at Cambridge University and Chair of CIOL Qualifications Educational Trust Board, has answered the puzzle. She explains why language graduates can position themselves not just as linguists, but as Global Graduates with the ability to become Global leaders.

Drawing on evidence from business recruiters, Wyburd demonstrates how so many of the skills developed during a language degree are reflected in the three key skill sets for Global Graduates: Cultural Agility, Global Mindset, and Relationship Management. Wyburd’s full chart and chapter are well worth reading in full.

Of course many of these points are fairly obvious once you think about them, but I wish I had had such a systematic breakdown 20-plus years ago. Such a structured list could be very helpful for language graduates trying to sell themselves to potential employers.

If you are a language graduate embarking on the world of work, good luck! Have confidence that the many skills you have will be attractive to employers!


Dom Hebblethwaite is the Head of Ventures for the Chartered Institute of Linguists.
For more on Dom see his profile here.  


Views expressed on CIOL Voices are those of the writer and may not represent those of the wider membership or CIOL.