Modern languages degrees provide skills that are highly in demand with recruiters in a wide range of industries, all around the world.
While studying a modern language at university doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll end up working abroad, it will certainly help if you like the sound of an international career.
In the 2011 ‘What do graduates do?’ survey conducted by the UK Higher Education Careers Services Unit (HECSU), more than 10% of the UK’s modern languages graduates were in overseas employment six months after graduating – a much higher percentage than in other subject areas.
In addition, almost 1% were completing further study or training overseas.
Further education was also a popular choice for those who stayed in the UK. Just over 10% were pursuing a higher degree in the UK, 4.3% were studying for a postgraduate certificate in education (PGCE), and about 6% were completing another form of educational or training course.
Of those who employed in the UK, the most common sectors were retail and catering, clerical and secretarial work, and marketing, sales and advertising.
However, significant numbers of modern languages graduates were also working in business and finance, private and public sector management, and positions relating to arts, design, culture and sports.
In short, modern languages graduates are to be found in pretty much every field of work.
Broad range of career paths
This impression matches that of Jane Simpson, head of the School of Languages at Australian National University. In her experience, “Modern languages graduates go into a wide range of careers, including non-governmental agencies, diplomacy, multinational businesses, arts organizations, the public service, teaching, interpreting and translation, data management analysis and editing.”
Chan Wai Meng, director of the Centre for Language Studies at the National University of Singapore, identifies two distinct career paths for modern languages graduates.
The first is as a ‘languages specialist’, working in roles such as translation and interpretating (which may require some further training and certification), language teaching, or within international organizations.
The second type of career path, Chan says, is as a humanities and social sciences ‘generalist’ – someone who has “a good all-round education and the necessary methodological competence to adapt to and learn new professions.”
However, he adds, even in roles that do not specifically demand multilingualism, modern languages graduates are still likely to benefit from having gained “knowledge of another or other cultures and cross-cultural competence.”
What skills will you gain?
Aside from the most obvious – being able to communicate fluently in more than one language – modern languages degrees provide a number of transferable skills valued by employers.
Simpson says, “Students with a modern languages degree should have gained social, political, historical, cultural and literary insights into another society, and therefore access to a new way of viewing the world, and hence a broadening of perspective.”
She adds, “They should not only know the grammar and vocabulary of another language, but they should also know how to communicate effectively in that language – which includes conversation management: when to be silent, when to interrupt, how to interpret gestures and eye gaze, how to make polite requests and so on.”
So clearly communication – written, spoken and in more nuanced forms – should be a strong point. But modern languages graduates should also have good research and analysis skills, proven intellectual rigour, plus good self-motivation and organization.
Many modern languages courses include the option of a year abroad, either working or studying, and – as the QS Global Employer Survey Report 2011 shows – international experience is something a majority of employers take into consideration when assessing job applications.
Chan says students should also look out for degrees that include options to develop professional skills, such as course modules relating to media and journalism, business and commerce, or translation and interpretation.