Why Everyone Should Invest in Language Skills

Why Everyone Should Invest in Language Skills main image

Jane Playdon, QS education writer

Language learning is a key priority under a new EU study abroad funding program for education, training and youth organizations due to be launched in January 2014. The new scheme, called Erasmus+, follows a report from the European Commission on the importance of language skills in a market where businesses increasingly operate internationally.

Speaking at the London Language Show recently, the EU commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, Androulla Vassiliou, said: “Language learning is vital in Europe... foreign language competences are needed not only by the large multinationals, but increasingly also by SMEs [small and medium enterprises] with international marketing strategies, and by public services having to deal with increasingly multicultural and multilingual citizens.”

Other prominent organizations highlighting the need for more foreign language learning include the UK’s Guardian newspaper and the British Council, which helps to create international education opportunities. In addition, the recently launched 1000 Words Challenge campaign aims to inspire everyone in the UK to learn 1,000 words of another language.

Language skills a priority across Europe

A need for more language skills has been identified across Europe. The 2012 European Survey on Language Competences tested students in lower and upper secondary education (usually aged between 14 and 16) on competency in their first foreign language, finding widely varying levels. For example, Malta and Sweden averaged 82% for English as the first foreign language across reading, listening and writing at the most difficult level, while Spain and France averaged 29% and 14% respectively for English at the same level across the three competencies. Meanwhile, it was widely publicized last year that less than 9% of teenagers in England have more than a basic level in the foreign language they are studying.

So, why should everyone (whether a student or not) be motivated to learn a foreign language, even if they don’t feel like they need one? Prepare to be persuaded…

Language skills are crucial for international mobility

Language learning is at the center of the EU’s new international mobility scheme, Erasmus+, which aims to replace and combine a number of existing EU international mobility programs – including the Lifelong Learning Program (Leonardo, Comenius, Grundtvig, Erasmus), Youth in Action, and Erasmus Mundus and Tempus.

With a budget of around €15 billion (US$20.3 billion), Erasmus+ will provide grants over the next seven years for more than four million people to volunteer, work, train or study abroad. This is a 40% budget increase compared to existing programs, and a significant increase in the number of beneficiaries, which, for the period between 2007 and 2013, amounted to around 2.5 million.

As a result, more EU mobility students than ever before will be learning the five main languages under the program: English, French, German, Italian and Spanish. Students who need linguistic support will have online access to it on a voluntary basis, and the EC has also made provision for the less widely spoken languages. The language levels of those participating in Erasmus+ will be assessed before and after their time abroad, to monitor the scheme’s contribution to language learning.

Dennis Abbott, a spokesman for the EU department of Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, said: “Language skills are crucial for the quality and efficiency of this [international mobility] experience. This is why, for the first time, Erasmus+ will earmark funds for the systematic assessment of language competences before and after long-term mobility, including mobility for teachers.”

Language learning gives you a competitive edge

As well as making it easier to spend time living, working and studying in different parts of the world, language skills can also confer a considerable competitive edge in today’s job market. And this applies even to native speakers of English, used as a lingua franca across much of the world.

“English as lingua franca is a mixed blessing,” Vassiliou has commented. “Too many people believe that English is enough to get by everywhere and in any situation. In a world where knowledge of English is more or less taken for granted, job seekers who also know other languages will have a competitive edge.”

This observation is echoed by Teresa Tinsley, leader of the 1000 Words Challenge campaign. She says: “There are cases of [language skills] being used as a tie-breaker between two equally well-qualified candidates. They don’t necessarily need language skills for their job, but the employer thinks that maybe they will get something extra from someone with knowledge of another language. I think that what is coming through is not only the communication skills that employers value, but the international outlook, the cultural flexibility. It [shows] that they’re willing to start seeing things from another point of view apart from their own.”

According to the latest Education and Skills Survey from the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), “72% of businesses say they value foreign language skills” and 52% say they are “recruiting new staff with language skills”. The Languages for Jobs report, published by the European Commission, also found that “40% of recruiters in the industry sector highlighted the importance of language skills for future higher education graduates”.

Language skills are linked to intercultural skills

Another benefit of language learning, as listed on the 1000 Words Challenge site, is the relationship between language skills and intercultural skills, which “make us better adapted to living in a diverse society, more internationally minded and better at resolving cross-cultural conflict.”

Tinsley says: “You can surround yourself with a bubble and never break out of it and close your ears to other languages if you can’t understand them. If you don’t understand someone’s language, you might think that they’re shouting, or they’re being rude [but if] you put yourself in someone else’s shoes, you see the world through different eyes. You’ve got this ability to relativize your own culture and your own customs and have a perspective that is outside your own immediate context.”

This idea that language learning facilitates intercultural skills has been backed up by research summarized in the Wall Street Journal, which says: “If people learn another language, they inadvertently also learn a new way of looking at the world. When bilingual people switch from one language to another, they start thinking differently, too.”

Bilingualism can improve cognitive function

Similarly, research into the wider impact of language skills on the way the human brain works has suggested that bilingual people have improved cognitive function. It seems the control required to manage two or more languages helps with the processing of other information, “leading to a clearer signal for learning”.

In addition, once a second language is learnt, it is easier to learn a third because of improved attention to detail. In other words, language skills make you smarter all round.

These benefits apply at any time in life, and of course it’s never too late to start learning a new language. However, if you are currently a student or about to start your university studies, the support for developing language skills is all easier to access. If you qualify for the new Erasmus+ program, you can even combine language learning with a funded study abroad experience – so, quite simply, why not have a go?

Do you agree? Should everyone learn at least one foreign language? Share your opinion in the comments below.

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