It’s amazing how far an additional language can get you, especially in a world in which global relationships are often a necessity for businesses and organizations to thrive. Because of this, graduates of modern language degrees have long been in demand across many sectors of business and industry, in roles that extend well beyond interpretation and translation to encompass all elements of business transaction, international cooperation and politics.
Common skills gained from a modern languages degree include:
A modern language degree is not just about learning a new language – though of course attaining a high level of fluency is one of the goals. Many programs will require students to study courses which develop their understanding of past and present cultures relating to the country (or countries) in which the language of study is spoken. This learning often requires the study of literary texts, film and media, as well as learning about the historical and political contexts of a certain region. Professionally focused courses may also be available, covering topics such as translation, international relations, business processes in different regions, or media and communication studies.
Although entry requirements for modern language degrees vary, students will certainly need to demonstrate a strong interest in other languages and cultures. Having gained a prior qualification (such as an A-level) in a foreign language will no doubt aid your application, but this is not typically a requirement.
It’s possible to study modern languages either as a single honors degree or alongside another subject as a joint honors degree. Common joint honors choices often remain within the humanities, including subjects such as politics, history and literature, but modern languages can also be combined with subjects such as chemistry or mathematics, for those wishing to keep their options as broad as possible. Another option is to study two languages, such as French and Italian.
One of the main attractions of a modern language degree is the opportunity to spend either a semester or a year abroad in a country where the language of study is widely spoken. This experience aims to increase proficiency in the language of study, while also allowing students to immerse themselves in another culture and meet the challenge of communicating with a broad range of people. For this reason, many modern language programs are four years in length, with one year (often the third year) spent in a partnered institution abroad, either working or studying.
Different modern language degrees will have a different emphasis, some perhaps more focused on the study of literary texts, others more on contemporary contexts or on vocational training. Among the course options and specializations you might consider are:
Linguistics is widely offered as a stand-alone degree subject, but some modern language degrees may also offer linguistics courses. This will involve a deeper look into the way language works and its origins, within a scientific framework. Linguistics is a multidisciplinary field which draws on various social sciences, for example allowing students to study language within the contexts of sociology and psychology. As a modern language degree student, you may have the chance to apply linguistics to original or translated texts in your language of study.
Film studies as a modern language specialization will most likely be focused on exploring, analyzing and understanding a selection of foreign films in the language of study. This will not only help students to develop a firmer grasp of the language, but should also develop the analytical skills involved in discussing artistic representations, and discussing the various cultural issues, lifestyles, politics and history reflected in the works.
Translation, the act of converting written material into another language, is already a key aspect of modern language degrees, but some universities offer the chance to study the profession in more detail. This will involve the study of two or more modern languages (usually your own first language and language of study), with a close look at linguistics, the theory and practices of translation, and the many different contexts within which translators are in demand.
A specialization in history as a modern language student will allow you to explore different periods and historic themes in relation to in the country (or countries) that speak your language of study. Often a specialization in history will combine aspects of historical literature and politics, allowing students to gain in-depth cultural and historical knowledge of a particular country and its language throughout history.
Media studies specializations within modern language degrees are not overly common, but some universities do offer this option. A media specialization will involve looking at both theoretical and practical aspects of the media world, potentially covering design, film, audio and multimedia knowledge. Depending on the course, students may focus on media representations and practices in specific relation to their language of study.
A common specialization, literature with a modern language will involve in-depth study of a number of literary texts written in the language of study. Depending on the course, these texts may or may not be limited to a particular time period, but more often than not will be established as influential, canonical texts that present key cultural, social and political issues relating to the country (or countries) where the language of study is used.
Depending on your university, there may be opportunities to take courses in other subjects, such as business studies, international relations, marketing or creative writing.
Among the most popular roles available to modern language graduates are those in translating (written word), interpreting (spoken word) and teaching (particularly secondary school level or above).
For translating and interpretation roles, language graduates will often need to gain a professional qualification from an accredited body (such as from the Institute of Translation and Interpreting in the UK or the American Translators Association in the US).
A modern language degree will also open up opportunities in a wide range of potential employment sectors, including commerce and social services. Other routes include working in the diplomatic or civil service, maybe even in your government’s Foreign Office. Language graduates are also highly valued in research jobs or development work within international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations – though these highly competitive roles may require proficiency in at least three languages. Meanwhile graduates in languages such as Mandarin or Arabic are likely to find themselves in high demand among all kinds of international employers, due to the rapid growth of these markets.
Although many translators and interpreters work as self-employed freelancers, some choose to use their language skills within an organization; for example, within a company which needs people to communicate with international clients to help build strong relationships.
Among the pathways you could consider are:
Education is a much more varied sector than many think. Career opportunities for modern language graduates are not only within secondary and tertiary education, but also in adult and lifelong learning, cultural and heritage education, private education and special needs education. These roles require great communication and leadership skills, and often an ability to work well under pressure. Additional teaching qualifications are often a prerequisite.
Media careers are a very popular career choice, encompassing online, print and multimedia journalism. The publishing world encompasses book publishing, newspapers and magazines, online publishing and specialized journals. All of these sectors look for graduates with a keen eye for detail, sound reading and writing ability, and often knowledge of current affairs and culture, or expertise in a particular field. Modern language graduates may be sought-after as translators, for example of popular novels being prepared for international distribution (often translators will only translate into their mother tongue, not the other way around).
Also known as the professional services industry, the business, consulting and management sector is all about improving business performance. Although many workers in this sector will have attained specialized business degrees, modern language graduates are also highly valued by many professional services organizations, thanks to their ability to work with international clients and help manage global business connections.
The communications skills that modern language students will gain are particularly valuable for marketing, advertising and PR careers. For these roles you will be required to work closely with people, both colleagues and clients, focusing on the needs of a target audience. After a period of time in the industry you may be able to take on account management responsibilities, becoming an expert in how to market a product, service, organization or individual to the world. For roles in international companies selling products or services overseas, language degree graduates may enjoy opportunities to travel.
The public sector covers everything from work within central government, to roles in non-departmental public bodies (NDPB) which work for, yet are independent of, government. Departments within the public sector include education, media, environment, work and pensions, health, and transport. Language graduates’ skills can be applied across many of these, but multilingual proficiency may be especially useful in sectors such as business and trade, tourism, culture and the home office (immigration, border control, national security and police). To work in the public service as a translator or interpreter, you will likely need an additional diploma.