Thursday 21 January 2010

Living in a Bilingual World (The One About Language and Dosh)

It's always a pleasure to read positive stories in the midst of this economic slump. Even if they sometimes carry so many minuses inside them that they resemble George W. Bush's eight years in the White House. But at least it's good to be reassured that not everything is grim and grisly out there.

That's why an excellent article published recently in the Times Education Supplement (11th December 2009) and written by the journalist Yojana Sharma has had me in high spirits since I read it a few weeks ago. It revealed that language graduates came only behind doctors, architects and lawyers in the salary scale and ahead of engineers and chemistry graduates. And not only that, but having a second or even a third language increases one's possibility of landing a very good, well-paid job. Who would have thought it?

Actually, I could have told them that. It was chiefly through my ability to speak a foreign language that I made ends meet in the Havana of the mid to late 90s. Mid-point in my English degree I was presented with the opportunity to learn German and wasted no chance. When I graduated from university, I immediately moved on to French and I was handsomely rewarded with a regular stream of freelance assignments.

The article makes a very important point as well: the only career paths for a language graduate needn't be linguistics, translation/interpreting or teaching. Since I left Tricontinental magazine in 1997, I have not performed any of those functions, except for the odd translation job here and there. What foreign languages do provide is a set of skills that enhance a person's self-esteem, sociability and understanding of other cultures. These are all qualities very much in demand by employers, regardless of whether they work in the private or the public sector.

However, a closer analysis of this issue will also expose some minuses. And my introductory paragraph where I used the forty-third president of the US as a simile was not an accident. After all, his gaffes were (are) legendary. The TES article remarks on how far behind UK pupils are lagging in relation to their European counterparts. Once again the decision by the government to end compulsory GCSE exams on foreign language in 2004 has proved to be detrimental. That this has been reversed by the UK signing up to the EU's target of two foreign languages in schools at primary level is small consolation. The ugly truth is that in today's labour market Britons are at a disadvantage. In a number of countries pupils learn two or more foreign tongues in addition to English. As the article clearly illustrates, even in the US there are millions of people who can speak both English and Spanish, for example. Another threat that foreign languages face in secondary education is the multiple options students have now with the arrival of the new diplomas; however, the linguistic element (except for English) is hardly ever present. What this also means is that, indirectly, those pupils benefiting and profiting (in a professional and financial sense) from this fiasco, are those who attend private or selective schools where the level of tuition of foreign languages is better addressed.

Nevertheless, as I mentioned before I feel slightly more optimistic than I did a year ago when I wrote a similar column as part of my regular 'Living in a Bilingual World' section. There are some very good initiatives, even if they still are scattered and uncentralised. Whereas in secondary schools there's been a slump of 30% of pupils taking foreign language GCSEs, there's been an increase of people learning a new tongue later in life. Another welcomed sign is that foreign languages are being used as a springboard to access other subjects such as music and science. This would bring a much needed improvement in cultural awareness. And going back to the subtitle of this post, a scheme involving businesses and schools (Business Language Champions) has proved to students the value of learning foreign languages in order to increase their job prospects.

So, yes, you might say that dosh is calling the shots and luring our youth, but when it comes to training in a foreign lingo, to me the means more often than not do justify the end. I just hope that from this point onwards, when it comes to learning a foreign language and reaping the benefits, the UK can only go para arriba y para arriba.

Copyright 2010


  1. I think being multi-lingual is almost essential in today's world. Our world is becoming smaller every day, and we are becoming more entwined as we get closer and globalize. There is no doubt that speaking more than one language is not only an advantage in the job market, but also for oneself as an individual. There is so much to be gained when we are able to converse with people from different cultures, to read books in other languages (especially literature in its original form), and to just interact fluidly. We feel more familiar to others, and they feel more familiar to us. The walls that separate us historically, culturally, politically, and even religiously, are shattered, and we are able to establish an easier rapport and just "be".

    A very interesting post, Cuban. But your posts are always so... :-)


  2. Being bilingual led me many places and into many different kinds of jobs and cultures. But the best part was being able to connect with people who speak Spanish. Salud on this post!

  3. Without a doubt being able to speak a second language is an asset in the world today.

    All three of my kids were given other opportunities because they are all billingual in English and French. In Canada there are two official languages and if your kids have them, they have double the opportunities.

    They all have better and higher paying jobs because they can speak in both languages.

    Nowadays in north america the language to have too is Spanish.

    Love Renee xoxoxo

  4. My husband, who is Swiss, always mocks we Americans who learn virtually no languages other than English. And here in California, it's ludicrous NOT to speak Spanish, yet they still don't teach it in elementary school. I'm glad you had some good news to report, though, as all the news here seems so abysmal...

  5. In Asia, it is quite necessary to know to speak Malay or Chinese or both. This is due to current political and economic situations (interaction needs).. and wither I sit geographically. While the various Indian dialects are relevant, it is to the Indian's credit that their inclination to be abie to speak English makes it less necessary for us to pick up that language too.. for now.

    But of course as you say to understand more is to be better equipped. It does help immensely to promote greater harmony.

  6. I admire people who can speak in more than one language. I admire their courage and determination to allow themselves to face the struggle and occasional humiliation to try to find new words in a new tongue.

    My son-in-law is German born. Here in Australia he speaks fluent English but it took time to develop. When he first arrived he talked about how hard it was for him, a normally confident and articulate man to struggle to find the words. He said it made him feel very small.

    My father too, who was Dutch, talked about the difficulties of learning English.

    I resent it when those of us who cannot speak more than English but have the ignorance to laugh at people when they struggle to speak this language fluently because it is unfamiliar to them.
    A terrific post here Cuban and well worth reading. People who are bilingual deserve to be rewarded for their efforts.

  7. I studied languages but then struggled on graduation...I knew I didn't want to be an interpreter or translator...still struggling in that area in some ways!

  8. I've always believed that knowing more than one language is a benefit, not just professionally but also psychologically. It expands your mind and your outlook. I took Spanish in H.S. and after college and my ability is pequito but it helps me everywhere I go. My kids learned Spanish in elementary and my son will take Japanese this year. I think language make a real difference in your life's experiences.

  9. Yes indeed.
    The problem here in the UK is that for years the man on the Clapham Omnibus and the woman in the village shop have not seen, nor wanted to see, the benefits of being more than mono-lingual. "They speak English, don't they? And if they don't, well we don't need them anyway".

    Dosh in return for language skills is great, but I also love the idea of being fluent not just in other languages but also other cultures. There are worlds opening up which the mono-glot is barred from for all his life.

  10. Knowing more than one language opens the heart and creates a feeling of closeness. It's the same feeling you get from a friend when you explain your great news/plight and they say, "me too". Well, that's how I feel when I connect with people in their native tongues.

    Great read, as always.

  11. Many thanks for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.

  12. I wish I could agree with you and those who left comments above, but my experience is very different. I also speak a few languages. I'm bilingual Polish and German and I speak what I think is fluent English. Still, I always found it hard to find a job in translation or in industry that might need people who speak foreign languages. I think that despite what they say, languages are not valued on a job market. But maybe it's only my experience. I hope it is.

  13. When, as a teenager, I grumbled about my parents' inability to speak fluent English, I never realized the gift they were giving me. Actually, my mother never learned English. Now I realize that in forcing me to speak Spanish, they enhanced my brain function.

  14. Dear Cuban,
    I'm glad you're blogging again and also critiquing your work. It seems to me that Americans pay very little attention to a second language and that the people who speak English and Spanish are either immigrants or children of them. My five years of French (three in high school a hundred years ago) and two in college (hopeless) never encouraged us to speak the language. I had a brief fling with Italian, but it didn't last long. And in a week, I'm hoping to start a beginning Spanish class, so that I might eavesdrop if I get back onto the backside of the local racetrack. I'm afraid that my purposes aren't pure,
    but I am glad to read your extended comments again.
    Many thanks.

  15. Ciao Cuban,
    cresciuto bilingual, e apprendendo sempre qualche lingua nuova. Come disse giá un commento di prima qui sul tuo post, nei tempi di oggi é senza dubbio essenziale conoscere piú lingue!!

    Saluti da Colonia,

  16. Hello London,
    If I were to lose my second language, I think I'd feel like I'd lost my citizenship. Even though my French is a long way from perfect, it makes me feel like I have earned the right to observe and move in another culture, even if I'm not really part of it. My brain feels more agile hopscotching between two languages, and my admiration for polyglots is second only to the awe I have for anyone who can understand theoretical physics.
    Once again, I have to comment on your superb facility in English. You must have a natural talents for language acquisition, which would go along with your musical sense. And I bet your math skills aren't too shabby, either.

  17. My husband grew up bilingual (Spanish & English) and it has been of great advantage to him. Not only job-wise but also in picking up other languages. We visited my family in Denmark for 2 months last summer and I was impressed how quickly he picked up/understood the language.

    Great post!! ;-)

  18. Many thanks to you all for your kind comments.

    Greetings from London.



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