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.