At a recent school’s career fair, I was once again impressed by the interest the students (in this case aged about 14) showed in various careers. But although the Army stand, the engineering stand and the vets stand were all crowded, very few students came across to look at Careers with Languages.
Our stand was bright and colourful, we had giveaways, leaflets and more, but many of those who did stop to enquire what we were offering soon went away with a shrug – it was just not of interest to the vast majority of students.
The ones I asked about why this was, replied that languages were too difficult, boring, uninteresting or pointless.
Was this down to the quality of teaching? I don’t think so as I know that the school does a good job overall and produces some very talented linguists.
What else could have caused this lack of interest in something that I have always found so fascinating?
Perhaps it’s our island mentality – the lack of opportunity to travel and see first hand why languages are important. Many of the students may never have been abroad or had only been to places where English was widely spoken. They had never needed to make even the most basic communication in something other than English, which was one of the most exciting initial experiences of my language journey, prompting me to explore the world of language in more depth.
Perhaps it’s our natural reticence and embarrassment when trying to speak another language in front of friends and classmates when you want to look cool, but feel you only sound awkward and odd. It took me quite a while to overcome this natural fear of saying something wrong and it's a feeling I can readily identify with.
Whatever the reason, the level of interest was low – which I have come to expect for careers fairs. The few students who were interested, who were a delight to talk to, were also unaware of the real opportunities they had.
One girl was interested in studying Japanese at university, but didn’t really know what she wanted to do with it afterwards – translating did not really appeal, but there were plenty of other opportunities we talked about.
French, German and Spanish seemed to be the other most popular languages, but students were not aware they could learn a completely new language at university or that they could take a language alongside another subject eg law and French.
The conversations we had saw them also begin to understand that a language alone was often not enough – to be a translator, you’d need to have your specialist subjects, engineering, medicine or law for example. We talked about the opportunities for working abroad, pursuing a career in something you enjoy, just using your language as a means to do it in the sun, away from all our British rain.
I hope that the few students who were interested saw that keeping up their language skills could be a viable path to an interesting and rewarding career.
I have certainly enjoyed my 30 years with languages and the challenges they have brought.
I remember my first trip abroad to stay with my pen pal in Germany, when I wrote her a letter using a dictionary with no idea of grammar or any knowledge of German (we were conversing in English as I had not begun to learn German then). How she ever managed to understand what I had written I don’t know, but I was definitely bitten by the language bug. It was just such a great feeling to be able to use a few words of something so different and see how another culture worked.
My love of collecting words and solving language puzzles has carried me through a fascinating career with opportunities to learn at every turn. I hope that at least one of the careers fair students I met will have the chance to enjoy their languages as much as I have and that those who dismissed languages may come to value them even just a little in the years to come.