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Is there any point in non-language professionals learning another language?

‘Skills crisis’ is becoming a bit of a buzz term at the moment. The media, government departments and business leaders all seem relatively fixated on the fact that some industries have a distinct lack of talent coming in.

Accordingly, it is becoming more important than ever that, when carving a career, individuals consider employment and skills trends in order to ascertain where there may be a gap in the market on which they can capitalise. Choosing the right subjects and learning the right skills could be a shrewd way to boost a person’s likelihood of getting a job.

But what about if your career is not going to require you to speak or understand modern foreign languages? Is there really any point learning a language?

Not everyone speaks English

A recent poll from AA Financial Services based on research carried out by OnePoll of 2,000 adults in May last year found that one in nine people (11%) believe that everyone understands English.

Let’s consider that fact for a moment. Official figures published by the British Council suggest that English is the mother tongue of around 375 million people and a similar number – although probably more – speak it as their second language. On top of this, around 750 million speak it as a foreign language. While these figures are indeed significant and illustrate just how many people do speak our mother tongue, there are said to be over seven billion people in the world, which goes to show just how wrong 11% of people could be.

In fact, the statistics go on to reveal that only around one quarter of the world’s population actually speak English “to some level of competence”. Therefore, by taking no interest in learning another foreign language, that’s immediately isolating as much as three-quarters of the world’s population with whom an individual would not be able to converse.

A means of communication

Language is ultimately a way by which to communicate. Of course, many people may only need to interact in English in their working life. However, with globalisation, immigration, emigration and international travel more readily available than it has ever been in the past, it is highly likely that people are going to be presented with the opportunity of speaking another language at some point away from an office.

Mark Huggins, managing director of AA Financial Services, explains how trying to communicate with somebody when you have no mutual linguistic understanding is not only challenging, but it can also be a little embarrassing. As fundamentally social beings who communicate primarily via words, being in a situation where you are categorically unable to make yourself understood – or understand – is undesirable, at best.

When visiting abroad, 14% say they don’t have a clue how to converse in the language of the country they’re visiting, 15% know just a few set phrases to help them get by, while just under one in ten (8%) rely on the language teaching they received in school – even though that may have been a considerably long time ago.

Furthermore, only 41% would feel confident in their ability to hold a conversation in a shop, 37% in a restaurant and only 22% would know how to ask for directions. In fact, of those holidaying abroad this year, only 7% are actually fluent in the language of the country they are visiting.

A respect for other cultures

English tourists in particular are often accused of being relatively bullish in their assumption that locals will be able to understand their mother tongue – something the aforementioned statistics suggest may be the case. As one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, it is undoubtedly more probable that English travellers are going to find somebody who can speak their language abroad than they are perhaps a less widely-spoken dialect.

However, you would be unlikely to find an individual in the UK speaking in Italian to a Tesco cashier and simply slowing down and speaking louder if they didn’t understand, so why should English people do the same abroad?

As Mr Huggins explains, a little effort goes a long way – not only in aiding understanding, but also in fostering an appreciation and respect of that person’s culture. The world would be a very boring place indeed if its inhabitants all spoke the same language, meaning it is up to the people in it to safeguard the survival of languages – regardless of whether or not they will be needed for commercial purposes.

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