Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Is It Worthwhile To Study Languages At University?

Just over a month ago, I discussed the dilemma of encouraging language learning while protecting my own livelihood as a translator. In the post, I mentioned that the average translator in the UK earns what I consider to be a disappointing amount considering that they master at least two languages, have a technical or business specialisation, and possess in-depth knowledge of the cultures of at least two countries.

This is the kind of statement that should hold a lot of weight for someone getting ready to go to university in a couple of months. Today, I'd like to revisit that particular point, extend it to all language-related jobs, and finally see whether studying languages is worthwhile. To do so, I'd like to draw on my own experiences as well as some information and statistics. Of course, this is a language blog and I'm a language fanatic so there will be some bias. In an attempt to provide a fair and balanced argument, I'm going to start with the negatives.

On a personal and negative note, I do genuinely believe that there are jobs out there that require language skills and do not adequately remunerate those with said skills. I can provide one such example from my own life experience.

A few years ago I spent a summer working in a data-entry centre that required knowledge of Spanish and several other languages at which I was paid the UK minimum wage for my troubles. By paying me minimum wage, my employer was effectively saying that my language skills were valueless or should be expected from any employee, which I hope you will agree is nonsense.

This is even more ridiculous given that the UK is famously the worst country in Europe terms of speaking foreign languages. Surely this should make my foreign language skills even more desirable in a country lacking the workforce to meet the demand for multilingualism.

Despite my personal anecdote, the demand for language jobs is definitely still there. You'll see facts floating around stating that the translation is one of the only recession-proof industries across the world. However, I've also definitely heard a fair few horror stories of translators being expected to work to impeccable standards, at incredible speeds, and for below a living wage. It wouldn't surprise me if this kind of behaviour was partly responsible for the decreasing numbers of students taking language degrees at universities in the UK.

On the one hand, UK language graduates had the third lowest employment rate of any discipline, according to a study published in 2013. However, the employment rate for all subjects only ranged from 84% to 95%, meaning there isn't a huge difference between the best and worst. On the other hand, UK language graduates were ranked sixth in terms of average salary earned. We live in a world where money talks, and this is the kind statement that's difficult to ignore.

Language learning can take you to plenty of places on this
beautiful blue marble we call home.
So far I've only been talking about studying languages from a financial viewpoint and in terms of employability and expected salary. However, languages have a value well beyond money. Learning languages opens doors and takes you places where you'll meet wonderful people that you wouldn't have otherwise met if you'd remained in a monolingual bubble. For me, you can't put a price on that!

The experiences I've enjoyed because of studying languages have been priceless and I have no doubt that there are plenty ahead of me. I'm so incredibly glad that I did study languages throughout school and at university.

In fact, even though I was terrible at languages at school, I still decided to study them at university because I loved them. When I started studying languages at university (Northumbria University, to be precise) I wasn't a model student and I wasn't particularly gifted at languages. It was only thanks to the wonderful lecturers whose love for languages far surpassed my own that I was given the opportunity to improve and develop my own language skills.

Finally, I feel the need to mention that the language department at Northumbria University (my alma mater) is under threat of closure. I feel anybody who had the support of lecturers anywhere near as wonderful as those at Northumbria would appreciate that this cannot be allowed to happen. I would be eternally grateful to each and every one of you if you could take the time to sign the following petition on to ensure that the UK doesn't lose a wonderful language department. You can also show your support on this Facebook page.

Do you think it's worthwhile to study languages at university? Have your studies brought you financial success or something even better? Tell us all about them in the comments below.

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