Congratulations, you've got the job - as long as you can master a new language
Is it realistic to learn a language for a job? Louise Tickle, who attempted Welsh, looks at what it takes to master a new tongue
The Guardian August 18, 2014
You may not remember the summer of 1995, but I do. It was sunny every day and roastingly hot, and I spent pretty much all of it sweating in a classroom in Lampeter trying to learn Welsh from scratch.
I'd just been appointed public affairs officer for the RSPB in Wales. It was my first proper job after graduating and the role was to be the outward-facing person – press officer, campaigns and member liaison – for the charity. There was one condition: I had to become competent enough in Welsh to conduct media interviews, participate in meetings and give talks in the language of the nation in which I was working.
It sounds like a tall order – and it was. But I was 24, optimistic, and – so I thought – highly motivated. Looking back, the goal was probably unrealistic: anyone working in a press office knows it's hard enough to do a live radio or TV interview in your mother tongue, let alone a second language.
By the end of eight weeks immersion in Welsh, I was doing all right conversationally, and the following spring even managed to pass a GCSE. But with a demanding new job and a social life based in London and Cardiff, both several hours drive from my mid-Wales base, it soon became apparent that I didn't have the time, energy or inclination to spend evenings and weekends consolidating what I'd learned. And so, inevitably, I failed to learn Welsh.
The realisation that I was failing – and so putting my job on the line – was stressful in the extreme. It took me a year to admit defeat.
However, some people do manage to learn a language to do a job. So what does success require, and what can employers do to support staff who are making such a commitment to their professional development?
It will take a novice 120 to 180 hours to reach a "low beginner" level, explains Joanne Danehl, global practice leader in intercultural and language training at Crown World Mobility. Whether it's feasible to expect an employee to do this, she says, will "depend entirely on timelines and what the expectations of linguistic capability are".
Employees can certainly grasp enough of a new language to get by, she believes. "But if there is a specific technical vocabulary or the need to communicate in a nuanced fashion then it would be a difficult task."
This, however, is exactly what Adrien de Walque is attempting to do. A master's graduate from Belgium who wanted to work in press and marketing, de Walque was finding it hard to secure a job without good oral and written skills in English. He decided that to learn properly, he would have to travel to the UK and take an unpaid internship to immerse himself in the language in a professional setting.
The role he secured with the agency Blur Group – pitching stories, writing press releases, dealing with journalists and managing social media – requires highly developed language skills, so de Walque now has to refer every piece of work he does for approval.
"A language cannot be learned in few weeks so I need to be patient," he says – but he also knows that he needs support. Fortunately, he's got it – his manager Ruth Speakman appointed him over native English speaking candidates because of his passion and commitment, and says: "As long as both parties go in with eyes open, knowing that [facility with the language] may not work out in the time allowed, then unrealistic expectations should be avoided."
When the first flush of enthusiasm for learning a language starts to flag – as it almost inevitably does – employers need to step in to boost motivation, says Peter Burman, president of global education provider Education First.
In a survey his company carried out, it was discovered that while "rational" reasons for learning, such as career progression and a higher salary, helped people decide to embark on new language, they lost their power when individuals reached the umpteenth week of grappling with irregular verbs.
"Employers need to shift their attitude regarding motivating for training, and take a more active role," Burman says. "If regular engagement plans are put in place, and a motivation strategy is created, the success of training programs could improve." Progress meetings, target setting, and recognising and rewarding progress become important in ensuring that learners don't drop away from the programme. "Creating competitions out of training progress, with prizes for the best performance or highest class-participation, are also effective tools," he adds. "An interesting reward we heard about in Russia was that the winner could swap places with the head of the department for a day."
Candidates should ask themselves a few hard questions before embarking on a job for which a new language is a prerequisite, says Philippe Brown, founder of bespoke travel company Brown & Hudson, many of whose employees speak a number of languages. And it's honest answers only please.
"It is not inconceivable that the need to learn the language could overshadow the reality of the role," he explains. So it's important to ask yourself, he says, "do I really want to spend my evening and weekends learning Russian?"
If you've detested the slog of learning a language in the past, it's unlikely you'll love it now, no matter how fabulous the job in question. Ask your prospective employer how important it is to the role that you should be able to speak the language, Brown suggests, and make sure they specify what level you need to reach. It's also good to know if there are opportunities to practise the new language outside work: this opens up the possibility of new friendships and insights into exciting foreign cultures, both of which are intrinsically motivating in a way that carrying out work-based tasks may not always be.
I'll never forget inviting three Welsh-speaking friends for a meal and spending the entire evening struggling to converse as I dished up dinner. When I got over the shyness, I did finally manage it, but that's not the same as doing a polished TV interview on a topic that's politically sensitive to your organisation. And in the end, the truth is that there were always other things I enjoyed doing more than learning Welsh well enough to do that job.
But failure always teaches you something, and "know thyself" isn't a bad lesson to have taken away. Even if I can't quite remember how to say it in Welsh.