The benefits of learning a foreign language

Without doubt, learning a language is a smart move for any young engineer or technologist bidding to work on the world stage.

Adding to your workload and college commitments can be a challenge but with good time management and the right approach, it is possible to learn a language alongside your regular study. But it isn’t simply the language in itself that will mark you out from the competition as the very act of learning one demonstrates commitment, discipline, motivation and determination which are all qualities that employers view as desirable.

Choose your language

This will obviously depend on where you want to work in the world in the short, medium or long-term. For those who have aspirations beyond learning one specific language and seek to boost their market value by becoming multilingual, it is important to do your homework.

“Research the practical benefits of the language in relation to your chosen profession,” says Chris Barry, managing director of Linguaphone, a provider of self-study and classroom-based language courses. But he cautions: “Be wary of ‘language demand bubbles’. What is a popular choice now, may be less so in years to come.”

He adds though that niche languages can make you an interesting candidate for certain jobs that demand travel to emerging markets. Mandarin Chinese is frequently cited as one of the increasingly useful languages in the world while the rising economies in the other BRICs nations (Brazil, Russia and India) is increasing the adoption of their mother tongues. According to Barry, Spanish (also spoken in many Central and South American countries), Mandarin Chinese, French and German top the list of those languages in demand by global companies.

Which learning approach?

Broadly speaking, there two routes open to you: self-study or classroom-based via an evening class or similar. For a student engaged in full-time study, the former is likely to offer the most flexibility as they aren’t tied to fixed class times and you can research what is available on the Internet.

“With many courses now available as downloads or on CD, the student can allocate language learning time to a daily commute on the train or in the car. Current mobile technology has facilitated this significantly,” explains Barry, who reckons that allocating 30 minutes a day will enable a student to make good progress.

Work out what time of day will be best for your study and set out a weekly timetable. Be realistic about how much time you will have available and shorter but more frequent sessions are best. Depending on where you are based, and if time and resources permit, it might be possible to do a blend of self-study and a weekly class, which would considerably accelerate your learning.

Additional study aids

Having put in place and set time aside for your principal mode of study, you should then look at how you can enhance this with other pockets of activity that can be easily fitted into your daily and weekly routines. These could include watching and trying to follow a subtitled foreign film or TV programme in the language you are studying, downloading a podcast to listen to in the gym or displaying ten new words on Post-it notes a day on objects around the house.

Keep your phrasebook or dictionary with you at all times so you can use any idle time to brush up on phrases and words. You will also find various resources and tips online, many from fellow learners. If you are lucky enough to locate a study partner this could provide extra motivation and will especially help practice pronunciation.

If at all possible, visit the country where the language you are learning is spoken and take any opportunity to meet foreign visitors to the UK who speak the language. If you know a friend, family member or someone in your extended network who speaks the language, don’t be shy about asking if you can practice with them.

Be realistic

Learning another language requires great discipline but if you view it as an enjoyable hobby, it won’t feel like a chore. It is also important to be totally realistic in terms of what you can achieve.

Barry suggests one of the most common reasons for failure is lacking the necessary commitment to work through to the end of your study. He adds that some people also attain a certain standard and feel that is sufficient for their immediate needs.

While there is nothing wrong with this, in itself, if you haven’t mastered the language fully, don’t leave it too long before you return to it otherwise all of your effort and commitment first time round will be diluted.

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