Mary Lou Hayes of the property and construction division of Alexander Hughes Selection explains how a second language can boost your career.
Could a second language help my career?

As the industry becomes increasingly international, projects are being carried out across borders, particularly between the UK and Continental Europe. Successful business partnerships depend on both parties’ ability to speak the same language – literally. Language skills set you apart from your peers and you will be rewarded for them.

How fluent do I need to be?

Even a conversational knowledge will work to your benefit. It will help you to get the basics across and to create a rapport with an international client or associate. And your effort to speak to someone in his or her language demonstrates your willingness to learn about their culture – “multicultural empathy” as it is known.

What is multicultural empathy?

It means an openness to other cultures. To fully understand a second culture requires a long and close association that can only really be achieved by living and working in a country for a few years. But even basic language skills will make a difference.

Which languages are most in demand?

It is difficult to say categorically that one language is more valuable than another. Many people have been advised to learn “exotic” languages, but French and German are still a good bet. French is spoken in Belgium, West Africa and parts of Switzerland and is also spoken by a high percentage of Spaniards. German is widely used in Austria, Switzerland and much of eastern Europe.

At what stage in my career might a second language become important?

From day one. Graduates with language skills are extremely attractive to employers. Some firms that used to hire only graduate trainees with relevant degrees are taking on language graduates and sponsoring their studies to bring their technical skills up to scratch.

What if I’m already established in the industry?

It is worth indicating any language training you have had, even if it is only to O level or GCSE standard, on your CV. This applies to managers as well as young graduates, because it tells employers that you know the basics and could cope if they arranged language tuition.

When is it too late to learn?

It is never too late. Most employers are happy to sponsor or subsidise language study. And if you can find colleagues who want to learn the same language, you could set up group tuition at work. This may reduce the cost but it is also more fun and will help to motivate you. Peer pressure will ensure you do your homework and do not give up.

Make languages work for you

  • French and German are still the most sought-after European languages
  • Don’t worry about being fluent – even a basic knowledge will help establish a rapport with foreign colleagues
  • Be prepared to learn about a country’s culture as well as its language
  • Approach your colleagues and ask your employer for group tuition
  • Even if you only have a GCSE or O level, put it on your CV
  • Foreign languages can be as useful for senior managers as they are for graduate trainees