The Language Tutor: Myths and Truth

Posted by Manoah Finston on 2/17/14 8:54 AM

KLIlogo resized 600

One of the few languages we don't tutor at Cambridge Coaching.

Hello, dear readers! Today’s post is something of a rousing battle cry for the humanities, shouted from the rooftops by one very energetic New York language tutor. Whether you speak Spanish, Chinese, French, Greek, Latin, Swahili, or Klingon, this advice is for you: Don’t give up your language study, and strongly consider working your language skills into your college major or minor – especially if you speak Klingon.

But in all seriousness, I find that among my students and their peers, too many myths continue to prevail about the usefulness—or lack thereof—of studying a second or third language. It would be one thing to say a few remarks here to dispel those falsehoods, clearing away misinformation the way one casually sweeps an attic of cobwebs with a few idle swats of a broomstick. But I hope that the information I’m sharing here will register with a bit more force, much like the way that Seahawks fans genuinely cause earthquakes around Seattle when their fandom reaches its fever pitch. Now, instead of delivering my text-based message with a fit of CAPS LOCK RAGE, I’ll just tackle three myths about language study and shout out some sound bites as a remedy. Hopefully, by the end of the post, you’ll be on the phone with your college counselors and Cambridge tutors, preparing to add another major in whichever language and/or linguistic area you study.

Myth # 1: Academic majors and minors correlate directly with job prospects, so studying a language that isn’t directly connected to future employment objectives is a waste of time.

The truth: Now more than ever, employers are willing to look beyond the limits of individual academic disciplines in order to create and maintain diverse, broadly capable workforces – and language skills are now being seen as huge drivers of value.

Don’t believe me? Consider an article from November 2013 in the Financial News, sister publication to the Wall Street Journal, entitled “Banks look to arts graduates as people skills come to the fore.” The banking and finance industry, mother of inflexible and traditional hiring practices, has never been more open to considering arts and humanities students. Why? And why now? The article quotes a variety of banking executives explaining that as banking becomes increasingly global, the requisite skills for success can’t simply be acquired through mathematics, economics, and business degrees. As the finance world relies increasingly on sharp communication and negotiation capacities in its workers, banks are gearing up to recruit more students from the arts and humanities. As Michael Ridley, a vice-chairman in investment banking at JP Morgan with over 30 years of industry experience explains: “Even our traders are selling and dealing with people. You need some communication and presentation skills to be able to persuade people to change their mind on things.”

The kind of academic major that banks are now looking for, one that emphasizes communicative ability in a variety of situations and media, that pushes critical thinking skills, careful listening, and precise argumentation, and that prepares students for work in a multilingual, multinational environment, can’t be found in the math department or at the computer lab. You’ll find it of course in countless language and literature programs, and in the humanities more broadly. And we’ve just been talking about the financial sector. Any industry with an increasingly global profile—web development, medical and biotech, construction and real estate, engineering, automotive, aerospace, consumer goods, and on and on—will have its own need for good listeners and dynamic communicators. So whether you’re in a 101 language course or you’re already fluent, or you’re in middle school or high school and about to start learning a language, take note: your language knowledge can connect you to job opportunities much broader than you might first think.

Myth #2: Studying a language is only helpful if future employment opportunities have a specific and targeted application for that language, so a Spanish major won’t add value to an investment banking job in Asia, and a Chinese minor won’t secure a hire in the North American hospitality industry…

The truth: Companies across a wide array of industries sorely need employees with strong “soft” skillsets, and bilingual and/or trilingual students have these skills in spades.

Let’s look at this another way. Have you ever had a terrible customer service experience? Have you ever had to read an email twice or three times, just to understand what it was saying? Have you ever read the instructions for something until your eyeballs hurt but you still couldn’t comprehend how to put the thing together or make the thing work? Have you ever gotten in a fight with someone over something that seemed big but later just turned out to be a miscommunication? If so, congratulations! You’re human! And as such, you experience on a daily basis all of the ways that our delightful species fails at some of its most basic tasks: correctly expressing empathy for others, accurately relaying information, sequentially narrating steps in a process. Surprisingly or perhaps unsurprisingly, industries in a globalized economy have increasingly found themselves in greater need of workers who can effectively and sensitively perform such tasks across languages, cultures, and employment areas. And if you happen to be studying a foreign language or two or seven, then your day-to-day academic training is providing you with the “soft skills” building that myriad employers so rightly seek.

But here’s something else: although many employers recognize the need to train their employees in core “soft skills” like customer relations, written and verbal expression, and critical thinking, few are willing to pay for such training on the job. A recent survey developed by Accountemps, the world’s largest temporary staffing firm for finance and accounting professionals, asked 2100 US Chief Financial Officers of companies across more than 20 industries to name the single biggest obstacle to career advancement for their employees. Coming in at number one, with a 30% response rate, was “Poor interpersonal skills.” But asked with the follow-up question of whether they would be willing to train employees who already possess specialized skills (like accounting and business) in more general “soft” skills like interpersonal relations, only 19% of CFOs said that they would consider it. By comparison, 32% of polled CFOs said that they’d be willing to invest in further training in accounting, and 29% said that they’d consider investing in IT and Information Systems training. Now, granted, with the data from this follow-up question, we’re only talking about what Financial Officers are willing to do for their most technically-minded employees, but the responses are still striking, especially when put in relief with the first question, where CFOs spoke to the skills lacking in their workforces company-wide.

Digesting this information, we can risk the following: employers recognize that their employees need more soft training, but they’re much more likely to spend money on more technical and specialized training programs anyway, even though this doesn’t remedy the people skills deficit. So what does this mean for you as a student of languages and cultures? It means that your academic training adds more value than you know. If you find yourself in an industry that needs “soft” skills as much as hard ones, your language capabilities will distinguish you from your peers. And if you need to learn additional skills in the workplace in order to rise professionally, don’t worry, because not only is your employer more likely to spend money on special training, but that training will also go farther for you than for other candidates. Anyone can take a course on a new piece of software, because that’s easy to coach, but how do you teach empathy, understanding, patience, and cultural sensitivities to the salaried multitudes? Getting that training while in high school and college will serve you well as you prepare for the workforce. And as for the argument that individual languages are only good to know if they are spoken in your specific workplace? General language knowledge is people knowledge, and since every field demands some degree of interpersonal interaction, your linguistic abilities are guaranteed to set you apart. Just ask the 2100 American CFOs who need to hire students just like you.

TheKlingonHamlet resized 600

Apparently this is a real thing.

Myth #3: Learning a language only makes sense for studying abroad, and most majors with high credit loads don’t permit foreign study, so taking a language is a wash.

The truth: Plenty of study abroad opportunities don’t require preexisting language knowledge, and plenty of colleges and universities are becoming much more flexible regarding study away opportunities because it is in their interest to send more students abroad.

Anyone who has perused the fancy websites of top schools or flipped through the slick campus publications mailed to households with SAT and PSAT-age children knows that study abroad offers, like arts programming and campus diversity, tend to be showcased and sometimes even over-exaggerated in the branding efforts of colleges and universities. But for all the attention, even hype around studying abroad, new statistics tell a different, starker story. A recent report by the Institute of International Education finds that of all enrolled US college students, fewer than 2% (!) study abroad each year. Nevertheless, two and four year colleges across the board are increasingly looking to more globalized and international study opportunities as the new standard for liberal arts education in the 21st century. What this means for current and future students of language is that studying abroad is no longer the privilege of the happy few art historians and English majors and native bilingual rich folks who can easily justify flinging themselves across an ocean for a semester. Now, premeds, marketing majors, mathematicians and more can benefit from increasingly networked study abroad enterprises that match student academic interests or requirements to program offerings. The increasingly global view of higher education also means more financial aid opportunities for foreign study, a move that does much to widen access and broaden possibilities for students all across the country.

With this in mind, students should look to a semester or summer abroad as part and parcel of the collegiate experience – and not as a privilege reserved only for elites or dilettantes. In this view, any and all language knowledge becomes an asset, since even in a more democratized study abroad environment, program admission is bound to remain competitive. So, stick with that intermediate level Mandarin class, or start working on that Modern Hebrew course, or take some sessions with a Spanish tutor, or dust off your copies of Madame Bovary and reacquaint yourself with the French past subjunctive, because your next gen-ed requirement may very well involve a commute waaaaaaay longer than the walk from your dorm to the quads.

I hope that by now it is clear that pursuing language study of some kind, at any level, can add tremendous value to the college experience and can position you for job opportunities well beyond the traditional expected career paths for individual majors. The last thing that bears discussion, beyond all these facts and figures, is the simple truth that learning a new language and engaging with a new culture is enormously fun. Language learning is a unique kind of learning, one that begins in the classroom but extends to all corners of the earth. It is a worthy pursuit for so many reasons, and I hope that all of you will have the good fortune to find pleasure in it. Stay tuned for more posts about language learning, college study abroad, and other tasty morsels in the months ahead, and as always, enjoy! 



Tags: language learning, career advice