Learning a language: From foothills to mountain peak

Learning a Language - Languages and Culture

Learning a language is likened to climbing a mountain.  The beginner sets off full of energy and – driven by enthusiasm or necessity – soon arrives in the foothills.  From here is a broad view over the valley below.  Setting off again, the ascent becomes a little steeper and the intermediate student arrives at a plateau.  Below, the valley looks much the same distance away, while the summit, hidden behind clouds, is no longer visible.  This is the point at which some waver.  But after a year abroad, living and studying amongst native speakers of the language, the student is ready to set off again.  Suspended inside a tent fastened to the side of the cliff face, the advanced student watches the mist begin to clear and the summit finally become visible.  Far, far below clouds have obscured the valley, and the language learner can barely remember their first steps in Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Mandarin Chinese, Swahili or one of the other languages offered at SOAS, which they began four years before.

When you have completed your language degree, what job opportunities exist? Actually, you are now the person best placed to answer that question.  Having spent your third year abroad in a university in Egypt, Japan, Korea, China, Tanzania, Kenya or another location relevant to your degree, you will be equipped with experience of living in that country, have useful knowledge of its language(s) and culture(s), and the different job possibilities will already be clear to you.

Employers value the ‘transferable skills’ a language graduate brings, and will consider language graduates for a wide range of posts, including ones not directly related to their original degree.

Studying a living language generally involves building up a set of four key skills:  listening, speaking, reading and writing.  Someone that has been trained to listen carefully, to read and analyse all manner of texts, and to communicate effectively in spoken and written words, should be of interest to any organisation.

Learning a language - languages and cultures
The view from the mountain (photo (c) Marc Tarlock, Flickr)

What the employer sees in front of them is a ‘mountaineer’:  someone capable of hard work and application, with the staying power to learn a language from scratch.   He or she won’t know how close you came to abandoning your degree in Year 2 because you couldn’t face leaving your family/friends/partner to travel abroad.  They won’t know that your detailed knowledge of medical terms in Japanese was a result of crashing your rental car in the mountains of Hokkaido Prefecture and spending more time recuperating in hospital than in the university classroom; or that your knowledge of Modern Standard Arabic is tinged with the flavour of the street from the friends you hung out with in a neighbourhood café.

SOAS students who have completed their four years’ language training in a range of languages have swiftly found employment.  Philippa Hewett, Head of Careers Service says:

‘Employers of all sorts really value the amazing breadth of skills and experiences which a SOAS language degree brings. It is worth noting that the University of Leeds did some research recently about the improvement in graduate employment prospects for students who did a year abroad and this was approximately 7% better than the baseline of all students who got graduate jobs. Our languages graduates enter all sorts of careers, from specific language-based roles such as interpreters through to roles in Times Top 100 companies as consultants or roles in UK and international government departments. A SOAS language degree really can help you to change your world.’

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