Paul Ketchley is an Associate Lecturer with the Open University.
While working for the Open University, Paul occasionally uses a foreign language at work. Although this is mostly when travelling abroad for residential trips, he thinks that knowing another language is a big benefit.
Could you give us some examples of when you have used foreign languages at work?
I was working at a Residential School outside Brussels on our MBA last weekend. I had to get to the venue from the Eurostar terminal (find a taxi for five people and tell the driver where we wanted to go) and deal with some problems at the centre with the technical staff. It’s a lot easier if you can speak to people in their language rather than assuming they can speak yours.
Would you say that speaking foreign languages is advantageous in your sector?
It shows you have an understanding of the wider world that you can operate on a reasonably equal basis to others. Apart from anything else, you have a better understanding of the richness of other cultures and national approaches. You would be very “out of the loop” if you couldn’t do that.
How proficient would you say people need to be for language skills to be useful at work?
I think that depends. You need a basic level of confidence and competence to get around things like the tram system or the metro in Brussels or Paris.
If you can’t read the station signs on the Moscow metro, you’re going to find it very difficult to get around. Russian gets a lot easier if you can read Cyrillic signage, because a lot of the words are the same as English or French. I’ve always found Russian people extremely tolerant of my not speaking Russian if I can read key words.
It helps to be able to understand what is going on, to contribute at events like conferences, and to be able to converse over dinner if it’s a non-English speaking table.
On the other hand, it’s important to know your limitations and not get into (say) contract negotiations if you’re not altogether fluent, which I don’t pretend to be.
What would you say to a young person about the benefits of speaking at least one other language when entering the workplace?
Most businesses these days either have suppliers or customers in countries where the first language isn’t English, where you are going to be in the queue if it comes to going to their premises to find out about their latest product or to build customer relations.
What helped you to learn languages effectively?
I did French to A-level at school, but then I worked for the County Council in Kent when the Channel Tunnel was being build, so I was lucky enough for their to be language courses and also got the chance to work with our partner organisations in the Nord Pas-de-Calais. I gained a lot of confidence simply by going to meeting and having to use my French, because the people I was working with didn’t speak that much English.
The London Ambulance Service sent me to Chile and Colombia for business purposes and the Open University has also sent me to places like Russia, Slovenia, Germany, and the like, so I’ve always tried to do the basics at the very least. Someone I worked with once told me that you should never go to a country on business if you couldn’t order two beers in the local language and there is some truth in that basic test.
A massive thank you to Paul for all your hints and tips on language learning and for letting us know about your experiences.
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