Foreign language skills open IT career options

The British are bottom of the European league table when it comes to speaking a foreign language, and with the Government...

The British are bottom of the European league table when it comes to speaking a foreign language, and with the Government planning on making languages optional at GCSE level, there is no sign of this position improving. But if you tap in a foreign language in the search engine of any IT recruitment Web site you are guaranteed to get extensive listings for a whole range of IT jobs, writes Nathalie Towner.

Unfortunately, ITers are no better than the rest of the country when it comes to foreign tongues. A straw poll of Xtra! readers showed that most ITers cannot speak any foreign languages beyond a bit of O-level French.

"Sixty five per cent of UK nationals are monolingual, and the rest don't necessarily speak a foreign language to a very high level," says Dominic Luddy, projects officer at the Languages National Training Organisation. "In this country there is a real problem with raising awareness."

The Xtra! readers surveyed were almost unanimous in believing that the British should make more of an effort when it comes to foreign tongues. Although not all of them believed it would immediately benefit their career prospects, it was generally felt that it would put them in an advantageous position if they could communicate with their foreign colleagues.

"When I was working on a European desktop publishing job, it would have made communications with writers easier and made me more approachable," says IT manager Prudence Smith.

Even basic language skills can create a good impression and help you interact with people who would otherwise be out of reach.

Business analyst Richard Leach speaks fluent German, excellent French and has just sat his Italian GCSE. Languages have definitely been an asset in his IT career. "In a previous job I was part of a multinational and was sent to various plants around Europe on consultancy assignments," he says. "Although it was an American company and most of the managers spoke English, to talk to the people on the shop floor and learn from them you had to speak their language. I learnt more from them than any of their managers in this way."

Leach believes that languages are particularly useful when there is a strong international element to the company and you have to spend time in the corporate environment to progress.

However, it is not only the big players who see the benefits of being able to speak foreign languages. Dawn Constable is manager of Euro London IT Resourcing, a recruitment agency that specialises in placing multilingual ITers. "Small companies with clients abroad also recruit from us," she says. "If the competition is offering support with foreign languages then they have to do the same."

Most of Euro London's placements are for technical and post-sales support, with 80% of the candidates posted in the UK. The most asked for languages are French, German, Dutch and Italian.

"We also recruit at a more senior level," says Constable. "Project managers and consultants are needed for overseas assignments, for example, but at more senior levels languages are more useful than essential."

Euro London has a database of 60,000 IT professionals, but only 30% are British - 58% are from other European countries and the rest are from around the world.

Other IT agencies are also noticing that languages are being requested more often. "Language is becoming an important issue, many of our clients across Europe are insisting that the local language must be spoken before our candidates are accepted as potential employees," says Paul Finch of Keypower Consultants.

"This is also true of global projects that require implementation of systems, albeit that they are built in the UK. Here it is not just language we must be able to cope with but also culture and localisation if you have no understanding of how your system, product or service is used locally, then forget it."

Although languages are increasingly desirable, ITers are not guaranteed a bigger pay packet if they have them on their CV - even if they are essential for the job. But don't let this put you off.

"It is one more skill that will place you above someone else, and you will be far more likely to be placed on international projects," says Constable.

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