Getting over the language barrier: how Irish job seekers can improve their career options
Image via Mellimage/Shutterstock

Getting over the language barrier: how Irish job seekers can improve their career options

12 Apr 2013

Ireland has become a base for a number of global tech companies, including major multinationals like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter and PayPal. This booming technology sector has brought with it increased demand for multilingual staff in sales, support and customer service, though supply continues to be short.

In June last year, the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation launched a skills report from Forfás and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs (EGFSN) that highlighted Ireland’s critical need to improve foreign language skills among job-seekers and graduates. The following month, PayPal’s EMEA vice-president Louise Phelan expressed her frustration at the challenge she faces in recruiting multilingual employees from Ireland.

But by November Ireland still had the chairman of the Committee on Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation Damien English, TD, saying Ireland was lagging behind its European counterparts in relation to foreign language skills, and, at Career Zoo in The Convention Centre Dublin earlier this year, Phelan reiterated PayPal’s need for multilingual Irish workers.

Skills for the future

Following publication of the skills report, EGFSN chair Una Halligan pointed to the essential skills needed to fill future jobs, and foreign-language capability was chief among these. “The recommendations went forward, and the big one was foreign language,” she tells me.

Since then, a number of colleges and schools have introduced new foreign language programmes. Chinese, Japanese and Russian have been introduced at transition year and Leaving Certificate level in many secondary schools, while some offer French, German, Italian, Spanish, Japanese, Arabic and Russian as extra-curricular subjects at Junior Certificate level.

Halligan says these changes suggest that educators are beginning to understand the need for foreign language proficiency, but she’s not sure if a long-term strategy is enough. “I think the ones that we’re probably most concerned about in the immediate future are the EU languages, or European foreign languages,” she says.

Immediate job opportunities

Where Halligan identifies a huge area of need is among indigenous companies trying to sell abroad. These companies need graduates of degree programmes that incorporate languages, particularly in terms of sales and marketing.

Una Halligan, chair, Expert Group on Future Skills Needs

Una Halligan, chair, Expert Group on Future Skills Needs

“There are jobs in the immediate future for people with foreign languages,” she declares, adding that engineers, software developers and computer science graduates could particularly benefit from this added skillset.

“A lot of companies who are selling out of Ireland and internationally traded services are looking for people with a foreign language that can go along with their core competency, whether it’s engineering, marketing, whatever,” says Halligan. She emphasises that these jobs are available right now, but they are being filled by non-Irish workers with better language skills.

“If there was more of a competency with our own Irish graduates with foreign language, there are far more advantages for them and certainly huge job opportunities for them at the moment,” she adds.

Learning through immersion

Halligan recommends that students considering an Erasmus programme choose a foreign language-speaking country over popular options such as the US and Australia. “If you spend a year studying your degree in a foreign language, well then you’re going to be very fluent at the end of it,” she says, matter-of-factly.

Above all else, Halligan believes language students should learn to practise their skills in real-life situations. “Undergraduates should be encouraged to go to the country – even if it’s only to go and work as au pairs or work in bars or whatever.”

In fact, to acquire the foreign language skills needed to fill future jobs, Halligan does not necessarily recommend a third-level qualification. A degree in language often involves studying a country’s literature and gaining a deeper understanding, but, for future careers, job seekers need only to be competent speakers of a foreign language.

“If we could get students to immerse themselves in the language rather than worry about the grammar and the literature of the country, they would have far more potential in the jobs market,” Halligan states.

“Learning a language isn’t always through the degree or education route, learning a language is immersion,” she concludes, with a recommendation that anyone with an ICT qualification spend a summer abroad – particularly Germany, our third-largest market for exports.

Global languages on our doorstep

However, in cash-strapped times, travelling abroad to bone up on a language is not an option for many, but there are institutions in Ireland that take an immersive approach to language education without the need to relocate. Instituto Cervantes and Alliance Française, for example, provide language courses for all levels and can tailor classes to suit students’ needs.

Sergio Angulo Bujanda, press officer, Instituto Cervantes Dublin

Sergio Angulo Bujanda, press officer, Instituto Cervantes Dublin

Instituto Cervantes is the only institution in Ireland that can issue a DELE diploma, which is the official qualification in Spanish for professional or academic activity in Spain. The purpose of the non-profit institute is to promote official Spanish languages as well as Spanish and Latin-American culture. Activities outside of classes range from the literary to the gastronomic, with artists visiting from Spain and South America throughout the year, and the premises in Lincoln House, Dublin, houses the largest Spanish-language library in Ireland.

Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the world after Mandarin Chinese, with about 403m native speakers. The US has the world’s second-largest Spanish-speaking population and Instituto Cervantes press officer Sergio Angulo Bujanda believes it could have more Spanish speakers than Spain in five to 10 years’ time. “Probably a lot of people from Ireland are looking for work and to travel to the States, and in the States you really need Spanish nowadays to get a good job,” he says.

Angulo Bujanda also cites the emerging economies of South America, such as Chile and Costa Rica, as places bursting with Spanish-speaking job opportunities, and Brazil, though a Portuguese-speaking country, is apparently adopting Spanish as its language of business on account of its location. “They are using Spanish more and more because all of the countries around (Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela) speak Spanish,” he says. “It’s easier to communicate in Spanish in Brazil than in English.”

Parlez-vous français?

Another hugely influential global language is French, which is spoken by about 220m people worldwide as either a first or second language and has been adopted by many international organisations.

The Alliance Française in Dublin is the third-largest European branch of this non-profit institution, and there are other branches in Limerick, Waterford, Kilkenny and Galway. Students of the institute are automatically members of the resource centre and can therefore take books, CDs and DVDs in French home with them. Like Instituto Cervantes, the Alliance is also a cultural centre, hosting about 10 events a month, from the cinematic to the musical.

“The main thing is to be fun. Nobody wants to go to a gloomy place after they’ve had work,” says branch director Philippe Milloux.

Philippe Milloux, director, Alliance Française Dublin

Philippe Milloux, director, Alliance Française Dublin

Milloux himself was at Career Zoo in February connecting with companies like Amazon, PayPal and Google, all of which recruit multilingual employees. He believes language problems aren’t just an Irish issue and that the difficulty stems from how they are taught, with repetition instead of immersion and real-life use.

“What I’ve learned from the past is that some places teach you but with the Alliance, at the global scale, you actually learn the language, because we have been doing this for a long time – 50 years in Dublin,” he says.

Milloux believes that being monolingual is a handicap in today’s globalised society, though he admits it’s one that many of us carry around. But the simple solution is practise. If a student completes a course and doesn’t continue to use the language, six months down the line they will be right back where they started. “The brain goes with whatever is really fresh in your memory,” says Milloux. “Linguists know that very well.”

The more often and the more progressive your lessons, the better, according to Milloux. “The combination of intensive class and then a bit of homework by yourself, and then practising, of course, being with French people – or any other language – as much as you can,” is what he advises.

Main image via Mellimage/Shutterstock

Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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