What is the fate of young Europeans propelled into the real world after obtaining their language degree? Oana Tenter finds out what life post-graduation holds in store.

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Photo: Presidio of Monterey (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

Studying humanities and languages usually implies plunging into unconventional and at times inspirational research, supposedly tightly entwined with one’s dearest interests. For my degree, I’m now meant to write an essay on Lynch’s cinema – probably my last year’s top nocturnal preoccupation – while my French workload has been of great help in getting me free croissants and hand cream samples from kind French locals when on ski trips. Speaking other languages than my mother tongue has been pretty important for me so far; from a bilingual town in Romania bordering Hungary, I landed in the midst of the linguistically cosmopolitan scene of London.

Later on, venturing on an Erasmus programme in Paris before coming back to the UK meant unfastening once more any sense of linguistic equilibrium I naively thought I might have attained. Once again, learning different grammar logics and other human interaction codes diverted me from what a monolingual I would have probably been. Indeed, immersing in another language – and effectually in another culture – shapes not only the way our brains function but also, arguably, holds the reins of how we choose to lead our lives. Foreign languages, exchange programmes abroad and eventually European youths looking for jobs all across Europe, living a more “transnational” way of living might be just what Europe needs in order to recover from recession and grow stronger culturally and socially, in time and with patience.

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Photo: Chris JL (Flickr) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

But, how does a language degree actually help you get a job?

Of course, tactfully pulling out some ace foreign language skills can only be a bonus – comedian Eddie Izard’s fluency in French gets the laughs of multilingual audiences while Diane Kruger fascinates with her trilingual acting skills. But are humanities and language studies in sync with the competitive job market out there at the moment, in a context of internationally spread, fast-paced capitalism? The heaviness of these questions lies, of course, in a multitude of intertwined factors: the environment of the multilingual-graduate-student-subject in question, their familial and educational background along with their personal drive, capabilities and many other contingent factors which would take very long to discern, let alone analyse.

But while I would prattle away only to conclude humbly with a Socratic “I don’t know”, an experienced employer would be likely to shut me down with a utilitarian equation estimating the probability of getting a job with a language degree at hand. Don’t get me wrong: this article is far from being a Manichean take of an enlightened leftist academic-wannabe waging war against entrepreneurship and capitalism. It is rather the reflection of how students reading humanities and languages see their position in the scheme of today’s job markets, as I have interviewed friends from Russia, Brazil, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Italy, France, Wales and England, who have been studying languages all around Europe and beyond, at undergraduate, postgraduate, PhD level or already working.

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Photo: nofrills (Flickr); Licence: CC BY-NC 2.0

What do language students have to say for themselves?

Despite the internal satisfaction of pursuing their interests and the perks of mastering a foreign language, humanities and language students are often accused of idleness, lack of skills and eventually have to face the daunting doom of unemployment.

All the friends I interviewed say they have always held a genuine interest in foreign languages but also, almost everyone confessed they embarked on their studies (and partly as a consequence of) not having a clue what they wanted to do career-wise later on. In this respect, the familial and environmental context seems to represent a solid influence; naturally, most parents like the sound of a traditionally reliable-seeming, cushy job, especially in the case of those interviewed from Brazil, Russia, Romania or Poland. In these countries – facing transitional economic and political fluctuations and only sometimes overlapping with the current global context of job marketshumanities and language studies are still seen as the unwavering threshold to a comfortable yet prestigious career in academia, translating or teaching.

The few friends who were attracted by the prospect of teaching in the first place, grew disillusioned by their work experiences, given the precarious conditions of the educational system and the lamentable salaries still in practice in Eastern Europe’s post-communist countries, for example.

Alternatively, those who have lived for longer in the more Western side of Europe, appear to be more comfortable with the permeability of studies in the current job market. In England, for example, the growing tendency of marketing higher education is visible in the promotion of grad schemes, those capitalist odysseys in pursuit of well-paid jobs, far removed from your degree focus and arguably your genuine interests.

To bank or not to bank?

None of the people interviewed, studying in London, found any kind of internship or  scheme related to their studies, through their university, as they felt everything on offer seemed to be related to finance, law or business (and even those ones required prior experience; even more so from language students). As a humanities student, you can happily walk away from the multicoloured cupcakes and prize roulettes provided by the never-ending bank fairs on campus. Under-supported by universities, language students wanting to even slightly stick to the nature of their degree choose to take upon themselves a palette of extracurricular activities which might eventually get them an internship (very likely unpaid).

While some of those interviewed feel deeply underwhelmed by the practicality of their degree and express various regrets related to their choice of study, everyone recalls their year abroad enthusiastically and also appreciates that the breadth of their studies has widened their range of interests and their points of reference. While most of those interviewed see themselves pursuing some kind of interest related to their degree (more for personal pleasure than career-related), only very few are keen to carry on extensive research, let alone stay in academia. Only two out of all the 15 interviewed are considering the academia pathway. Everyone felt they have become considerably more pragmatic in regards to their career plans, if they’d ever had one. Striving to explore what capitalism has on offer for them, nearly no-one feels the call towards a certain vocation, but rather wants jobs and internships that would help them realise in time what they might be good at.

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Photo: COD Newsroom (Flickr); Licence: CC BY 2.0

However, it seems that the displacement that language and humanities students feel towards the job markets outside academia stirs premature (un)employment anxiety. At a point in time with unprecedented opportunities, many students are left doubtful in regards to their own interests and engagement drive, when enmeshed in tangle of academic debate and argument, which often feel far removed from our immediate reality. A possible re-envision of humanities studies would imply brushing up programmes through the addition of bits of relevant technological training, or through the introduction of more practical skills. With the help of tools and practice in tune with today’s job market, humanities students would be empowered to highlight the qualitative, analytical knowledge assimilated through the nature of their studies rather than to feel ideologically ruptured from the realities of the current economic context. By embracing the complementarity of arts, humanities, languages, technology rather than the conversion from one enclosed field to another, we would start escaping some of the socially fabricated divisions sprung from Enlightenment principles.

Our jobs are intrinsically tied to the larger scheme of societies’ ways of conduct. In an increasingly transnational global context, there is undeniably a plethora of job opportunities out there for humanities and language students. Moreover, according to a Rosetta Stone survey published in The Telegraph, 87 per cent of executives across Britain and Germany argue there was a need for more than one critical language speaker in their companies. With all this data in mind, humanities and language graduates may choose whether they want to rely on a more organic and impromptu way of finding a job or to “jouer le jeu” of multiple CV versions, the “wooden language” of pompous promotional blabber of LinkedIn, networking parades, interview instruction workshops and all the other artificial fabrications of the current job market. It seems that it is entirely up to us (and I would stress entirely) to fructify whatever we want from all that globalization, transnationalism and capitalism have to offer, however disenchanted our academia-fuelled idealism may grow to be.

Teaser photo: The LEAF Project (Flickr) Licence: CC0 1.0

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    Oana Tenter is from Transylvania, Romania but currently resides in London. After studying for a year at Sorbonne University in Paris, she is now a final year student at University College London, reading Language and Culture and focusing on film, anthropology, East European studies and French language.

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