Dan Smith on Britain and languages: “The world is laughing at us”

Blogger and good friend Dan Smith recently wrote a reply piece to my article “Britain: Is it time to consider living, studying or working abroad?”. Here is an edited version of his blog. To read the full article click here.

For a start, I implore you, the British public, to get out of our wonderful rainy little island and explore the rest of the world.

So in this respect I couldn’t agree more. I deeply regret not taking the opportunity to study abroad whether on a free Erasmus scheme as part of my degree or by taking a full degree over the puddle. Europe has excellent Universities and you can learn a second language while you’re at it.

You could even take up the opportunity to do an apprenticeship in another country like the two thousand or so young Brits apprenticing in Germany with Siemens and earn while you learn.

But to counter this, if you’re studying an employable post graduate degree in the UK there are plenty of funding opportunities. The Panasonic Trust with the Royal Academy of Engineering, for instance, provide opportunity for £8,000 of funding for sustainable engineering MSc courses.

If you put engineering/science, environment and sustainability in a funding application then people fall over themselves to hand you cash.

Then there’s working in Europe. This is where it becomes trickier. I’ve done it and know plenty of other linguistically challenged people working in certain hubs of Europe. I was in Geneva where there are many businesses and international NGOs all working in English. The same can be said for Brussels and I’ve been assured that many of the large international corporation’s lingua franca is English too.

But that’s where it ends.

The simple fact is that if you want to live and work in a European country you will eventually need to speak a different European language. And we’re terrible at it! I’ve been relentlessly ridiculed by my European friends about this, most of whom could speak 3 languages but often multiple. These aren’t linguists or teachers, they’re everyday run of the mill people, like me and you. And it’s a similar story on every other continent in the world.

Britain, we suck at speaking other languages!

So if I, Steve, you, or any other British person truly wants to go work in Europe I’d suggest we take a long hard look at our linguistic capabilities first.

Steve also suggested we go work in Germany because they’ve got terrific employment rates. They’ve also got a terrific education system and primarily operate in German – but they are nice about speaking English. It’s certainly not impossible, I have good friends doing just that, but it’s not as easy as he portrays.

Or how about we all emigrate to the colonies for the good life of cheap beer and endless sunshine?

Well, first of all, Britain tried this a while back and it didn’t really go according to plan. Secondly, just like Germany, to work (or indeed get a work visa) in many of these countries you need a productive skill set. Fortunately for me Engineering is on the list for most visa fast track systems.

Uganda, like many African countries, has a skills shortage and a huge unemployment problem. Unlike Germany it has an education system that is not meeting the needs of the populace.

Furthermore the economy, although growing, isn’t big enough to provide jobs for all of the young people that do have skills and education. So unless you, dear British comrade, have useful skills to offer or can produce employment opportunities for the thousands of unemployed Ugandans, the government doesn’t really want you.

And so it shouldn’t.

Just because you’ve got a sociology degree from the University of Hull and a burning desire to help poor Africans (or perhaps just to live the good life in a sunny country) this doesn’t mean you should come to do a job that you wouldn’t be qualified for in the UK.

Britain does produce many highly qualified and useful people. I passionately believe that we could be leading the way in socially beneficial business, engineering and research. As a country we really do have the experience to do that and as a global population we need more people doing it.

But if you want to export your skills to another country, whether in the EU or the rest of the world, you need just that – skills.

Apart from that we all need to learn some languages.

Britain, the world is laughing at us.

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Filed under Economics, EU politics, Uganda

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