Sarah Synott, Head of Marketing at law firm Radcliffeslebrasseur, reflects upon how languages have shaped her skills-set and her career.
Hi Sarah. What led you to study more than one language?
Well, I was lucky because langauges were so supported in my school. We started learning French and Latin from the first year and then were invited to take either Spanish or German – I chose Spanish. So from an early stage I was already doing three languages and enjoyed them.
I did all three languages to GCSE and continued with French and Spanish at A-level. From there it was a natural progression to study them at a higher level. I was enjoying them, I was good at them and I was convinced that they were going to be useful in later life.
And how useful have languages been to you?
Immensely. It’s hard to underestimate the benefits of them, actually. I love travelling, so use them all the time in that sense, but my study of languages has also shaped my career. When I first graduated from university I wasn’t necessarily sure what I was going to do; I did a few different temp jobs, but I hung out for something where I could use my languages. My first proper job was working in events for a global property consultancy, and my role there was organising their attendance at conferences and exhibitions around Europe, so my knowledge of languages was pivotal to securing that job. In that role I was placed in a wider marketing team, and so my career developed from events into the broader field of marketing and communication – I do see languages as crucial there too, as everything I have been successful at centres around communication.
Did you ever consider a career in something more closely related to languages, such as translation work?
I did yes – it’s a consideration for all language graduates I suppose; but I was convinced that the commercial world was right for me – I can’t put my finger on why, particularly! I also wanted to join the working world as soon as I could and translation work meant further study. But as a language graduate you have all the options open – there were contemporary graduates of mine who went on to work in Intelligence for GCHQ, others to work in Brussels in roles related to our place in the EU – perhaps we won’t discuss that right now! Let’s not go there! [We both laugh!]
Given my own job I just have to ask you about the Latin – do you think that learning a dead language was useful?
Oh God yes – I’m not just saying that because I’m talking to a Classicist! I'm sure it helped with the basis to continue with languages generally and I know it helped with my English grammar and writing skills. Part of my job now is writing and sometimes editing and I'm sure that it has helped me with my skills in my own language.
Indeed. Some people say “why learn a dead language?” but the answer is actually “because it's a dead language!” Due to that, it’s completely separate from the conversational method – you learning the roots and underlying structures of a language; with the conversational method it’s all about communication, which is also fantastically important, but getting to grips with the grammatical structures of language has its benefits too.
I really believe it’s a useful subject – it’s good for you intellectually, it’s terrific for language learning and it’s important historically and culturally. But it’s true of languages generally that the academic benefits are hard to quantify yet absolutely crucial. When you’re immersed in the focused study of languages you perhaps don't realise just what it does for your skills in your own language, giving you a better command of the underlying structure of how your own language works, improving your own ability to write and communicate. I genuinely believe that learning languages is why ended up being successful in the business of communication.
So how important do you think the conversational method has been to those skills you possess?
At school you’re taught in a classroom, and you learn your vocabulary, and you do very basic conversation in class with each other and with the teacher; it’s not until you perhaps do an exchange or start mixing with native speakers in some way that you truly become fluent in the language. Learning in a classroom just isn’t the same as getting your ear tuned in, listening to people speaking their mother tongue.
It was the year abroad that really changed things for me. With the year abroad, yes you do go to the university and to the lectures, and you do the written work like you do at home, but the really important bit of the year abroad is the socialising and conversation. It might sound like a party – and to be honest some of it was! [Considerable amount of laughter] But you’ve got to speak to people in a sociable context.
Yes, you have to be forced to do that, don’t you? Otherwise you never get past that rabbit-caught-in-headlights moment.
Indeed! In Spain, we lived in a flat with Spaniards who were sociable, up-for-it party animals! They welcomed us into their world – which doesn’t always happen, it’s not always easy to integrate as an outsider – but my friend Belinda in particular, who was a phenomenal person, basically never stopped talking for six months – which was ideal! I went home fluent! In fact, by the end of the year, I remember we had a friend who we’d made in France come to stay with us in Valencia, and I was able to translate between his French for the Spanish speakers almost instantaneously. So my language took a dramatic leap through intensive speaking and listening. Now, bear in mind that I had been learning languages here for years, since I was 11; but it wasn't until I immersed myself in conversation in that way that I was truly fluent. You will only get that through speaking and listening, you won’t get there by learning lists of vocabulary in your bedroom [laughs] which is what I was doing at senior school!
Well, it’s still what we do in Latin … [more laughter] Seriously, though, I guess both are useful. But in terms of communication, which has defined your career and shapes much of what we’re talking about, it’s the speaking and listening that has to run through the whole thing. Without that, you’ll never progress in terms of fluency.
Yes. Even just going on holiday. where you might think well this is basic, just asking for directions or going to a shop or whatever – but when you find yourself in a situation where the other person doesn’t speak any English – which surprisingly enough does happen! – you’re going to struggle. If your only experience of listening is the exam board listening test, listening to a native speaker talking at a normal speed, when you haven’t got your ear tuned in and you haven’t practised it, even if you’ve done years of studying at school – you’ll find it tough.
My colleague at work is now learning Italian because her boyfriend is Italian and she’s never studied any languages. She’s going to evening classes twice a week and she says it's hard work – well, it’s especially hard after a day’s work anyway! And it’s been hard because the teacher is only speaking in Italian throughout. But her progress over the last couple of months has been phenomenal because she’s been forced to do so much listening. If you never push yourself out of that comfort zone and into immersion, you’ll never progress at that kind of speed.
Certainly that was true according to the colleague I interviewed who lived in Beijing for four years. He started going to conversation classes and again it was complete absorption. It took him about ten classes to just work out what the trigger words were, like “write this down”. So I think at the beginning it was terrifying – but, again, he got used to it – and, again, he says, that’s the only way to do it. It’s terrifying, but it’s the only way to do it. And I guess you’ve got to have the motivation – so, he couldn’t get around the city without his best mate holding his hand the whole time, which as a young guy was pretty embarrassing, and your friend – well, she’s fallen in love with a guy who speaks Italian! If she wants to meet his family then …
Yes, well she has, and she said it was really hard without the language. She wants to make the effort for him and for them. It’s wonderful. I mean, she comes into work quite tired …
[More laughter. Then a cat enters the room …]
Hellooooooo! Sorry .. is this going to …?
That’s all right, it doesn’t matter, it will all be there on the transcript!
Yes, you’re all friendly when mummy’s here, aren’t you?
Hmmmm. Might not include this in the article …
[Sarah descends into a frenzy of cat cuddling and I conclude that the interview is over.]