In an occasional series, our graduates talk about where a degree in modern languages has taken them since leaving Oxford. Here is Ian Hudson’s story. Please do share yours with us at email@example.com
As graduation loomed large in 1980, and I started to pursue opportunities in commercial management with large multi-nationals, I told myself: “If I use my languages, it will be a bonus.” With this frame of mind, I graduated from Oxford with my degree in French and German to embark on what became a 35-year career in the chemical industry.
The first bonus seemed to come quickly, during my first overseas trip to attend a distributor conference in Germany. The organisers had mistakenly assumed that the participants’ command of German would be sufficient to follow the programme content. In fact, the lingua franca was English. I spent three days providing simultaneous translation, and my year abroad in Germany proved very useful.
I encountered the second bonus two years later when my company sent me to France as a sales representative, much to the astonishment of the local French management. They had not yet encountered an English colleague who would be able to negotiate with their customers in French. During my interview lunch (this was Paris of the 1980s), I set their minds at rest by ordering a pastis aperitif and a rare steak, thus passing simultaneously the language and, more importantly, the cultural test.
My career progressed in more global roles where French and German fluency was less in demand, notably in Asia and the USA. Nevertheless, the openness to study other cultures, catalysed by my degree, served me in good stead as I travelled beyond the more familiar European shores. As I climbed the management ladder, the more important aspect of a languages degree began to assume greater prominence. Interacting with people and managing teams effectively requires an ability to understand their individual motivations and to anticipate their reactions in specific situations. I began to realize that my languages were not the bonus, but rather the foundation of my expertise and skills in my role.
For the last 10 years of my career, I was the Regional President for Dupont de Nemours, covering Europe, Middle East and Africa, based in Geneva. This vast region stretched from Madrid to Novosibirsk and from Oslo to Cape Town, with over 10,000 employees. As I travelled around the region, I was often asked how a languages graduate could fulfil this role in a very technology driven organisation. I replied that 80% of the issues in my role were people related and my languages degree training in literature had more than adequately prepared me to respond to the challenges. Human nature does not change, so the character studies contained in the plays of Molière, Racine, Schiller and Goethe or in the works of Sartre, Camus, Zweig or Mann were just as relevant as I navigated the corporate world. For the remaining 20% of issues, I had hundreds of specialists to whom I could turn for advice, and sometimes even converse with them in their own language.
A languages degree on its own did not fully equip me for my career, but it provided a solid base for other competences that I acquired over time. In today’s world, there are perhaps fewer companies prepared to invest in the complementary training for a management career, but I believe that a languages degree remains just as foundational for a well-rounded and successful career in many fields. Finally, for me, it turns out that the true bonus of a languages degree was not career related at all, but rather my French wife of 35 years, 2 bilingual children, and many cross-cultural friendships.