Considering learning a foreign language? It'll be worth it

Zak Soithongsuk discusses the advantages of learning a second language as an in-house lawyer.

A few years ago, I was on secondment in New York for the final few months of my training contract.

I was sharing an office with a Spanish work experience student who, every time he came across a Spanish speaker, would switch comfortably from English to his mother tongue and back again.

Bearing witness to these exchanges filled me with the familiar sense of shame and guilt that I was very much monolingual (which was exacerbated by the fact that my office buddy also spoke fluent German).

Tired of always being the reason my peers had to speak English, I found inspiration in my embarrassment and resolved to pick back up my GCSE-level French.

Finding the time

Learning another language is admittedly a rather ambitious goal for someone in a career where there never seems to be enough hours in the day.

However, I tried to use the few moments of my day where I genuinely had nothing to do – in particular, my commute to and from the office – to do an exercise on Babbel or listen to a podcast.

As my French improved, I read the news and watched TV in French, so I didn’t need to find any extra time in my week as these were all things I already did in English.

I did, however, find the extra time to do in-person and online classes, as I was conscious that I needed to practise speaking if I ever wanted to be able to hold a conversation.

Speaking was always my ultimate goal so, when the opportunity to take a sabbatical cropped up last year, I snatched it with both hands and managed to spend a couple of months in France, an invaluable experience for improving my conversational French.

In-house benefits

Upon my return to London, I started a client secondment in the disputes team at a challenger bank.

Although I had been able to use my French a little bit in private practice, it quickly became a very useful asset in my new, predominantly customer-facing role, as the business regularly received letters from French-speaking customers and had ongoing matters in French-speaking countries.

The personal benefits of learning another language are well-documented:

  • improved memory function
  • enhanced problem-solving skills
  • better cultural understanding and sensitivity
  • improved mental health

The list goes on.

However, my stint in-house showed me that there can also be great professional advantages too, both for your own career progression and to the benefit of the business for which you work.

For example, while working in-house, being able to read French-language correspondence and other documents meant that I was able to address them quickly and efficiently, avoiding the added cost and time involved in contacting French-speaking colleagues or trying to make sense of an online translation tool.

For longer, more formal documents, we were able to save the cost and administrative burden of having these professionally translated. All of this meant I was able to spend more time on substantive work, leading to increased profitability for the business.

Further to this, being able to respond to customers and commercial partners in French helped to promote the international image of the company, an important asset for any company seeking to expand its global footprint.

From a personal perspective, being able to better connect with French-speaking colleagues – both on a linguistic and cultural level – helped increase the sense of inclusion within the business (and improved my personal profile).

Whilst I’m sure I’ll continue to find opportunities to use my French in private practice, it was really my time in-house that made all of the hours I’d put into learning French worth it.

I would advise anyone considering learning another language to take the plunge, especially if you work in an in-house role that is customer-facing.

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