In the recent discussions regarding the need to have our young engineers familiar with another language, I wonder if anyone has asked the opinion of ICE members who already work overseas.
In my 30-odd years of professional engineering I have worked in English, American English, French, Spanish, Afrikaans and Arabic. Had I been required to submit to a foreign language test at the time of my interview, I don't believe I could have mustered a pass in any of them.
But, as someone who is responsible for sending young engineers out on overseas projects, my greatest concern is always not how well they cope with foreign languages, but how well they can write and speak in their own. Experience has shown that engineers with the best grasp of their own languages tend to do better at picking up whatever degree of a foreign language is necessary for the running of a project. Unfortunately, engineers in general (it's not just a British problem) lack the ability to write logically, simply and clearly - in any language. The cost of translating the rubbish they produce is frightful, and the idea that they might like to 'have a go' at writing in the foreign language in question would give any overseas project manager nightmares.
A multilingual economist who worked with me at a time when I was toying with going for a masters degree in either Spanish or business told me that I would add almost nothing to my overall worth if I became an engineer with an advanced degree in a foreign language. In economic terms, language capabilities can be bought very cheaply throughout the world. Any firm would rather exploit my advanced technical skills and hire a full-time interpreter or translator to accompany me, if language was a problem.
The ability to speak a foreign language may be the sign of a cultivated individual, but engineers would be worth more if their written work were to be judged more harshly at the interview.
Tony Bryan, (M), 2 Rue Flix Faure, 75015 Paris, France.
Adding an advantage
As the linguist wife of a member of your Institution, I was most interested by your article on the desirability or necessity of a second language for civil engineering graduates.
Of course it is not necessary to know or speak a foreign language to be a good engineer, but the ability to do so demonstrates a flexibility of mind. It opens possibilities to work abroad at a time when there is a dearth of road building in the UK, and, while so doing, to communicate better with local labour and achieve a better product. It gives an opportunity to learn from foreign colleagues at first hand rather than through an often technically obtuse translator. You can put across your point of view more clearly or forcefully - and people will appreciate the fact that you have taken the trouble to learn their language.
Although there is no doubt, as demonstrated recently at the world's first international conference on road surfacing in Budapest, that English is at the moment the lingua franca of the profession, many countries have French or German as their second language.
My husband has, along the years, progressively added to his very basic French, and found this a great asset when attending European Standards Committees.
However, I think it would be a mistake to enforce knowledge of a foreign language as a condition to chartered status as things stand at the moment. The education system has failed most of our young engineers, and not just in the civil engineering sector, by allowing many to drop modern languages at an early stage in their studies, or not even teaching them one at all. In some respects, it is extremely difficult to pick up a foreign language properly at the post-graduate stage. They are best and easily picked up early, as our multi-lingual Luxemburgese cousins demonstrate. It is a compulsory part of the European Baccalaureate to be proficient in at least one foreign language. As a teacher of many years, I have found that scientific subjects and languages are not mutually exclusive!
The Institution should encourage universities to insist on a degree of fluency (AS level?) in a modern language as part of its entrance requirements, and all engineering courses ought to give an opportunity to improve on this in a modular form to enable young engineers to communicate better at international level, thereby improving their professional opportunities.
Francine Walsh, The Firs, 36 Bower Mount Road, Maidstone, Kent, ME16 8AU.