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The Developed Linguist: Passions of the Tongue
03.28.2007 16:05

foreign_languages By Yelena Andreyeva

Special to The St. Petersburg Times

Photo by Bloomberg, St.Petersburg Times

As St. Petersburg continues to attract foreign companies, foreign language speakers are increasingly in demand. Recruiters point out that now “fluent English” is often a must not only for administrative positions, such as interpreters, translators, secretaries, personal assistants or office managers, but also for different technical specialists, engineers and accountants.

The majority of job descriptions now include foreign language requirements that split Russian society into two parts: people who have a command of foreign languages and those who don’t.

“Now a candidate’s linguistic competence indicates the level of their development in general, their education and professional competence,” said Irina Yakovleva, head of careers at the Stockholm School of Economics.

According to the recruiters the language clearly most in demand is English, followed by German, then Finnish, French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish, Turkish, Serbian, Chinese, and Japanese.

As well as administrative positions, there is a need for specialists who speak business-standard English in manufacturing, auditing and consulting, banking, sales, logistics, HR and finance. Personal Assistants, help desk staff, translators, guides, and personnel working in the tourism sector are often required to speak additional foreign languages, while usually the only requirement for top managers is fluent English.

“It’s interesting that many Asian companies do not require candidates to speak the company’s native Asian language, and consider it enough for their personnel just to have a decent level of English,” said Alexei Zelentsov, regional manager of the St. Petersburg branch at Kelly Services.

One of the most difficult jobs for recruiters is to find specialists in “non-linguistic” positions, who speak a rare language. “We have recruited accountants for the financial department of a large Western company, who needed knowledge of at least two foreign languages — English and something rare, for example, Serbian, Turkish or Ukrainian,” said Yelena Sapogova, consultant at THI Selection.

“We managed to find people who fitted the requirements and had, at least, some work experience in finance. The company recruited them because of their language competence and then started training them in accountancy.”

Where English is the working language, foreign companies only select applicants who speak it, but other employers have a wider choice of criteria.

“A good educational background presupposes the knowledge of at least one foreign language,” said Marianna Slivnitskaya, general director at Begin Group. “Therefore, the question becomes how employers’ expectations correspond with a candidate’s linguistic ability.”

According to recruiters, a successful candidate should not only speak foreign languages and have a good education but also have relevant work experience. “With demand exceeding supply, it’s much easier for such specialists to find a job than for employers to recruit them,” said Slivnitskaya.

The main problem is lack of specialists who consider English the main international language, said Anastasia Sedikh, commercial director at EMG Professionals. “It’s a pity when deficiency in English hinders a highly qualified technical specialist from applying for a good position.”

In their CVs, many applicants “exaggerate their language skills hoping that it will be taken for granted without checking,” said Olga Andreyeva, business development manager at Coleman Services. “Therefore, we need to explain to foreign employers that at present in Russia only professional linguists have the level of the linguistic competence they are used to when hiring workers abroad.”

However, employers tend to ask for more ability than is actually required.

“It is not that often that technical professionals are required to communicate with Western managers, they usually have just to read online specifications or materials, write reports and exchange emails with their counterparts abroad,” said Yury Mikhailov, director of Consort Petersburg recruiting agency.

“In my opinion, it’s quite enough for them to speak at a pre-intermediate level, though the employers who demand fluency will limit their range of choice.”

On the other hand, foreign-language graduates, who often speak two or more foreign languages, usually apply for administrative positions.

“However, in St. Petersburg such employment is very rare,” said Olga Kapralova, PR manager at InterComp.

Although international language certificates give the holders some benefits, employers usually prefer to test their oral and written language skills during an interview either at the recruitment agency or at their company’s own HR department.

“In Russia, the diplomas of European colleges and universities are of some value,” said Sapogova. “However, I had several cases when an applicant couldn’t, when tested, corroborate that ability suggested by their diploma. That is why I recommend evaluating the candidates’ linguistic competence by providing a well thought-out structural interview, not just by asking a few general questions about their future plans in a foreign language.”

As recruiters say, most applicants who speak foreign languages value themselves more and therefore require remuneration for their language skills, though the level of the salary depends on each particular company.

The difference in salaries between those candidates who speak foreign languages and those who don’t can be between 10 percent to 50 percent but, on average, the gap is about $100 to $300 a month. “For example, an English-speaking secretary can get about $700 to $800 — $300 to $400 more than one without fluent English, said Sapogova.

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