Chartered Institute
of Linguists

Making of a champion

Sally Fagan won the 2016 Threlford Cup for her inspiring work as Director of Business Language Champions. She discusses her work to motivate young people to study languages

First published in The Linguist, 56,1, Feb/Mar 2017

Thirty students are waiting expectantly (and a little nervously) to find out which company they will be teamed up with for the day. The event, a new one for 2016, is ‘Marketing in the Making’, organised by Business Language Champions. Six local companies have come to work with six teams of language students, ranging from Years 10 to 12, from different schools in the area. During the day, the students must find out as much as they can about their assigned company and create a short marketing video on an iPad in their target language about the company’s product. At the end there will be a prize for the best video. This is what we call ”making languages real” for the students.

Ask most young people what careers they can do with a language and they will say translating or teaching. What they don’t see is the world beyond. At Business Language Champions (BLC), a social enterprise promoting language learning,1 we tell them that, although there is a wealth of jobs you can do without a language, adding a language to the mix will open up many opportunities that you hadn’t imagined; that languages will set you apart.

To do this, we recreate business scenarios showing how languages are used in different careers, bringing in business people who use languages in their work. Languages go with anything and everything. Our previous events have included languages in journalism, the RAF, event management, science and GCHQ. Coming up, we have Spanish with fair trade and languages with fashion.

Additionally, we like to encourage gifted linguists to consider taking on a more exotic language ab initio at university. To that end, we’ve run events on Russian, Arabic, Chinese and Japanese. Students find this approach fun (and challenging!), and at the same time start to see that their language learning isn’t just another school subject with no relevance to their later careers.

BLC events also offer additional benefits to the students and schools involved. Putting young people in teams and setting them a business challenge encourages employability skills such as leadership, self-confidence and team work. According to the Good Career Guidance  report,2 if a student has five or more ‘contacts’ with business people during their time at school, they are much less likely to become NEET (Not in Education, Employment or Training). Our events can help push the contact number up. The new GCSE lays emphasis on spontaneous speaking, and at all our events, students are put on the spot to produce something oral in their target language, usually with business people asking questions.

It is important to note that we are not language evangelists, hell-bent on forcing all students to carry on with their language studies. But the sad truth is that many of the students we encounter don’t feel that they are part of a global society. They are UK/English-centric and therefore, in some respects, disadvantaging themselves economically and missing out on life-changing experiences. At a recent event, a fourth year language undergraduate spoke to an audience of 80 Year 9 students about his year abroad. The talk focused much more on the transformative cultural experiences than the fact that he is now pretty much trilingual.

Becoming a social enterprise

So how did we get to this point? The history of Business Language Champions goes back to 2004, when the government made languages optional at GCSE level. BLC was born as a nationwide project managed by CILT, the National Centre for Languages, and rolled out through the Regional Language Networks (RLN). BLC Director Suzannah Hutton was co-managing the RLN and brought me in through a volunteering scheme in 2009. As a self-employed dual-language management trainer, I was well-placed to devote myself part-time to promoting languages in schools.

After various iterations of both funding and targets, the government money finally came to an end in March 2011. During the previous two academic years, we had reached 8,000 students in the East Midlands region. We were now faced with a difficult decision: should we sink with the funding or find some way of building on all the successful work we had done? We decided to set up BLC as a social enterprise so that we could continue.

The biggest challenge that we faced was having to start charging schools for our services. For a while we did manage to find small pockets of funding, particularly by teaming up with Routes into Languages, which meant that we were still able to target schools in disadvantaged areas. One of the joys of being independent was that we were now able to work with all schools, from independent to state-maintained. It has been uplifting to have students from very different backgrounds working together.

We apply for funding where we can, with occasional success for smaller projects. It is no surprise that most funding expects applicants to target disadvantaged areas of the country. While this is understandable, the language deficit runs across all social strata. Middle-class areas suffer equally from falling numbers in their language departments. In our region, the East Midlands, we have grammar schools with joint sixth forms struggling to muster half a dozen A-level language students between them. It is becoming increasingly difficult even for independent schools to put together teams from Years 12 and 13 for our events.

The battle for budgets

So what is going on in our schools? Like any subject, languages have their share both of excellent teachers and of those that sadly fail to inspire. What they have in common is that they feel beleaguered by all sides: a generation of students and parents who, for the most part, don’t see the point in learning a language, and Senior Leadership Teams (SLTs) with an eye on the league tables, who often don’t make optional and perceived ‘hard’ subjects, such as languages, a priority.

We know budgets are tight and things are not getting easier, but we need to ensure that SLTs see the value in promoting languages and assign a sufficient budget and credence to allowing students to find out more about global opportunities. Increasingly, over the past year, schools have been cancelling their places on BLC events. Conversely, one of our most popular events (described by one teacher as “the best cross-curricular event I have ever seen”) is the ‘International Space Challenge’, supported by the National Space Academy and initially funded by the Institute of Engineering Technology. It seems that the battle to increase the numbers studying STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is being supported by SLTs in a way that languages teachers can only long for.

Creating opportunities

My own personal journey started at school with an inspiring German teacher. She infected us all with her love of the language and the country. When I left university, part of the General Electric Company (GEC) was looking for an Export Sales Engineer and I persuaded them to take me on instead; it proved easier to employ a linguist and train her in engineering than to take on an engineer and train him(!) in French and German.

Could I have done that export job without languages? Yes, but they proved invaluable in so many ways. Assigned to Latin America, I learned some Spanish. With a family move to Singapore, I learned some Mandarin. From there I moved into management training, where I have been ever since. Being able to offer soft skills training in both English and German has given me a unique selling point in an increasingly tough market.

My languages have allowed me to be interviewed in French on live Tahitian television news, train tribal leaders on a remote Pacific island, and visit most of Latin America. They have helped me gain interesting German assignments while my monolingual management training colleagues struggled to get work. It makes me feel proud to be able to stand up in front of young people and say that I am living proof that languages open opportunities that they have probably never dreamed of.

Sally Fagan was awarded the Threlford Memorial Cup for significant contribution to fostering the study of languages in 2016.


1 BLC in its original format still runs with Scottish Government funding in Scotland via SCILT. This is a separate organisation to Business Language Champions in England

2 Holman, J (2014) ‘Good Career Guidance’, Gatsby, 24;