Notes: Civil Servant
Who are you and what do you do?
My name is Stephanie Mitchell. I’m now a civil servant working on international trade policy.
Before I joined the Scottish Government, I worked for the European Parliament and the European Commission in Brussels, as well as for an American law firm in its Beijing office and across the Asia-Pacific region fighting counterfeiting for a major software company.
What languages have you learned?
My best languages are Chinese (Mandarin) and French – I’ve worked and lived in each of them for at least a decade. I also know some Spanish and German, but not nearly as well, and whenever I travel I try to pick up a few words of a language that might be useful. I can honestly say languages are the one thing I learnt at school that have been vital for the entire rest of my life and career.
How have any language skills helped you in your work or personal life?
Without language skills I would never have been able to work in and around China so effectively, or to pass the European institutions civil service competition, which you have to do in two languages. To get your first promotion there, you have to pass a tough test in a third language as well. In all honesty, every colleague I had in the EU had better language skills than mine!
What benefits do you think language skills bring?
Learning Chinese is hard at first as there is nothing familiar about it. But there is a hidden reward – once you learn the pronunciation, specially the tonal aspects, you realise that there is far less grammar than in many European languages such as French or German – so if you persevere, progress becomes easier the further you go on.
Languages have given me amazing opportunities – I’ve met fascinating political and human rights figures, I’ve been able to help businesses sort out problems, and I enjoy myself wherever I travel, as you make real connections with people when you can share even a short conversation in their language. There’s no reward like the sparkle in someone’s eye when you cross that barrier and they realise you’ve made an effort, and that you share some common interest.
Do you have any advice for anyone considering learning a language?
Learning languages in general gets easier the more you do of it, too. You learn which sorts of things to worry about and you recognise the ways related languages work.
Context helps a huge amount: if you’re watching the news there are pictures to give you a clue as to what the presenter is speaking about; if you’re shopping there are a limited number of things someone’s going to be trying to tell you. You can prepare yourself too, with phrases you know you’ll need, or with photos to get a message across.
For all that my work has depended on using languages, probably the best moment I remember was using two words of Uzbek to ask a woman there what she was sewing, or a similar experience up a remote mountain in China where a village auntie taught me her embroidery stitches – and criticised me just the way my own mum would!
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