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Mind your language

When Prasad Bakre opted to take up arts for Plus Two, most of his relatives were sure that he was destined for failure. The 15-year-old was studying Japanese part time and doing so well that he decided to concentrate on it and joined Fergusson College, Pune. Today, at 30, Bakre is based in Tokyo and earns more than Rs 30 lakh per annum.

He is a manager in the global sales division of a major Japanese company, CAC Corporation. Bakre’s job involves supporting strategic planning and global sales of their overseas subsidiaries and travelling out of Japan occasionally. Though he started out as an interpreter, he’s now interested in international business and is planning to do an MBA to further his prospects.

Bakre says that many Japanese companies are keen to recruit Indians, especially from prestigious institutions such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management. The pay is the same as average salaries in Japan and 10-20 per cent higher if you know a foreign language. Incidentally, freshers working in Japan can save nearly Rs 1 lakh a month.

If working abroad is not your cup of tea, don’t worry. In India too the opportunities for youngsters who master a foreign language such as Japanese, Chinese, German, French or Korean is “endless”. As foreign companies increase their presence in India, the demand for foreign language speakers is rising. Government companies too are recruiting such people, who can find jobs in industries ranging from information technology (IT), IT-enabled services (ITES), automobile manufacturing, chemicals, electronics, pharmaceuticals, consumer goods and hotel and tourism. Starting salaries are between Rs 30,000 and Rs 60,000 a month depending on the job profile, which may not necessarily be only that of a full-time translator or interpreter or language teacher.

A foreign language expert can also be hired as a corporate communicator or to work in business development, says Calcutta boy Aman Mishra. On deputation from HCL Technologies, the 38-year-old heads a 45-member bilingual team in an Indo-Japanese joint venture, NECHL Systems Technologies Ltd, in New Delhi. Mishra started learning Japanese as a hobby but he soon got “passionate” about it. Supported by “slightly apprehensive” parents, he went on to do his graduation and postgraduation in Japanese from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi. “Learning Japanese was hard work since it combines three scripts, one of which is pictorial. A Japanese language expert is expected to master reading and writing a minimum of 1,900 pictorial characters,” he says.

Not just Japan — Germany, France and the Scandinavian countries too are interested in India, both as a delivery centre and as a market. “If a person has good command of a foreign language and is able to grasp the basics of a particular business, there is a high probability that he or she can forge a successful career,” says Bakre.

Language professionals who understand the work culture and psyche of target countries are in demand and this trend is expected to grow. There is actually a scarcity of efficient foreign language speakers in the country. According to Sushama Jain, professor, school of languages, literature and culture studies, JNU, the surge of interest in foreign languages in the last four to five years is due to India’s Look East policy and the increasing number of foreign companies, including Japanese, that are starting operations in India.

“Japanese universities are welcoming young Indians for higher studies and research. The number of students in schools and universities in Japan is decreasing, forcing them to woo students from outside,” Jain says. Apart from Japanese, French, Chinese, Korean and Spanish appear to be most sought after by students, Jain adds.

German may not make it to Jain’s list but the number of students who joined the Goethe Institut in Chennai increased from 1,400 in 2008 to 2,500 in 2012, says Prabhakar Narayanan, head of the language department, Goethe Institut. He attributes this to the introduction of German as a third language in Kendriya Vidyalayas, the reasonable cost of education in Germany and the current need for nearly 70,000 engineers in that country. In India, knowledge of German can get you a job in Kendriya Vidyalayas, KPOs that hire language specialists, and companies such as BMW, Daimler and Bosch.

There is also a huge demand for students who know Chinese, (or Mandarin to give it its correct name) says Shiv Shankar, business development head of a Chinese institute in Chennai. “It is because an increasing number of Chinese companies are setting up base in Chennai,” he adds.

Learning a foreign language, however, is no cakewalk. Students have to work really hard to truly specialise in a language, and since it is more of a horizontal portable skill, you need to develop an additional vertical skill (in IT, finance, operations, retail, etc.) in order to move ahead.

That is why 29-year-old Vineet Jain, a business development manager at the Japan sales branch of a joint venture between HCL and NEC of Japan, has sought admission to the Indian School of Business (ISB) in Hyderabad and is planning to take a year off to do his MBA. Jain started as a bilingual co-ordinator but his responsibilities increased slowly to include business development, legal and accounting processes and building on the technical knowhow of software development

Kumudam Berkin, software tester at Cognizant Technologies in Chennai, first worked as a German translator at the Ford Business Services Centre. She then moved to HP where she worked in different departments. At Cognizant, she tests software by playing out the prompts popping up in German. “In this field, you learn about different facets of an industry and your knowledge is wide,” she says. Starting salaries for language specialists is anything between Rs 7 lakh and Rs 10 lakh per annum, says Berkin.

Prashant Pardeshi, professor, National Institute for Japanese Language and Linguistics, Tokyo, always wanted to do something different. Though he had a good job in a Japanese joint venture and earned nearly Rs 50,000 a month in the early 1990s, he chucked it up to do a masters degree at JNU. Even as a student, he was sought after for translation work. “Companies used to frisk me away to other cities on weekends with all expenses paid. Time was money and I earned a lot,” he says. He won a scholarship to Japan and completed his PhD and is now working in that same institute. “It is not correct to think that if you study a foreign language you can only become an interpreter or a guide,” he says.

But the tourism business isn’t bad either. Om Prakash, 27, is a tourist information officer posted in Varanasi. After doing his BA in tourism from Ignou, he did a two-year post graduate advanced intensive course in Mandarin from Delhi University. “Since China has become an important business centre, opportunities were coming my way even before I finished my course,” he recalls. He would be hired by companies in Delhi who were installing machines imported from China. “They needed the machine literature to be translated,” he says. They would pay him Rs 2,000 to Rs 4,000 daily, plus food and accommodation. Today, his Mandarin comes in handy when a Chinese tourist ends up at the government tourism office for help or if a Chinese delegation visits India.

In a world increasingly becoming international, learning a foreign tongue will not just bridge the language gap but also provide a golden opportunity to strike it big.

Where to study

Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

University of Delhi, New Delhi

EFLU (English and Foreign Language University), Hyderabad

Pune University, Pune

Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan

Expert advice

I would advise students to work in clear phases of 5 + 3 years. In the first 5 years after their 12th grade, they should focus on learning a language and attaining strong proficiency in that language. Three years after school, they should work in an industry they like, to grasp the basic concepts, processes and business fundamentals. With the good foundation of language and business, they can become future successful entrepreneurs to connect India Inc. to the world.

Prasad Bakre

Where to work

Indian joint ventures, educational institutions, hotels or as a self employed interpreter, translator and guide. Work opportunities and research work in universities in foreign countries like Japan and Germany are also increasing