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Language of opportunity

Working for a tractor firm in Communist Poland in the 1970s might not be everyone's idea of a great career move, but for Isabella Moore it opened doors she could never have imagined.

And now the new director of Cilt, the national centre for languages, wants young people to follow her example.

Brought up in Edinburgh by her Polish mother and Scottish father, Mrs Moore has first-hand experience of the benefits of learning a language.

Mrs Moore, 56, said her aims for the first year of her new job were to raise awareness of the importance of language learning, and stem the flow of students dropping such subjects after the age of 14.

She speaks fluent Polish, German and French. "We need to get the message across to a wider audience, including government departments, that there are substantial economic benefits to be gained from a knowledge of languages.

"Companies that invest in the language skills of their workforce increase their export capacity quite considerably. Knowing German helps if you work in the automotive industry, while trainee chefs should have some knowledge of French. Estate agents might need to know some Spanish," she said.

Mrs Moore said the challenge was to encourage more young people to study languages, or face the prospect of damaging Britain's long-term economic health. The success of the primary language strategy was crucial.

Her comments reflect concerns about the drop in take-up of French and German at GCSE and A-level, and pessimism in primary schools about meeting Government targets for language teaching by 2010 (TES, August 27). Mrs Moore said: "We need to raise awareness of how important language learning is. In a short period of time we have to go from being a country that has not had that tradition at primary school, to ensuring young people are enthused about languages to such an extent that they want to continue with them.

"The post-14 agenda is crucially important. Too many young people believe languages are difficult academic subjects and should be avoided. We need to get rid of that misconception."

The paradox, she said, was that while in some schools up to 60 languages are being spoken among the pupils, essentially we remain a monolingual nation.

One of her first jobs after graduating in art history from St Andrews and Warsaw universities was to work in Poland as a liaison officer for the tractor firm, Massey Ferguson.

"Languages enable you to do unusual things in life. I have a history of art degree, yet I ended up working in industry. I had knowledge of a niche language and it goes to show what doors it opened up."

Later, Mrs Moore - who is married with a daughter - set up a commercial translating and interpreting business, which she has since sold.

She has won wide recognition for her work combining industry and languages, and between September 2002 and June this year she was president of the British Chambers of Commerce and vice-president of Eurochambres, the association of European chambers of commerce.

Mrs Moore was awarded a CBE this year for services to industry and has an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam university.

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