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Language Skills Can Give Competitive Edge

University of Ulster Applied Languages graduate and recently appointed Northern Ireland’s Honorary Consul for Slovenia, Suzanne Hill makes a return visit to her alma mater next week as guest speaker at Ulster’s annual Sixth Form Revision Conference in Coleraine.

Now managing director of Belfast based company, Handel Export, Suzanne who is originally from Ballyclare, will talk to students about how languages have helped carve out a successful career in international business.  

Professor Pól Ó Dochartaigh, Professor of German and Dean of the Faculty of Arts said Suzanne’s success is a perfect illustration of the competitive edge that language skills bring to the individual and the economy. 

“As Northern Ireland tries to move towards having a larger private sector we need to develop those skills and Ulster is leading the way in third-level language provision here,” he said.

Suzanne graduated from Ulster in 1993 with a degree in Applied Languages and the following year she completed a Post Graduate Diploma in Applied Languages with Business. By the time she left university, she was fluent in French, Spanish and Italian but has since picked up Portuguese and a ‘smattering of other languages’.

After graduation, she joined the graduate ‘Explorers’ programme and her first placement was with pharmaceutical firm Randox, and her first assignment was to establish a base for the company in Madrid. Although initially daunted by the prospect of working abroad, the experience whetted her appetite for travel and since then, she has clocked up hundreds of thousands of miles.

The novelty of travelling has never worn off and one of the things Suzanne enjoys most about her day job is the opportunity she gets to learn about other cultures and visit different countries.

After six months in Madrid, Suzanne returned to Northern Ireland,  and Randox allocated her Central and Eastern Europe and South Africa as her sales territories. She subsequently accepted a job with Mallusk company Brent Martin, which specialises in roofing materials and her new sales territories with that firm included North and South America.

Although English is the most commonly used language for business, Suzanne says that being able to converse with customers in their native tongue can make or break a sale.

“I was dealing with a company in Texas and the director was Mexican. Although he was fluent in English, he was more comfortable speaking in Spanish so the deal was negotiated in Spanish. He told me afterwards the deal was sealed because I was able to speak to him in Spanish as it ‘just made things easier’.”

She is concerned that languages are not given enough emphasis in some schools today.

“It’s a common misconception that because many people can speak English, we don’t have to learn other languages but an ability to speak other languages is a major advantage in business, giving a competitive edge when you’re looking to break into new markets. It also depends on who is selling to who, if you are selling goods and services to a company in an overseas market, the onus is on you to speak their language or doing business with you can be perceived as being too much hassle”.

Having established a network of contacts in sales, marketing and business development in over 55 countries, Suzanne established Handel Export in 2002.

“I felt my skills and expertise would help companies break into export markets as they could benefit from our ‘hands on’ expertise and go the fast track route to exporting.”

As Honorary Consul to Slovenia, Suzanne’s role is to promote trade, culture and tourism between Slovenia and Northern Ireland.  One of her first official duties was to attend the 5th annual Bled Strategic Forum, a global political conference in Slovenia.

“The conference brought together leading policy makers from 40 countries from the European Union, Middle East and the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to discuss a range of issues including the financial and economic crisis, poverty, climate change, development questions and international terrorism.

Attending the conference as Honorary Consul was a fantastic experience, says Suzanne, adding that she feels continually indebted to her language lecturers at Coleraine.

Dr Stanley Black, senior lecturer in the School of Languages, Literatures and Culture. said he was delighted to welcome Suzanne back to the Coleraine campus.

”Suzanne’s willingness to promote the languages to the students is admirable and she agreed readily when asked, treating it as a pleasure and an opportunity rather than a chore.” he said.

The School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures annual Sixth Form Revision Conference takes place on Friday, 26 November 2010 at the Coleraine Campus. 

The conference is designed to give sixth formers studying languages in Northern Ireland schools a mixture of input by university lecturers in French, German, Spanish, and European Studies covering exam skills workshops based on the AS/A2 syllabus; an introduction to the options for studying languages at the University of Ulster; and information on the career paths some of Ulster languages graduate, including a Q&A session with Suzanne Hill.