Careers for linguists at GCHQ

Careers for linguists at GCHQ by

This article was written by Global Graduates, published on 2nd May 2014 and has been read 24140 times.

Thanks to Routes into Languages, I was lucky enough to attend a talk about careers for linguists at GCHQ: my secret dream alternate career. (Though now I’ve told you that, there’s no chance whatsoever.) In fact, I’m quite excited by the fact that GCHQ’s Cyber team are obviously going to read this article to check that I’m not causing trouble, so - Hi guys! Keep up the good work :) Here's a roundup of GCHQ: what they do, whether or not they have a license to kill, why languages are important, what GCHQ linguists do, the experience and skills they are looking for, what a graduate role involves, plus top advice and tips for applying for a graduate role.

As an audience, we know the speaker only by a first name on her badge - ‘Lindsay’ - which is indubitably a ‘nom d’agent’ - but she is quite clearly English, relatively far into her career at GCHQ, and loving her job. She speaks around ten languages, including French, Italian, Arabic and Persian, and wants to make young people aware that if you’re studying one European language, you need a minimum of two for a job at GCHQ - so now’s the time to take up a new one! Or - even better - a rare Middle Eastern dialect!

1. What is GCHQ?

The Government Communications Headquarters, or GCHQ, is an intelligence and security organisation, described on their website as “working to keep Britain safe and secure in the challenging environment of modern communications.”
Formal intelligence gathering began in Britain as ‘Room 40’ shortly after the start of World War One. During the Second World War it became the ‘Government Codes and Cyphers School’, located at Bletchley Park where it successfully broke German Enigma codes, thus:

GCHQ is now located at ‘The Doughnut’ in Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, just 2h19m direct from Paddington in London, with what employees refer to as a ‘Teletubby land’ garden in the middle. The way it looks inside was secret from the public until last year, so now I can reveal this:

gchq benhall doughnut interior

Ooooh…. and here's the doughnut itself:


2. GCHQ is the least well-known of the three intelligence agencies, so what do they do?

MI5 is the "Security Service" dealing with home security in the UK. It’s a Crown Service, as is the "Secret Intelligence Service" (SIS) known as MI6 - which deals with international operations. Their employees are often known as “Spooks”. GCHQ, on the other hand, is a Civil Service organisation, and deals with:

  • Terrorism 
  • Serious Crime (people-smuggling, hostages, etc) 
  • Support to our military 
  • Drugs (networks and shiploads) 
  • Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs) 
  • Cyber (hacking) - crime from other countries, spying, terrorists, industrial espionage

3. Four useful and fascinating facts

1. GCHQ needs to know what is going on in other countries in order to protect our interests. They protect what we (the UK) are doing and what we’re talking about from other people. For example, when we hosted the 2012 Olympic Games they had an Olympic Countdown Clock at GCHQ in line with the fear of a terrorist attack with someone wanting to embarrass the UK Government by doing something like sabotaging the timing equipment.

2. During the Cold War, 80% of the linguists at GCHQ were Russian linguists. After the Cold War, many learnt other languages, and now they’re being asked to go back to Russian!

3. Don’t worry about GCHQ listening to your phone conversations and reading all your email by the way (unless you are plotting something, of course) - they still need a warrant to do this, granted by Foreign Secretary William Hague or a senior minister.

4. GCHQ employees do not have a license to kill. You need to apply to MI6 if that's what you're after.

4. Why are languages important?

The linguist is the first person at GCHQ who will discover something of importance. They will then need to write a report on it, so linguists need to be well-trained and very intelligent.
Languages are required for Signals Intelligence (known as ‘SIGINT’), where they can be used in the interception of foreign electronic signals; filtering, processing and decryption of data; transcription and translation; analysis of the data collected; and delivery of intelligence to customers, including government departments, the Foreign Office, the Police Force, and other countries.
Of 4,500 people at GCHQ, there are about 250 linguists who collectively and generally cover 40 languages, but have capacity in 60.

5. What do GCHQ linguists do?

1. Identify content in spoken or written foreign language, and then decide if it is important, of current interest and legal to analyse and report.
2. Analyse the intelligence.
3. Write reports for ‘customers’.
4. Present the findings at meetings, briefings and conferences.
5. Interpret with meetings with allies, or for the public.
6. The challenges for GCHQ linguists are jargon, place names, acronyms, slang, regional dialects, poor (or lack or) grammar, swearing, obscenities, and boasting, which is a cultural trait (e.g. not wanting to admit something while speaking to a superior)
Once you have worked in one language for a while, you are encouraged to learn another, and in terms of career progression for GCHQ linguists, you can continue to work in languages while progressing in your career with a definite career path.

6. What skills and experience do I need?

1. The languages they are interested in include:

  • Arabic 
  • Persian (spoken in Iran) - also known as ‘Farsi’ (which is ‘Persian’ in Persian) 
  • Chinese 
  • Russian
  • A range of African languages 
  • Languages of Pakistan and Afghanistan

2. Language degree or home language skills
Most GCHQ linguists have a language degree (the year abroad gives you valuable cultural and communication skills - especially if you do something 'off the beaten track'), but you can apply if you have been brought up with a language.

3. At least 2 European languages
They don’t need that many European linguists, but they recruit people with two common European languages (e.g. French and Spanish) to retrain in other languages, because they clearly have an aptitude for language learning. One European language is not enough - minimum two - but one of the languages on the ‘interested in’ list is enough.

4. You have to be a British citizen
(You don't necessarily have to be born in Britain)

7. What does a graduate role involve?

The starting salary is £25,000pa, and for the first 12 to 18 months you are simply required to learn another language - you don’t have to work on the side! You come into GCHQ at linguistic Level 1, and you are expected to get to Level 2 within a year, with a lot of help from senior linguists! From 9am til 4pm you learn your new language in small groups of 2-6 people, doing conversation classes, watching films, reading books, and practicing speaking and writing. You also have 2 hours a day of self-study.
If you have learnt Arabic at university, you will have learnt standard Arabic, so you might spend your first year learning a particular Arabic dialect so that your skills are more useful to GCHQ. For example, at the time of the Libyan crisis, Arabic-speakers of a similar dialect quickly shifted over to the relevant Libyan dialects.
Alternatively, you might be required to learn a new language like Persian. Persian is spoken by 60-70 million people, and has a similar alphabet to Arabic, reads from right to left, but is not as harsh-sounding. It uses more guttural sounds, and has influences from other languages. ‘Merci’ is one of many ways of saying ‘thank you’ in Persian (including ‘I am indebted to you’, ‘I am your servant/slave’, and ‘may your hand not hurt’ - which comes from helping people in the field - the answer to which is ‘may your head not hurt’!). In Persian, ‘your place was empty’ means ‘we missed you!’
You can see that for passionate linguists, this is a fantastic opportunity to discover new cultures and ways of thinking.

8. Advice and tips for potential applicants

1. If you’ve done a language A Level, then pick up a new language ab initio at university! The rarer the language, the higher the demand.

2. Practice written translation from the foreign language into English, and practice transcription too - write down a piece from the radio either in the foreign language or in English (an important skill - more so than your degree, according to Lindsay!) It has to be very accurate, with names, details and everything! This is what your entry test will involve, so get practicing!

3. There are some posts abroad, but if you’re looking for a foreign posting then you need to apply to MI6 - but DON’T TELL ANYONE IF YOU’RE THINKING OF APPLYING! Or you'll have to kill them.

4. If you've read this far and are still excited - find out more and apply for a graduate role at GCHQ now! :)

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