Soft skills have become increasingly popular in academic and professional circles. The term soft skills appeared in the early 1970s in the United States and emerged in French-speaking educational sciences in the mid-1990s. It was initially mainly used to study the ability to learn languages.
However, despite relatively recent terminology, the idea is more ancient. In 1936, Dale Carnegie published “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Initially, only five thousand copies were printed. To this day, over thirty million copies have been sold worldwide, making it one of the best-selling books of all time. How to Win Friends and Influence People became a pioneering resource for those looking to develop human and transversal skills known today as “soft skills.”
Soft skills are becoming increasingly popular among academia and workplaces. Top schools integrate diverse classes such as “Responsible Leadership” or “Intercultural Communication” into their programs to address the soft skills gap. Corporations and elite consulting firms devote entire tests crafted by psychologists and integrate “fit questions” during interviews to evaluate candidates’ soft skills.
According to a 2019 study by HUFI, 30% of candidates are not recruited because they lack the right workplace skills. According to the same study, 51% of respondents say education systems have done little or nothing to help address the soft skills shortage issue (1).
Therefore, the challenge of learning soft skills must be addressed from a young age to prepare the youth that will prepare tomorrow’s world for its academic, professional, and extracurricular future.
Defining Soft Skills
An interdisciplinary work bridging business management, psychology, and sociology, this study, in particular, asked a total of two hundred and sixty-nine participants consisting of start-uppers, intrapreneurs, and managers what six qualities defined an innovative person. By “skill,” du Roscoät et al refer to the competencies generally required for job employment. They identify two main types: hard and soft skills. According to the authors, hard skills represent technical abilities or a specific knowledge base that can be both quantified through metrics and validated through specific professional certifications or degrees (2).
There is some vagueness in the definition of soft skills, as they are more difficult to grasp due to the complex articulation process. Soft skills refer to skills that are not purely technical but that may be centered on a professional or academic environment. It is thus equivalent to related terms such as “life skills,” “talents,” “personal skills,” or “generic skills.” Soft skills development is mostly acquired through lived experiences or a more formal learning framework that is increasingly popular. The learning implementation of soft combines social, emotional, and cognitive capacities (3).
According to that same study, “soft skills for innovation are defined as an ensemble of evolving and interrelated abilities geared toward the development of individual and collective skillsets. They allow people to situate themselves, interact, and configure an environment with the goal to transform. These skills consist of cognitive processes (the ability to diverge, converge, demonstrate mental flexibility, etc.), conative (motivation, openness, extraversion, etc.), emotional (empathy) and interrelational factors (communication, collaboration) which allow for action in uncertain or new situations.”
In other words, “skills” are defined as the ability to apply a piece of knowledge to perform a corresponding task, while “soft” is defined as non-technical.
Soft skills are the subject of new studies and play a significant role in the professional environment and academia. The world’s most renowned universities teach these skills by incorporating courses such as “Responsible Leadership” or “Intercultural Communication.” Some of the most prestigious companies do not merely test candidates’ hard skills but also soft skills when recruiting them. Studies also show that soft skills are learned throughout a person’s life, not solely at work. They also reveal that the younger a person learns about them, the higher the chances are that this person will master them.
Learning Soft Skills Through Life
A France Strategy’s study on soft skills and innovation underlines the background of top French innovators. Most interviewees report excellent higher education, most frequently through the Grandes Ecoles, which allow them to develop more soft skills than average. These schools not only provide students with courses and training that teach soft skills but also benefit from a great network (alumni associations, etc.) and familiarize them with teamwork.
Another exciting finding regards the childhood and adolescent extracurricular activities of interviewees. These are essential and integrate various fields, such as art or sport. Such practices are also social markers and provide significant cultural capital that positively impacts academic and professional paths. One interviewee specializing in the robotic industry declares:
“I made much music, and at one point, I realized that training helped you surpass yourself and do something exceptional in the eyes of your friends, in the eyes of the college, because you worked a lot on your instrument. Working on your instrument is fighting, and after that, you do not stop: so you enter into a logic where you do not fight against others but against yourself to increase your mastery, agility, reflection, and it gives a taste of success.” (4)
Interestingly enough, the interviewees did not have excellent results before reaching university but were able to excel when they had the freedom to choose their path and use the extracurricular skills they had acquired since childhood. As such, soft skills are learned throughout life via many experiences, whether they are acquired in the classroom, at the workplace or on other occasions.
The study highlights the link between soft skills and the disposition of innovators to engage in atypical roles and contexts that are increasingly essential in a fast-changing world.
The Rising Importance of Soft Skills at the Workplace
Renowned consulting companies like McKinsey, BCG and Bain have integrated “fit interviews” during their interview process to assess candidates’ soft skills and capacity to test them beyond their hard skills. Other companies have developed psychological tests to complete online before the interview to evaluate whether candidates fit with the firm’s values and spirit.
Soft skills have become a differentiating factor when recruiting and managing a healthy workplace. This is true for most fields, regardless of position, which underlines the need to learn about it. If hard skills are necessary to succeed in the workplace, they only open the first door, while soft skills open the upcoming ones. For example, doctors need medical knowledge and hard skills to treat a patient. However, soft skills are necessary to gain the patient’s trust and to facilitate communication. In other less technical jobs, soft skills are even more necessary. Salespeople must have a wide array of soft skills to attract and convince customers. In specific jobs and sometimes industries, soft skills are as necessary as hard skills. Therefore, both soft and hard skills are complementary.
Worklife will go through multiple transformations in the upcoming years and decades. It can be argued that soft skills will become even more fundamental. New technologies such as automation or the use of data might replace many of today’s jobs and people’s need for hard skills across many different sectors. While it remains unlikely that these new technologies will replace all tasks, it is expected that soft skills are to become a more significant differentiating factor. Worklife will also go through another major disruption due to globalization, such as the use of the English language at work.
Languages as a Soft Skill
Foreign languages are often underestimated skills. They are often perceived as hard skills, as reading, speaking, and writing require technical knowledge. However, not only do languages enable speakers to exchange with other people, but it also provides a vast array of other knowledge that may be deemed as soft skills.
Language knowledge includes transcultural competence, communication, and interpersonal skills such as leadership, teamwork, and perseverance. Communicating in other languages allows speakers to develop empathy or the capacity to bring openness, tolerance, and sensitivity to interactions with people of other cultures and traditions (5).
The importance of both soft and hard skills within languages is growing in contemporary society. The need to communicate with others who speak foreign languages and understand other cultures in their entire complexity is crucially important in a globalized world. This rising phenomenon will only gain importance, and the world is becoming ever more connected, whether by digital communication or human traveling. The new generation will be more affected by this trend as children today have faced digitalization and global culture since youth.
These assertions are supported by scientists at the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think-tank based in Washington D.C. conducted a survey in 2016 to identify the skills workers find essential in today’s evolving economy. Titled “The State of American Jobs,” their report provides insight into average American employees’ perspective on foreign language as a valuable skill at the workplace. The report underlines :
“In the context of globalization and in the post–9/11 environment, […], the usefulness of studying languages other than English is no longer contested. […] language is understood as an essential element of a human being’s thought processes, perceptions, and self-expressions; and as such it is considered to be at the core of translingual and transcultural competence. While we use language to communicate our needs to others, language simultaneously reveals us to others and to ourselves. Language is a complex multifunctional phenomenon that links an individual to other individuals, to communities, and to national cultures.”
As such, language appears to be a mixed set of soft and hard skills. Teaching hard skills in a foreign language could be a great exercise for learning its technical and transcultural skills and understanding.
How to prepare for the youth’s future?
We have discussed the importance of language education for children and teenagers, with a particular focus on mastering English and developing important behavioral skills that are necessary for success in various stages of life.
The American education system is known for emphasizing self-confidence, public speaking, and learning from failure, which are values that are important to instill in young learners. By developing these values in children and teenagers, they can promote their skills to the world like their Anglo-Saxon peers are taught to do.
Therefore it would be useful to have such offerings carried out by language schools: one the one hand, such schools would help students progress in their English language proficiency, and on the other hand, those schools would teach them important life skills. Parents and students alike may wish to research and compare different language schools to find the best fit for their needs.
One such language school that has gained popularity due to its unique offerings is ALCNY. They offer courses and programs to children and teenagers through an innovative approach that not only focuses on mastering English language skills but also developing behavioral skills. These kinds of schools aim to instill values such as self-confidence, public speaking, and learning from failure in French youth, so they can become eminent at promoting their skills.
While there are many language schools available, some may offer afterschool classes with workshops focused on a range of subjects, such as performing arts, cartooning, cooking, homework assistance, and more. These programs may be open to both bilingual and non-bilingual students, with a focus on sharing a passion for teaching English and soft-skills to all.
Ultimately, it is believed that passion, creativity, and multidisciplinary knowledge will be key to the success of tomorrow’s adults, and educators are encouraged to provide young learners with the tools they need to achieve their goals. In such settings, children and teenagers alike can benefit from a strong language education that prepares them for success in life.
Soft skills are a great differentiation tool in the workplace, academia, and extracurricular experiences. The fast-changing world we live in will be faced with many transformations which will affect all aspects of life. An argument could be made that these different trends affecting society, such as automatization or globalization, will increase the need to master soft skills and foreign languages. The mix of these two concepts gives the unique capacity to exchange with others while benefiting from the transcultural knowledge to understand them beyond linguistic barriers.
These interpersonal skills are learned through very different experiences in life and are best acquired from a young age. Interviewees with the best soft skills could learn about those during their education and their experiences outside of academia. It is why individuals should learn about those as early as possible.
- : Pham Chau Tuong Vy (2019), A Study on the Effectiveness of Learning Soft Skills to Students, HUFI,
- : Brieuc du Roscoät.
- : Les soft skills pour innover et transformer les organisations, France Stratégie, 2022.
- : Ibid.
- : “Reevaluating the Importance of Foreign Languages,” Center for Language Teaching Advancement 4 Dec 2019, 24 May 2022 <https://celta.msu.edu/reevaluating-importance-foreign-languages/>; Amy Thompson, “How Learning a New Language Improves Tolerance,” The Conversation 12 Dec 2016, 25 May 2022 <https://theconversation.com/how-learning-a-new-language-improves-tolerance-68472>; Modern Language Association ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, “Foreign Languages and Higher Education: New Structures for a Changed World,” Profession 23 May 2007, 25 May 2022 <https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED500460.pdf>.
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