The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

7 Excellent Career Ideas For Language Learners



Are you learning a language to further your career?

Do you have a career in foreign languages?

Of all the people I’ve surveyed and listened to over the years, career is one of the most popular motivators for foreign language learning.

The reality is that for most people they don’t actually have a ‘passion’ or deep interest in learning languages like some of us do.

It’s just a means to an end for them.

I’ve found that there are generally two different scenarios with learners I talk to:

  1. People start learning a language because they want it to get them somewhere in terms of employment (the motivator to start in the first place).
  2. They learn a language for another reason such as personal interest in the language (perhaps even become fluent in it) and then at some point down the track decide that it’s a good idea to use what they’ve already learned for a career or to further their existing career.

Read my article on extrinsic and intrinsic motivation for language learning where I’ve talked about this.

I personally have never learned a language solely because I needed it for a job but I can understand why so many people do.

I also understand why these people usually (though not always) fail.

Getting ahead can be a very strong motivator for language learning but obligatory things tend to breed a certain level of resentment. Either that or you stop once a certain objective has been reached.

I fall into the second category myself.

I learned Arabic for many years out of pure interest because I just loved the language and the people and it wasn’t until years later that people began to ask me why I wasn’t using it to earn a living.

I’d get asked questions like:

“Why aren’t you working in intelligence or teaching it or something? It’s such a waste.”

Over time I was convinced that this was indeed the thing that would make me happy; being able to use the very thing I was so passionate about and interested in to earn a living.

So I explored and tried different options.

Today I want to share some of these to perhaps give you some ideas for using your foreign language skills to earn a living.

Jobs tend to require a high level in the language so it’s not exactly a case of being able to say “I want to do this job so I’ll start learning a language now and send out my CV in a few months time”.

It takes a lot of time and dedication to reach a professional level (just like anything).

So this will be something for you to think about if you’re not there yet or to consider if you’re already at a high level.


Do you need to get your foreign language skills up to a more professional, working level?

Either take a look at my language tools collection or select a language here for course options:


 

1. Become a translator

I’ve worked part time as a freelance translator in Arabic over recent years.

I even wrote in great detail about how I did it and what it involves (see here).

Translation depends on three crucial skills above all:

  1. Very high language ability (obviously).
  2. Experience or academic background in the field you intend to translate. Contrary to what a lot of people might assume, translators don’t translate everything. They’re very specific on one or several areas of expertise (e.g. law, tourism, health and so on).
  3. Skill as a writer and translator (into your own language).

Believe it or not, translation skills are not the same thing as foreign language skills. You can be amazingly fluent in a language and yet still be a useless translator.

You also need to be skilled at business and marketing if you’re going freelance because it’s a highly competitive field.

Read this article where I explain all of this in great detail.

 

2. Get a career as an interpreter

Let’s destroy a common misconception here:

Translating and interpreting are two totally different things.

Translation is about the written word – changing texts.

I can’t tell you the number of times people have heard somebody speaking and said to me, “Can you translate what he’s saying?”

Umm… you mean interpreting.

Interpreting is spoken and (I would argue) a much more challenging job than translation.

I’ve only worked in a volunteer capacity as an interpreter once in my life and compared to sitting down with a dictionary while translating documents on a computer screen where you can go at your own pace (provided you make the deadline), it was tough.

This is because you have to deal with people who are speaking spontaneously and colloquially, and you need to be equally spontaneous and accurate!

Also consider the fact that many interpreters work in roles where they have to interpret comments that can have disastrous consequences if interpreted incorrectly (e.g. interpreting between patients and doctors, between politicians of two countries, between a lawyer, defendant and judge, and so on).

Friends of mine who work as interpreters have told me many times of the challenges they face but also the many personal (and financial) rewards as it’s something they love to do.

If that sounds like the kind of challenge you’d find rewarding too, go for it!

But if you’re more of a sit down and work on your own type person then translating is probably a better option.

Here are examples of the two kinds of interpreting: simultaneous and consecutive.

 

3. Apply for a foreign language intelligence role

A few years ago I actually applied for one of these roles in Australia.

I’d envisaged myself as Australia’s Arabic-speaking James Bond in waiting. 🙂

Of course, intelligence agencies are nothing like the movies but just like most guys I thought it would be a dream come true. So I went through the intense multiple stage interview process (online tests, psychological tests and interviews) and unfortunately missed out right at the end of it.

Needless to say, it was a major disappointment at the time.

During the process however I did learn a lot from people I spoke with and officers I met about what intelligence officers do both domestically and abroad.

At the end of the day, what appealed to me most about the intelligence role I applied for was the fact that it’s a relational job – it’s for people who are good with people.

So even though foreign languages may be your forte, people skills and personal charisma could be the determining factor for whether a typical intelligence officer role is worth going for.

There are of course linguist jobs as well in intelligence agencies but as I mentioned above with regard to interpreters, for any kind of job like this you need to be skilled enough to spot very subtle nuances in texts that could have serious ramifications if translated incorrectly.

 

4. Work as a teacher of a foreign language

I always say that you should always have a native speaker as a teacher.

There’s obviously so much that non-native teachers can’t teach you no matter how good they are in the language. There are always going to be expressions and colloquialisms that a non-native will miss.

However…

Non-native teachers do have their place and there is a lot that native speakers often cannot articulate or explain properly to learners.

More importantly, they can’t really relate to learners of their own language because they’ve never had to do it themselves.

And this is the key point.

For example, I work with native Arabic teachers to help people learn Arabic. I often explain concerns and perspectives to my Arabic speaking friends that they previously had no idea about.

These are things that I know learners struggle with because I’ve also struggled with them myself.

Similarly, when I’ve taught English overseas and worked with local co-teachers of English, they’ve been able to explain certain things to students that I’m not able to even though it’s my own language.

So if teaching a foreign language is your interest, look into roles where non-native teachers are employed in support roles for native teachers.

That combination of native teacher + learner teacher can produce some very effective results.

 

5. Work in a customer service position that requires foreign languages

While not a foreign language job per se, this is worth mentioning.

Customer service roles of just about every kind are increasingly in need of more multilingual staff.

I can recall so many different occasions in my own life and stories from friends where foreign languages have been a major advantage in a customer service position.

This just made me think about a time recently when I met a Jordanian guy who worked for Emirates here.

When I started talking to him in Arabic, he was so impressed that he gave me the contact details of his hiring manager in Dubai and said if I ever needed a job in his department I’d be a shoe-in (not that I was remotely interested in the offer but it was encouraging!).

Unless you live out in the boonies, just knowing another language these days will get you ahead in just about any job that involves talking to customers.

Certain languages will get you further than others of course but the mere fact that you speak another language will usually put you ahead of others who don’t.

It also looks fantastic on a resumé (check out this guy‘s video CV for instance) and many companies favor multilingual over monolingual applicants.

 

6. Take a linguist job in the military

A while back I wrote about my experience applying for a job as a Signal’s Operator Linguist (now Operational Air Intelligence Analyst) in the Australian Defence Force.

I found the testing to be a great indicator of how well you’ll pick up a new language under pressure in an intensive training period (we were a group of about 30 being tested and only 4 of us made it through).

Obviously the great perk in taking a job like this is that government is paying you a lot of money to learn and use languages and this pay scale increases for the languages you know.

The downside of course is that you learn what they want you to learn.

Don’t be surprised if you go in thinking you’ll choose French and end up getting taught Somali or Farsi instead. 🙂

You can read about my experience here.

 

7. Become a full-time language blogger or online content creator

When I first began this blog several years ago, it was just a hobby to give me an outlet for my passion (language learning).

Since then it’s become a full-time job for me and allowed me to spend each week learning languages and to share my experiences with people all over the world.

It’s enabled me to move freely, work anywhere and focus on what I care about the most.

I detailed how I accomplished all this here.

I also used my passion for Arabic to create a unique online resource for Arabic learners here.

 

Of course, languages can benefit lots of other fields as well.

For instance, I have friends working (because of their languages) in humanitarian roles for groups like Médecins Sans Frontières and SIL, and other friends working on projects for the international deaf community in sign language training.

These kinds of jobs don’t always guarantee a salary however.

If you’re a trained linguist and/or computer programmer, there are also companies like Appen which hire linguists and computational linguists for major development projects.

See their job vacancy list here for some examples of the kind of criteria they look for. Many of their jobs are offered remotely too.

 

Make sure to consider the future career value of your target language

Think about this for a moment:

Theories on supply and demand predict that when many people possess what earlier might have been a scarce commodity, the price goes down, i.e. it will be more difficult to exchange linguistic capital for economic capital.

When a relatively high proportion of a country’s or region’s or the world’s population have ‘perfect’ –insert language here– skills, the value of these skills as a financial incentive will decrease substantially.

And to paraphrase it:

The more people who learn your target language, the less value it will have.

The quote above is adapted from an article by Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a figure well-known by linguists for her controversial views on linguistic human rights.

If you’re making a new decision on a foreign language to study for a career and want it to be worth something to you in the future, stop and think about whether or not it will be sought-after a few years down the track.

If you want to stand out from the rest then consider studying a language that few others undertake (Georgian for example).

Or consider an endangered language and help keep dying languages alive by bringing attention to their cause while increasing your own appeal to employers.

Make sure to keep this in mind:

Do you think your French, Spanish or German will be as impressive to employers when you and 20 other candidates after you can all speak it?

Foreign languages could potentially and are likely to lose their employment value the same way that Bachelor degrees have in recent years (see The Master’s as the New Bachelor’s).

The term credential inflation, used by the NY Times article above, really holds true for those of us learning languages as well.

I considered myself lucky to have specialized in Arabic rather than a language like French or Italian as it’s still not overly common to find people who learn it as a foreign language but this is changing.

Languages like Arabic and Mandarin Chinese are and will continue to be more desirable as economic power shifts over the coming years.

 

Foreign languages will make you more competitive in the workplace

One of my biggest selling points in job interviews is my foreign language repertoire.

It looks impressive to most employers when a candidate can speak another or several different languages as it generally shows that he or she has good communication and problem-solving skills, and is open-minded and culturally aware.

If the employer is advertising a role that requires dealing with the public (think government roles) they’ll usually look at your foreign languages favorably for this reason.

Particularly for those of us from the US, Australia and the UK where monolingualism is much more the norm than other English-speaking countries it’s fast becoming the case where multilingualism is now expected in many roles.


I hope that’ll give you a few things to think about if you’re considering a career using your foreign languages.

Are you working in one of these roles or something else I haven’t listed here?

Comments

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  1. Great post, Donovan. I’ve been thinking of improving my translation skills with the hope of eventually freelancing on the side. As for the two types of people you talk about at the beginning of the post, I’m definitely the second. I learned Russian solely because I loved it, but I’d like to eventually use it for my career someday. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance to yet, but hopefully it’ll happen soon.

  2. I very much like your post, Donovan. One other career to be added to your list could be “tour guide” or “tourist guide”. Although not a “professional”career, we have often met tour guides who spoke several languages beside their own native language! And they quite likely were also interpreters or translators…

  3. Interesting article but, I think that it overlooks an enormous area where language skills are a bonus: international business. Being able to connect and understand different markets and clients’ needs thanks to another language can be a real competitive advantage for your company and for your career. Even when you inevitably end up working with someone in a language that you don’t understand know 2 or more languages will give you an advantage in seeing things from a different perspective.

  4. I love learning new languages and that’s why I have learned 4 languages till now. May be for the same reason, I am unable to figure out which language to choose as a career. But, after making my mind I took Japanese as my option. And started learning it deeply. Now, I am an interpreter an also teach other about the language and Japanese culture.

    1. Ho there!
      I d like to ask you: did U get a degree or U studied by yourself?
      Because that’s my goal as well but I was wondering if it’s necessary to have a degree.
      Thank u 😊😊.

  5. Great post. There are a few obvious ones in there, but ones I hadn’t thought of. Hmmm, the Irish James Bond, eh?

  6. Hi, Donovan. I just googled “a job where all i have to do is learn new languages” and perhaps it wasn’t the best choice of words but I must say I wasn’t disappointed. I have graduated in the beginning of the year (I’m a geologist) and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about how much I have always enjoyed learning new languages so I’ve been looking for a way of putting together my language skills, my people skills and my college major as a way of making a profit (I’ve already put so much money and time into this hobby that I might as well try making a living out of it). I’ve taken Spanish but never got to a fluent level and I’m also currently studying italian with a language course scheduled for january, in Italy. German is a part of my life and russian is just something I want to learn for fun. Even though I don’t speak or understand much of any of these languages when I study grammar – which it’s the learning key for me – most sentences can be understood so, as a future project, I might try going for one of these two. However, I am strugling with my memory wich I feel is not as great as it used to be during the years I took my english and spanish lessons (I’m 25). Anyway, the whole point of this comment is telling you I quite liked what you wrote and I’m following your website from now on. Also, do you have any extra tips for a beginner translator (on how to get the word out there, for instance)?…… and can you recommend a website or any social media where I can contact a native speaker in order to keep practicing and maybe teach some portuguese?

  7. I’m so happy to have read this. I fall in the second category of people who just love learning languages and consequently wants to make a living off it. My passion comes from my frustration where I want to discuss with friends but find my expressions limited by the language barrier. I still have a lot of learning to do. I speak English and French not professionally even though I am working hard in that regard (on being a professional translator). I also want to learn to speak Japanese and (or) Spanish. While reading your article I found myself trying to fix myself in some of the roles listed. I’m really glad I read this. Thank you.

  8. Really interesting post! Don’t forget working in television – language skills are like gold dust if you want to work in the industry

  9. Hi there! I absolutely love this post. It was very informative and thought-provoking. I am currently a Junior in high school with aspirations to go into language (specifically French or Italian) and I’ve been struggling with figuring out what exactly it is that I would like to do with the language(s) I am learning. Your post helped me narrow down some career paths and really got me thinking about what it is that I would like to work toward in the future. So, thank you- I appreciate all of your wonderful information!

  10. Hi Donovan,
    Its really amazing. I am very much fascinated for languages. Korean dramas were my first inspiration to study a foreign language. But when I start learning it , I felt it to be amazing,rather than my school studies. As speaking I know 4 languages fluently. Currently I am working on my Korean and Japanese.
    Now I am right at the stage to select a career… U really helped me. But my major issue is I learnt languages by my self…… So don’t know if I could make a career in language. Even though now I am giving a serious thought of studying a language course so I can choose a career where I am passionate.
    Your comments were much inspiring for me……

  11. Great blog..
    I’m a commerce student but i don’t want to continue any conventional commerce course.. i’m much more interested in learning different languages, knowing about different cultures..and human behaviour.. can someone suggest some good career option that satisfies my interests and is not just another job but a different one..

  12. Hello Donovan!I am glad I found this on your blog.I was just trying to check out for careers I could get involved with,with an ability to speak foreign languages, and I am happy for the insights I have read. I speak both Chinese and French as foreign languages, currently a translator and interpreter. I appreciate your ideas from your experience, and I am encouraged that there are way too many options to try, in terms of career.Thank you

  13. Looking for abroad job with good language which is very useful

  14. Bonjour Donovan! Can you please tell me more about the intelligence role you mentioned ?

  15. Thanks for this advice!
    We share a common love for Arabic, as this was THE language that made me into an aspiring polyglot. I’m almost 24, and recently graduated with a BS in International Business with a minor in Arabic. I would not mind teaching Arabic on the side or to help students, but I don’t think this is the right career for me, passion-wise. US Intelligence would be great, but I’m not sure the daunting nature of that career path (considering your description) is for me either. I am probably most drawn to the full-time blogging path where one can go at their own pace even remotely, non-guaranteed pay aside. As a second, translation is appealing given its lower barriers to entry than interpreting and military training -which is not in my future for now. I look forward to reading more from your blog!

    1. Thanks Elias.

      Good to hear of your passion for Arabic. I wish you all the best with it. (If blogging is your interest, I’ve got an opportunity you might be suitable for. Shoot me a message through my contact form: mezzoguild.com/contact.)

  16. I have to disagree on number 4. I am a non-native Spanish instructor and I speak 5 other languages. I speak Spanish better than my native languages now and in addition, I have taught some Spanish words and cultural stuff to native speakers who did not know those things. AND I have confused some Latinos with my lack of foreign accent who had thought I was a Latina myself. It is all about contact and how much contact/exposure you have with/to the language.

  17. Hi Donovan,
    Myself Karan from India.I’m 21yrs. Old & Doing bachelor’s degree in Spanish language. I want to do a job in which I will get to explore the world and i love interacting with peoples.After completing my bachelor’s degree I am planning to do a course in tourism.
    Can you suggest something related to this.
    I like your blog as I get to know many things for the Language learners.

  18. I am happy to find your post, thank you. I google-searched by “what’s the career path for spanish language learners”. I am in Los Angeles, and looking for a job. I have learned Spanish for 1.5 years. I need some encouragement! Your post is what I needed! My first goal is to find a bilingual customer service job. I am determined to find one in 6 months!

  19. This post is great. Thanks to it now i have a better idea of what i can do with the ability of dominating a language, in the future. I’m a 16 year old boy who just shifted back to India from Spain. I lived there for 12 years and now i have an incredible domination over it. Soon i’m going to give my exams for Spanish certificates.
    It would be great if you could give me more ideas of the jobs opportunities, in my case.
    Thank you.

  20. We home school and my 15 year old daughter has been learning Hebrew for a couple of years (and plans to continue through high school) and has just started learning Russian purely out of interest. I am amazed at her ability to so quickly learn a new alphabet, vocabulary, and phrases. In an effort to foster her interests and educate myself on possibilities for future educational opportunities and careers, I came across your article. Thank you for sharing your experience, teaching me the difference between translating and interpreting (along with personality considerations for each), considerations in teaching as a native/non-native speaker, and linking to more information.
    Thank you for giving real insight as I search for direction on fostering her interests and possible career choices.

  21. Hi, interesting article though as a non-native and certified teacher of a world language level I-AP, I disagree on #4. Teaching a language involves a high degree of proficiency in that language. In order to teach high school, for example, a teacher needs to have a minimum of a BA /teaching certification or a BS in education in that language in most states. Aside from that, the teacher must take a proficiency exam in reading, writing, listening and speaking and achieve a minimum score before being granted an educator’s license for that state. For example, I am certified to teach Spanish in 3 states. All three are changing to require a Masters in the subject area in the near future (which I already have). I have also taken and passed the PRAXIS, MTEL and ACTFL proficiency exams which are required by these states. Additionally, teachers of AP for a World Language need training beyond the requirements of the state since AP is a college level course. Therefore, being a native speaker of a language isn’t an automatic qualifier for teaching. I have been learning Spanish since I was 2 and lived abroad in Mexico for quite some time. Since I teach upper levels of Spanish, I frequently have heritage speakers in my classes and I have never felt intimidated or less because I am a non-native. If anything, the mix enriches the class and learning.

    P.S. I also worked in international business for 20 years and used my Spanish everyday. You can add that to your list of jobs!

  22. Great post Donovan! I, too, had previously applied for a foreign language intelligence role. The job position was “language analyst” but I only got to know that it was in the intelligence department after going down for interviews.

    The process was intense and I even had to do lie detector test lol. But I missed out at the very end. Quite soul crushing as I really wanted that job.

    But on hindsight, it was probably a good thing that I didnt get the job. I’ve started a blog about Levantine Arabic for about a year now and Im planning on hopefully monetising it and turning it into a full time career.

    Any advices from you will be highly appreciated! 🙂

  23. Thank You Donovan. You have beacome an inspiration for me. I am also deeply interested in the languages and cultures of the world and want to choose a suitable career in that field. Also I don’t really want get stucked in a single job for my life time. And so was deeply confused on what are the things I can do after learning different languages. Thank u for your help and guidance and sharing your experiences with us. I’m going to follow your website from on. Hope it’ll help further in my life.

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