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:
- 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).
- 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.
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:
- Very high language ability (obviously).
- 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).
- 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.
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.
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:
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.
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?