Career Transitions

Turning chaos into careers.

Marketing and Using Your Foreign Language Skills at Work

10 tips (and more) to make the most of your foreign language skills.

"The limits of my language are the limits of my universe." Ludwig Wittgenstein

A recent episode of The Good Wife featured an attorney trying to represent a client in an international arbitration hearing. He insisted that the hearing be conducted in English, but discovered the panel discussed side issues in French. He ultimately had to call in another lawyer from the firm to translate, confessing that he no longer remembered a word of French from his college days.

Many of us experience that problem: we studied a foreign language in college but never used it again. That's where foreign language majors who have the ability to open up new opportunities for business expansion can have the upper hand in the job search. Yet many foreign language majors struggle in the job market because they don't think broadly enough about opportunities.  Here are ways to think about using your second language at work.

TRANSLATING/TEACHING

Your foreign language skills will be a primary factor in careers like teaching, translating, and interpretation, which involve constant use of the foreign language, and require the highest level of skill and knowledge. Opportunities for these careers can be found in many settings including education, government, business, nonprofit agencies, law firms, etc.

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Your personality is an important factor when considering a translation or interpretation career. If you enjoy working alone, appreciate careful semantic phrasing, have a good eye for detail and precision, you may want to consider translation. If you're a "people person", think quickly and respond immediately to changes in your environment you should consider interpreting.

Here are some links for more information about translation and other multilingual job opportunities (no endorsement intended- always investigate any job opportunity carefully):

If you’re interested in education, consider teaching and administrative positions in all school settings from elementary schools to universities, as well as professional language schools, English language institutes, overseas dependents' schools, American-sponsored private schools abroad, American college programs abroad, and foreign study exchange programs.

Here are some helpful resources:


OTHER OPPORTUNITIES TO USE YOUR LANGUAGE SKILLS

But what if you’d like a career which uses your foreign language skills but not as intensely as a full-time teaching or translating role? In general, language skills alone will not get you a job. You usually have to combine your language ability with a skill valued in your field of interest. If you want to learn more about international jobs, check out my website at UT College of Liberal Arts.

The list of careers which can incorporate a foreign language background is endless, but fields which are more likely to need your skills include information technology, hospitality (including travel and tourism), marketing, healthcare, and government agencies. The secret, of course, is finding employers who are smart and creative enough to take advantage of your language skills.

Combining language study with business courses will help you shape a potential international business career in such areas as international banking, marketing, import/export, purchasing, finance, advertising, consulting etc.  For instance, your knowledge of Spanish combined with an accounting degree or an ability to sell will help you find a special niche internationally. Your language skills might open up a new customer or client base for an employer.

It is not unusual for large law firms to hire foreign language majors and train them as paralegals. The firms find it easier to train bilingual individuals in the basics of the law than to teach lawyers to speak another language. Many organizations keep lists of their employees who are knowledgeable in a second language (as well as sign language) just for that random situation where the language is needed. Hotels, for example, greatly benefit from workers who speak more than one language given their international clientele. If you’re interested in working for the federal government agencies like the FBI or CIA offer excellent career opportunities.

MARKETING YOUR FOREIGN LANGUAGE SKILLS

Unfortunately, the advantage of knowing a second language isn’t always immediately apparent to employers. If you tell an employer you’re fluent in German, they will likely say, “well we really don’t need German language skills here.” This is where you need to remember the old phrase, “Salesmanship begins when the customer says ‘no.’” Here are 10 tips:

1. You can describe your language skills as a “bonus” for an employer: sometimes you don’t know what you need until someone with the right talent shows up. Cite examples of times when your language knowledge came in unexpectedly handy.

2. Let your potential employer know that studying a language goes way beyond the specific knowledge of the language. Some of the other benefits of studying or majoring in a foreign language include:

  • Analytic skills developed through study of literature
  • Cultural sensitivity beyond a superficial level
  • Deep interest in communicating and connecting with people
  • Enhanced English grammar and vocabulary skills
  • Strong listening skills and attention to detail
  • Strong auditory and visual memory
  • Openness to and appreciation of different perspectives

3. As a foreign language major, you have likely developed important aspects of your personality such as being adaptable, open-minded, curious, persevering, and detail-oriented. Arrive at your interview prepared to explain to an employer how you apply these traits.

4. Continue to develop and perfect your knowledge of the language. Seek out opportunities to converse with native speakers to keep your skills fresh.

5. Develop a specialized vocabulary, learning the terminology for legal, business, or medical settings.

6. Gain experience and develop a network through internships or volunteering in locations where foreign languages are used and appreciated.

7. Consider an entrepreneurial career and seek out freelance language-based opportunities. Private tutoring, translating, or other services can be lucrative if marketed well to the right niche.

8. If you plan to stay in education or translation, investigate certification or accreditation from an interpretation/translation organization, or an ESL (English as a Second Language) certificate.

9. Seek out companies or organizations that have an international reach. Consider your fields of interest and strategically select a language which would be valuable there. Chinese and Spanish are generally two of the most valuable languages to learn.

10. Search for jobs online by using the language as the search term—for example, enter “Spanish” and a location in Indeed.com and see what shows up. The following job titles showed up in an Indeed search using “Spanish” and “Austin, TX”: elementary teacher; reading specialist; senior manager loss prevention; executive assistant; customer service rep; research specialist; inside sales; communications specialist; participant services representative—even a job at Indeed for an Associate Country Manager- Spain.

Finding a job which takes advantage of your foreign language skills requires you to be creative and careful in your selection of the right field and the right employer.  Remember, your language skills are one part of a total package you offer to an employer.

©2013 Katharine Brooks. All rights reserved. Find me on Facebook and Twitter.   

 

Katharine Brooks, Ed.D., is the Executive Director of the Office of Personal and Career Development at Wake Forest University. She is the author of You Majored in What?

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