Careers with languages

The other day I came across an interesting piece in The Guardian about “Career options for foreign language speakers“. The piece is just a short introduction to an online Q&A session that took place last Friday, and it claims that:

The words “graduate with a foreign language” on your CV will have many recruiters going back for another look. That’s because a relatively small pool of Brits have foreign language credentials, so they stand out from the crowd and, consequently, have far healthier career options, according to a recent Independent article.

Many people have commented on this, and the general tone of the comments seems to be that foreign language skills alone are not sufficient to secure a job; that few employers value such skills or understand what it takes to acquire them; and that most jobs which require foreign languages are relatively low paid. Some comments mention that if you speak foreign languages and have qualifications and experience in other areas, such as IT, engineering, medicine, etc, you can probably find a job in foreign parts, though you may end up spending most of your time speaking English. Others say that some British employers prefer to employ native speakers of particular languages with the relevant skills, rather than Brits who have learnt those languages.

There are some positive comments as well from people in language-related professions, but the overall tone is quite negative.

I got my first proper job, with the British Council in Taipei, partly because I speak Mandarin, and I used my Mandarin a lot while working there.

What is your experience? Are you in a language-related profession? Would you like to be? Are foreign language skills valued by employers in your country?

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11 Responses to Careers with languages

  1. J Roberts says:

    My FL skills (German and Spanish) did not make a scrap of difference to my career prospects in the UK. Sometimes I even got the feeling in job interviews that they thought I was just trying to show off!

    I spent 6 years working for a German bank and hardly ever used German. Even the meetings in Germany were held in English – with many of the Germans speaking better English than the English.

  2. In the US it’s so incredibly beneficial to know Spanish. As the country is increasing it’s Hispanic population I think it’s the best time to learn the language. I am about to graduate college next year and have taken a good amount of required Spanish courses but I wish that I had more time to get another whole degree in it. It’s interesting to read how it is in other countries. You’d think it’d always be a major plus! I’ve never been to Europe though so I’m a little out of the loop. I just know that Spanish is huge here.

    Alyssa
    coolproducts.com

  3. phil says:

    I have Swedish and it did not help my career one jot. From a career perspective I need not have learnt it at all.

    There is, however, the idea that knowing a language can do wonders for your job prospects and earn you bags and bags of cash. People have told me that I should get a job with MI5 or the European parliament.

  4. Declan says:

    @phil, I’ve gotten that as well because I have French and German, but only because where I’m from, it’s rare enough for someone to have a few words of one of them, let alone both, even though in general in Ireland, it’s not that unusual to speak those particular languages. “An rud is annamh is iontach” (that, that’s rare, is wonderful) comes to mind.

  5. Yenlit says:

    My work colleagues or boss doesn’t even know I can speak other languages?

  6. Svetla says:

    I lived in Saudi with my ex Scottish husband and our two children. We are both teachers of English. I have an MA in English philology; he has a degree in History but because he is a native speaker, he had a good job. I finally got a job in a European school in town which after 1 year was given to a British NURSE. Being from Bulgaria only made me seem completely incapable of teaching English – it HAD to be a native speaker! Only native speakers know how to teach their own language, it’s widely known!

  7. Qcumber says:

    The situation is different in the rest of the world. I am French, and I can tell you that a working knowledge of written English is the minimum required for any job beyond that of unskilled workers. If you can handle another language in addition to English, then you have more chances to get a better job. Some French employees in contact with tourists have to use four languages: French, English, Spanish and say German.
    BTW. From my own experience as a student (a long time ago), I can tell you the majority of native speakers turned teachers have no training. They don’t know their grammar, and are generally unable to give even a simple rule that a non-native licenced teacher can easily explain. Native speakers are only useful as monitored assistants to licenced teachers. Just visit The Word Reference Forum were amateurs give their “lessons” to trusting learners, and you’ll see what I mean. Apart from a handful of learned and competent fellows, the rest is a pack of charleys.

  8. Juan Shimmin says:

    I haven’t looked for Milkround jobs, which seems to be the focus of the article. I can say that I’ve very rarely seen jobs, other than those directly related to language (like translation) where demanded language skills seemed to affect the salary. Plenty of minimum-wage trilingual administrator posts and the like.

    Although languages have never got me a job, I reckon they were a help in getting my current job: working in a university with a fair number of international students and visiting academics. I suspect that in general, language skills don’t get you more money compared to monolingual equivalent jobs, but they do open up more opportunities to have a job at all. Public sector jobs in Wales tend to demand Welsh, for example, as do a lot of the call centres and the like.

  9. J says:

    In my case, foreign language skills were very important in getting my job. I’m British, prior to getting my job (as a postdoc researcher at a uni in the Netherlands) I could already speak three other languages fluently, and could also read (though not speak) Dutch.

    Partly because of my language background, I got a job in a Dutch university. Although I couldn’t speak Dutch very fluently when I arrived, the uni was happy that as I was already multilingual (and had a reading knowledge of Dutch), I would likely pick up spoken Dutch quite quickly.

    As it transpired, I picked up Dutch (though it took a lot of work!) well enough that my contract was soon extended beyond the initial one year.

    My language background alone wasn’t what got me the job. The uni was employing me to research, and they were primarily interested in my PhD topic and future research plans. Being able to speak various languages but having nothing to say in them isn’t that useful to a university!

    But had I not been strongly multilingual beforehand, (i.e. if I had been a typical monolingual anglo) I definitely wouldn’t have got this job.

    J

  10. Tommy says:

    I’m an American living in Tokyo and I work for a medium sized Japanese company (I’m not an English teacher). The handful of us foreigners here are all fluent in at least 4 languages, Japanese, English, and other languages used to do businesses overseas. In my case, I handle clients in Latin America because I had prior experience there and knew Spanish and Portuguese.

    If you do only international logistics, it might be true that you only need English (sometimes only reading and writing ability), but to target local people and exchange ideas, the local language is necessary.

  11. In my view speaking several languages gives you more opportunities and open more doors! currently i live in china and almost all the expats here can speak 2 foreign languages and more!