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Feeling Stuck At Work? Try Learning A New Language

The not-so-obvious benefits of learning a new language.

By Y Yates

We all have different motivations for learning a new language. Maybe we want to travel to a new country, or reap the cognitive benefits from the brain workout. But there’s one benefit you may not have considered: a career boost. Just because you learn a new language, it doesn’t mean that you’ll suddenly run out and get a job as a translator. In fact, you may never use your language skills in an official capacity at your workplace. But that doesn’t mean that learning a new language won’t help your career.

Standing Out In The Crowd

Tamara, a 23-year-old program manager in New York City, speaks English, French, Arabic, some Italian, and understands Spanish. She uses her language skills for her job, where she’s responsible for planning financial conferences in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.

Although she’s clear that language skills alone aren’t a panacea to finding a job in the competitive job market (in the United States, the millennial unemployment rate is currently 7.1%, which is higher than the national average of 4.4%), she believes it makes her more marketable.

When the job market is flooded with college graduates who all have similar track records of achievement, “you really have to stand out in other ways,” she says.

Her advice to other multilingual job seekers is to use those skills to differentiate yourself from the crowd. Speaking more than one language is not an ability that everyone has, particularly in the United States where 82% of the population speaks only English, according to a sample survey conducted in 2000 by the U.S. Census Bureau.

“In interviews, even if they don’t ask, somehow find a way to highlight that,” Tamara says. You never know where it may lead, she explains, and “it will invoke some sort of reaction regardless.” Even if it’s not applicable to the job you’re applying for, they may have a spot for you elsewhere in the company, she advises.

Landing Your Dream Job

Of course, sometimes language skills are required for the job you want.

“I did my apprenticeship to become an office clerk, and I just realized I’m not the kind of person to sit in an office eight hours a day by myself just staring at a computer,” says Olivia, a 26-year-old flight attendant from Switzerland.

“I always wanted to become a flight attendant,” she says. “I love traveling, and it’s such a great way to go places. I love working with people.”

Being fluent in French and English is a requirement for her job. At the time she was applying, she had been in the U.S. working as an au pair and hadn’t used her French in two years.

“I was fluent in French before but it got really rusty,” she says. Determined to do everything she could to get the job, she watched movies in French and worked through a grammar book to brush up. But cramming is not an approach she would recommend to others who need to use more than one language for work.

“Try to use the languages as much as you can,” she says. “Even if you don’t use it in your daily life, it’s still good to have it because it’s a benefit if you apply for a job.”

Outside of work, Olivia believes language learning enhances your life in many other ways.

“I just think it’s really important if you can speak a few languages and not just one. It just makes your life so much easier," she says. "Even when you go on vacation. People love it when you can just say ‘good morning’ in their language.”

A Better Way To Network And Unwind

We’ve all heard that networking is great for your career. To some people, that might be music to their ears. But for others (myself included), the thought fills them with dread. For those of us looking for an easier way to network, learning a new language might be the useful — if unexpected — tool that helps us connect.

Laurence, a 26-year-old marketing professional from London, didn’t have career development in mind when he started learning Hebrew two and a half years ago. He was interested in the language from a cultural and historical perspective.

“The more you learn the language the more you understand the culture, and even how the language influences the culture and how that feeds back. That’s how my interest started,” he says.

But the further he progressed, the more he discovered it helped him professionally.

“It’s been useful more accidentally than intentionally,” he says. For example, at a conference last year, he met a native Hebrew speaker. He noticed the man’s accent and asked where he was from. They then switched from English to speaking in Hebrew.

“It’s an immediate in and an immediate connection that you can’t really get without speaking the language,” Laurence says. “It helps you grow your network and establish your connection.”

Another surprising thing he discovered about learning Hebrew is that it helps with his work-life balance. He studies the language after getting home from work, which he says is a relaxing activity that helps him unwind.

“It’s nice to have that as something you can go home to,” he says.

Writing about his day in Hebrew also allows Laurence to look at life in a more objective way.

“You can be more honest in a second language,” he says.

There’s research to back this up. One study found that thinking in a foreign language helps people make more rational decisions, which is certainly a benefit in both everyday life and the workplace

His advice to language learners is to immerse yourself in the culture. For instance, he now listens to more Hebrew music than English music, and also watches television shows in Hebrew. He also recommends speaking to people as much as possible. The more you practice introducing yourself, the more confident you’ll become.

"That confidence is really important," he says.

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