Illustration by Kati Szilagyi
School is the starting point for most people’s relationships with foreign languages. Our childhood fascination with sounds and words is gradually tamed and disciplined into a chore with regular tests and assessments. But rediscovering languages in a motivating environment, with the freedom to control the learning process ourselves, can be extremely rewarding. There are many advantages to being multilingual, and careers can either skyrocket or stagnate depending on our ability to communicate well with different cultures.
Whether you’re keen to climb up the corporate ladder or a daredevil who jumps at challenges, here are a few career paths where you can excel if you polish your language skills.
Work as a tour guide
If you have the soul of a traveler and the savings account of a broke student, then learn a couple of languages and work as a tour guide! Most guided tours consist of a detailed plan in a somewhat controlled environment. (The uncontrolled part usually includes the weather and nagging tourists!) You can travel and work as you go, jumping from continent to continent, while either providing services for your employer or kickstarting your own tours.
Work as a teacher
If you’d rather a sedentary job, leaving the running about for your free time, consider working as an English teacher! “But if I’m teaching my mother tongue, why learn another language?” you ask somewhat sarcastically. Well, in many countries English is not commonly spoken and you will find yourself literally lost for words when vainly attempting to communicate with locals. Japan, Brazil, China and even Spain or Portugal have large percentages of citizens unable to understand a few simple words in English. For instance, if you arrive in Japan with no knowledge of Japanese, not only will you miss out on relevant information regarding your rights as a worker (the fine print in that contract!) but you will also likely ignore the unwritten rules and cultural expectations. (Did I mention the Japanese corporate work ethic?)
Teaching is not the only sedentary job where you’ll need a second language, however. Even in the predominantly English-speaking IT field, multilingual you will certainly be considered for a promotion sooner than your monolingual co-worker. Being able to talk to clients in their own language and make your voice heard in international calls will bump you up a notch in the corporate hierarchy. Which leads us to…
Work in the corporate world
If you’re someone who can’t get into the professional mindset without a tall ladder to climb, then the corporate world is the way to go. Finance, business, industry — it’s where the big money is. But big money requires big skills, and company growth will always depend on your flair for communication. Hence the need for languages. You want to do business in China? Learn Mandarin and strike those deals. Want to conquer Japan? Start practicing that Hiragana. And when that evening call from Tokyo lands in the office and everybody is already gone, you’ll be the one picking it up and nabbing the coveted role of team lead. Book that plane ticket now!
Work as a writer
And who gave you that idea? 😉 Well, if you want to jump on my bandwagon, stay inspired by writers who have published work in languages other than their mother tongues. We usually associate language with one exclusive nation or culture, but writers such as Nancy Huston have written in French and English and have amassed a transcontinental audience. Her skills as a polyglot have given her additional control over book translations. This ability to feel at ease in different languages can also be an asset if you decide to work as a translator. These two careers mostly allow you to work from home, thus avoiding the daily traffic associated with the 9 to 5 grind. It’s not suitable for everyone (outgoing social butterflies need not apply!), but it can be very rewarding for those who cherish the homely comfort of the living room as a workplace or merely enjoy the nourishing silence of solitude.
Work as a journalist
So you love writing but crave the aforementioned social butterfly element? Then dive into journalism and discover the world through the lens of current affairs. Traveling to Asia while writing your article on an airplane; tracking down an elusive source in Grozny, Chechnya; recording vox pops in a busy South American city — journalism is the perfect career for an adventurous spirit! But don’t expect any challenging assignments without language skills. Not all news outlets will foot the bill for an interpreter, so you had better fit the bill for a journalist who can communicate with ease. Besides, a self-sufficient self-starter will always stay ahead of the pack in any professional environment, especially when you find yourself alone trying to reach out to that mafia boss.
It doesn’t always have to be cloak and dagger, though. Earn your living as a journalist making TV appearances (commenting on German politics or the French media’s reaction to Macron), radio interviews (the newly arrived refugee with twenty different stories to tell), podcasts and Youtube videos — and you will soon understand how languages can make or break a career!
Work for an embassy
The two main obstacles of traveling or living in a country are money and visas. Overcome these two hurdles in one jump by applying for a job in an embassy. Not only will officials speed up the required bureaucracy, but the body will probably pay handsomely for a simple entry level job. Being able to speak the locals’ language may not be an essential requirement for all positions, but it will benefit you immensely in the application process. If you end up working in Europe, chances are you will receive documents — work permit/Schengen Visa — that will allow you to travel freely through all the member states.
No matter where in the world you choose to work, knowing the local language will help open up countless doors. Remember, even working as an interpreter or a secretary in an embassy could be the start of a diplomatic career.
Work for the military
A career in the military has the potential to whisk you to exotic places around the world (especially if you’re the citizen of a country with military bases abroad) — but don’t expect to climb up the ranks without language skills. Recently, UK army officers were told to learn a foreign language or abandon any dreams of a promotion. Languages may help you win or lose a war…
Work as a performer
If weaponry and military drills upset your peace-loving, anti-authoritarian streak, embrace the creative excitement of the arts and jump on stage. Whether you’re a singer, actor or performance artist, if you use your voice in the arts, languages can help you reach a wider audience. The comedian Eddie Izzard now performs on stage in several languages, including German and Arabic. He has found an international audience and his career is no longer circumscribed to the UK or the US.
Actors such as Salma Hayek, Christoph Waltz, Kristin Scott Thomas and Antonio Banderas have enjoyed success in more than one language. Memorizing lines and perfecting your accent while working is one of the best ways to improve your language skills. You can effortlessly develop two talents side by side: artistic and linguistic.
Languages come wrapped with cultural competence
Learning a language will provide you with the ability to differentiate the faux-pas from the bon mot. It will prepare you for cultures where men kiss on the cheek (France, for example) and others where physical contact is taboo (the Brits, for example, are not so keen on hugs). It will dispel stereotypes you may not even realize you hold, reveal directness and straightforwardness as a virtue in some countries (the Netherlands) and as a serious character flaw in other nations (Japan).
Understanding the emotional nuances each language expresses can be put to good use in a professional environment, starting with that job interview. Earn people’s trust by making an effort to communicate in their language. You might even learn about new positions in your team through office gossip! That special tidbit of information hushed in Spanish that went unnoticed by your English co-workers? You understood it because of your language skills.
Time to perfect them and apply for that dream position!