Chapter 17: Language skills and your career

Applying Language Skills in Specific Careers

The average American will have an average of three to five distinct careers, and hold about ten to twelve jobs during his or her lifetime. You may already have an idea of how a foreign language could be useful in your current position. Nonetheless, if you are just getting started with languages, it may be helpful to examine how language skills are applicable in some other careers that you might be considering.


Many small- and medium-sized companies would like to expand into other markets, but they do not have the resources necessary to establish a branch office in another country. A sales professional with foreign language skills can be a valuable asset for such an organization. Often such individuals will be assigned a mixture of domestic and foreign accounts.

There is an especially high demand for bilingual salespeople among companies near the Mexican border. The economies of the Southwestern United States and Mexico are becoming increasingly intertwined. I was once recruited for a sales position with a machine tool distributor in Houston. The plan was for me to call on accounts in Texas, as well as customers in Mexico. (Interestingly, this distributor was also looking for a salesperson who spoke Vietnamese or Thai, given the high numbers of Southeast Asian immigrants in the Houston area.).

The only official language in Detroit, Michigan is English, but the presence of so many international automotive manufacturers in the area has created a demand for Japanese-, German-, and Korean-speaking sales representatives. Spanish is also becoming more important in the automotive fields.

If you would like to work in the international automotive industry but you don’t want to move to Detroit, don’t fret. There are internationally oriented opportunities elsewhere. Honda, a Japanese automaker, has plants in the United States, Canada, and Mexico. Toyota, the largest Japanese automobile manufacturer, is similarly spread out across North America, with plants in Kentucky, Alabama, Indiana, West Virginia, California, Ontario, and Tijuana.

Although the Japanese presence in the North American automobile industry receives the most attention, the Germans and the Koreans are also major international players. I recall several of my colleagues being recruited to work at the German-owned BMW plant in South Carolina in the early 1990s. Meanwhile, the Koreans are also building plants in the United States. Hyundai has recently constructed a plant in Alabama, where the company manufactures the popular Hyundai Sonata.

As foreign automakers continue to integrate into the American automobile industry, foreign suppliers are arriving as well. Japanese automotive components suppliers such as Nippon Denso, Yazaki, and Aisin all have well-established presences in North America. These companies are usually interested in both the Japanese transplant operations in North America (Honda, Toyota, and Nissan) as well as business opportunities with Ford, GM, and Daimler-Chrysler. If you speak Japanese and have a background in the automotive industry, you will surely be able to generate some interest among these companies.

Human Resources

In the age of the multinational corporation, human resources professionals need language skills to administer personnel policies and employee relations in overseas facilities. Standards regarding wages, work hours, and corporate hierarchy vary greatly between Europe, the United States, Latin America and Asia. Compared to his monolingual counterparts, the bilingual or multilingual human resources manager can more easily bring about a consensus in regard to these issues. 

Human resources professionals who speak Spanish have especially strong prospects in California, Texas, and other states that have large Spanish-speaking populations. Moreover, the recent influx of guest workers from Mexico has heightened the demand for Spanish-speaking human resources professionals throughout the country. Spanish-speaking human resources administrators are now sought in places where the demand did not exist ten years ago. I have recently come across ads seeking such individuals in Nashville, Cincinnati, and Milwaukee. 


There is a tremendous amount of disparity among the world’s legal systems. While every country has laws against universal crimes such as theft and murder, we have yet to reach a global consensus in many areas of business law. What is perfectly legal in the United States may be forbidden in Japan, and what is accepted as a standard business practice in Japan may be forbidden under American law. In general, American business laws reflect a more laissez faire attitude than the rest of the world, but this is not always the case. For example, it is common in many countries for an employment ad to list age and gender requirements for a position. Such practices are forbidden under the laws of the United States.

Language skills give legal professionals the capability to research laws and case histories in non-English-speaking countries. Foreign language skills are also indispensable when dealing with government agencies throughout the world.      


Selling your company’s goods in other parts of the world is only one half of the international business equation. The global business environment favors national specialization. In certain industries, it will be highly probable that at least some of the equipment or production inputs that your company uses can be more economically purchased from vendors overseas.

Sometimes there is no choice. In certain technical fields, there are unique products that can only be purchased from South Korea, Japan, or Germany. In other situations, the labor-intensive nature of a production input requires that it be purchased from countries with lower manufacturing costs.

For manufacturing firms, sourcing and procurement involve extensive research and communications, which are difficult without proficiency in the local language. When a complex or mission-critical product is sourced, the supplier selection process often entails a lengthy period of evaluation. After a suitable supplier is selected, financial terms, shipping arrangements, and countless other details must be finalized.

If you are already a purchasing professional, then it would make sense to learn the language of a country in which a large percentage of your industry’s inputs are manufactured. From a general perspective, the present growth of the manufacturing industries in Mexico and China make Spanish and Chinese solid language choices for purchasing agents and buyers.

Public Sector/U.S. Government

In recent years, government jobs have received renewed interest among professionals in the United States. The number of opportunities in the public sector has increased as well. Some of the fastest growing job categories in the public sector require language skills. In particular, there has been a marked increase in jobs related to law enforcement, intelligence gathering, and national defense. All of these job categories rely heavily on foreign languages.

According to a study conducted by the National Security Education Program  (NSEP), “Analysis of Federal Language Needs,” the need for language specialists in defense-related federal agencies has grown particularly acute in recent years:

“There is little debate that the era of globalization has brought increasingly diverse and complex challenges to U.S. national security.  With these challenges comes a rapidly increasing need for a workforce with skills that address these needs, including professional expertise accompanied by the ability to communicate and understand the languages and cultures of key world regions: Russia and the former Soviet Union, China, the Arab world, Iran, Korea, Central Asia and key countries in Africa, Latin America and East Asia.   

Some 80 federal agencies and offices involved in areas related to U.S. national security rely increasingly on human resources with high levels of language competency and international knowledge and experience.  Finding these resources and, in particular, finding candidates for employment as professionals in the U.S. Government, has proven increasingly difficult, and many agencies now report shortfalls in hiring, deficits in readiness, and adverse impacts on operations.” 

(Source: National Security Education Program  (NSEP) Analysis of Federal Language Needs)

The U.S. federal government even founded a special NSEP scholarship program in the early 1990s in response to the problem. NSEP scholarships are awarded to university-level students to “study those languages and cultures critical to U.S. national security”

The agencies with the strongest demand for language skills include the U.S. Customs Service, the Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI, the U.S. Secret Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. If you are interested in something even more adventurous, there is also a need for language specialists to work with the U.S. Coast Guard Intelligence Service. In conducting its annual survey of government-related language needs, the NSEP received some revealing feedback from Coast Guard Intelligence Service officials. The following comments describe the negative impact resulting from a shortage of qualified language specialists aboard Coast Guard vessels:

“lack of interpreters in Chinese, Russian, Polish, Japanese and Korean curtail any intelligence gathering which is critical to success of mission”…. “lack of interpreter reduced quality of right of approach questions”… “never determined nationality due to lack of interpreter”… “heavy workload for 2 Spanish speakers during two intense patrols; multiple daily interactions with immigrants”… “delay attributed to availability of interpreter being ashore and underway”…”Lack of Japanese interpreter resulted in no radio communications”

(Source: NSEP)

Information Technology

The demand for IT professionals with foreign language skills has increased markedly in the past decade. The reason is the changing nature of the IT project market. Whereas the United States was once the singular destination for IT work, the demand for IT services has been expanding to the non-English speaking world. Europe, Japan, and Asia are just a few of the markets that increasingly require IT expertise.

Computer programmers and other technical workers will always be evaluated first on their technical knowledge. However, communication skills are also important. In order to properly design, program, and maintain solutions, IT professionals must be able to interact effectively with end users. In many cases, these end users don’t speak English.

In IT project work, the program code itself requires relatively little translation, but language skills are frequently necessary in order to clarify business objectives and end user expectations. Someone must bridge the gap between the user who is expecting a particular level of functionality, and the Java programmer who must make the functionality happen. A large number of IT projects seem to fail because user expectations are not fully clarified. This risk is further increased when a language barrier is present.

I have experienced firsthand the role that language plays in a large IT project. During my employment at a large Japanese company, I worked on a major IT application development project with a team of American and Japanese programmers. On top of this, our end users spoke not only English and Japanese, but Spanish and French as well. 

If you already have strong IT skills, then you can make yourself doubly valuable by adding language skills to your resume. As the IT industry becomes more and more competitive, “multiskilling” is a new buzzword for techies. Previously, it was standard practice for international IT consulting firms to hire separate individuals to fulfill linguistic and programming functions. Now, however, tighter deadlines and slimmer budgets have forced these companies to seek more programmers who can also speak foreign languages.

Language Skills and Your Resume

In order to land a better job with your language skills, you must first make potential employers aware of your skills. This naturally leads to another question: How should you describe your language skills on your resume?

Most resumes are divided into standard sections, such as “Experience”, “Education”, etc. Near the bottom of your resume, you should have a section entitled “Language Skills.” In this area, you will list the languages which you have studied, and your degree of accomplishment in each one. A sample “Language Skills” section might look like this:

Language Skills:

Spanish: Extremely proficient in the written and spoken language. In my current position, I utilize Spanish daily to conduct business and technical discussions.

German: Advanced proficiency in spoken and written German. I frequently utilize German to analyze product specifications from my company’s European suppliers.

French: Basic conversational skills and reading ability. I often travel to France to visit suppliers and attend key meetings.

As you can see, I prefer the term “extremely proficient” instead of the word “fluent” to describe your skills in a foreign language that you have truly mastered. To many readers, “fluent” applies only to a native speaker. The term “extremely proficient” informs the potential employer that you are functionally fluent in a language without making a claim to native fluency.

The above resume excerpt indicates that the applicant has extremely advanced skills in Spanish, moderately advanced skills in German, and basic skills in French. Always list your languages in the order of descending skill level. It is okay to list a language in which you presently have only basic skills. Just be sure that your resume does not overstate your abilities. At some point, you will be asked to demonstrate your proficiency in the language. (In most of my past positions, a native speaker of at least one of the languages I had listed was present in the interview.) Therefore, exaggerating your abilities is not to your advantage in the long run.

Notice also that I have listed at least one business function which the applicant is presently preforming with each language. She uses spoken and written Spanish as an integral part of her job. She uses her German reading skills to analyze product specifications. Even her basic French presumably comes in handy when she travels to France on business trips. It is important for you to explain how your language skills have made you a more effective professional.

You can also work your foreign language skills into the “objective” or “mission statement” that you place near the top of the resume:

“Seeking a challenging position in operations management, utilizing extensive global project management experience, and advanced Japanese and French language skills.”

“High volume industrial sales specialist, specializing in the Latin American market. Extremely proficient in Spanish and Portuguese.”


Opportunities to Work Overseas

Do you want to do more than just take an occasional business trip to a foreign country? Would you be interested in living in Asia, Europe, or elsewhere for an extended assignment of one, two, or three years?

There are four basic paths to acquiring an overseas position. Each option requires a slightly different level of skills, experience, and commitment:

Path #1: Find a job that involves immediate placement in an overseas position.

Multinational corporations sometimes open overseas positions to outside candidates. On, I recently saw several positions that offered immediate assignments in Russia, Japan, and several European countries. If it is your desire to find an immediate overseas position in a professional field, it can be done.

These jobs are usually at the high end of the seniority and salary range. Therefore, the educational and experience requirements for these positions are typically quite stringent. If, however, you are a seasoned professional with a master’s degree or two, you might be able to take this route.

Path #2: Take a job with a company based in your own country, with the plan of negotiating a later transfer to an overseas division.

There are numerous U.S. firms with overseas plants and branch offices. In addition to the better known companies like General Electric and Procter & Gamble, there are hundreds of lesser known American companies that have established foreign subsidiaries. I have a friend who is an engineer at an American medical technology firm. In the past three years, he has been offered opportunities to transfer to Germany, Japan, and China.

If you pursue this route, plan on two to three years of paying your dues in a key functional area within the company before getting a chance to transfer outside the United States. As a general rule, American companies only offer overseas opportunities to employees who have demonstrated their competency in a specific field (marketing, finance, engineering, etc.)

Path #3: Take a job with the American branch of a foreign company, with the expectation that you will have a chance at an extended assignment in the overseas headquarters.

Most of the Americans I know who have actually worked overseas have followed this route. If you are hired in the United States by Toyota, Honda, Bosch, etc., there is a reasonable chance that you will have an opportunity to work at their headquarters for an extended period.

As noted above, most of the Americans sent overseas by U.S. companies are senior managers. There are relatively fewer expatriate opportunities for employees just a few years out of college. Conversely, companies like Honda and Toyota send a large number of junior American employees to Japan for training. Although many of these trips involve one- to four-week stays, one- and two-year assignments are not uncommon.

If you go overseas as the employee of a foreign company, you will have a unique opportunity to immerse yourself in the culture. Almost all of your colleagues will be citizens of the foreign country, so you should have plenty of time to develop and hone your language skills.

When I made my first extended visit to Japan as the employee of  a Japanese automotive components firm, I was the only American on the trip. While this type of experience offers true immersion in another culture, it also requires substantial flexibility.

Path #4: Take an overseas job teaching English, then start or continue your “professional” career later.

In most of the world’s countries where English is not the primary language, it is possible for a native speaker of English with a four-year college degree to secure a one- or two-year position as an English teacher. This teaching position may be with a private firm that offers English lessons to corporate employees, or it may be a teaching job within the national school system.

I have met Americans who have taught English in Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. All of them seemed to have enjoyed the experience, and many used their time on the ground to further their studies of the given country’s language. This may be the perfect opportunity for you if you have not yet begun your primary professional career, or if you would like to take a year or two off. However, there are some caveats to consider.

First of all, these jobs are notoriously low-paying. In Japan, for example, the typical applicant is a fresh liberal arts graduate who just wants to spend a year in Japan. During my senior year in college, I seriously investigated several English teaching jobs in Japan, but abandoned the idea when I saw the bottom line. One private English school owner summed it up to me like this: “You’re not going to get rich teaching English in Japan.”

In addition, the time you spend teaching English overseas will be of little value on your resume if your ultimate goal is to be a marketing manager or an accountant. If you are right out of college, then this might not be a major consideration. More experienced professionals should think long and hard before they take this route.

Translating and Interpreting

If you discover that you really love languages and you want to make them the focus of your career, rather than simply an added dimension of your resume, then the translator/interpreter field may be for you. I spent a number of years working in this area, both as a freelancer, as well as in a regular salaried capacity. The following observations may be helpful if you are considering this option:

Observation#1: The translation and interpreting field offers the best opportunities for those who are willing to work as freelancers and independent contractors.

In Free Agent Nation (Warner Books, 2001), Daniel H. Pink describes the phenomenon of the independent worker, “someone who works for herself, generally alone, moving from project to project and selling her services.” Free Agent Nation offers hope to those who would like to do serious work without becoming entrenched in the corporate lifestyle, complete with redundant meetings, office politics, and the company picnic.

In mainstream career paths, however, there are still some practical impediments to working as a pure freelancer at most companies. Traditional corporate roles such as sales, production control, purchasing, and accounting require extensive daily involvement within the organization. There is a constant need to attend meetings, huddle with the team, and go on business trips. Therefore, regular, onsite corporate membership is more or less a requirement.

Translation is different. Companies view translation as a temporary, provisional function. If a chemical firm plans to expand into non-English-speaking markets, no one in the boardroom says, “Let’s create a translation department.” Instead they say, “Let’s outsource our translation needs to a dependable outside contractor.”

It is often possible for a translator to complete an assignment for a company without making even a single visit to the firm’s office. Email, fax machines, and courier services are more than adequate for transferring the source documents and the completed translations.    

Although interpreting services are usually performed onsite, companies tend to have a similar attitude of “temporariness” about them—even if the services continue for years. The typical scenario is this: an American manufacturer has entered into a joint venture with a Japanese firm. A team of Japanese engineers is going to be sent to the American company’s headquarters for eighteen months to work on the project. The American company therefore wants to hire several translator/interpreters to work for the duration of the project—but no longer.

This gives the ambitious freelancer an attractive proposition: she can build a network of clients, and work for several companies at once. To a large extent, she will be able to determine the type of work she wants to accept, and set her own hours.

Technology has also changed the translation field. When I was working as a freelance Japanese translator/interpreter, I had to rely on a small network of individuals whom I had met through organizations like the Japan-America Society, etc. Today, translator/interpreters can ply their trade on the web, selling their services to clients worldwide.

Observation#2: Translation and Interpreting Do Not Pave the Way Up the Corporate Ladder.

There is, of course, a downside to the freelance nature of translation work—if you are addicted to the notion of an extended career with a single employer. Those who need to measure their progress on the corporate ladder, through a series of predictable promotions, and five- and ten-year gold watches, should think twice before becoming translator/interpreters.

When I was hired as an in-house translator/interpreter for a Japanese die casting company in central Ohio, I was told at the outset that my days were numbered. “We anticipate that we’ll need you for around two, maybe three years,” the human resources manager told me. “After that, our need may go away, and we’ll have no choice but to let you go.”

As it turned out, I ended up transitioning into a sales position, so the company never laid me off—but the story is nonetheless illustrative of the perils faced by those who want a traditional “career track” as a translator/interpreter. The only exceptions to this rule that I have seen exist at the very large multinational corporations such as Honda and Toyota, which constantly rotate new foreign employees to North America. I know of a woman who has worked at Honda as an in-house interpreter/translator for a number of years. Her position is presently quite secure, and it should remain so in the foreseeable future. But she is an exception to the industry rule.

Even the in-house translators who remain employed with a single company face a very low glass ceiling. The corporate ladder is climbed by moving into the ranks of management, and you can’t move into management as a translator. It just doesn’t happen. This is not because there is a conspiracy in the corporate world against translators and interpreters. This is simply because a position such as “Vice President of Translation” isn’t part of the game plan at most companies.

Observation#3: The Most Successful Interpreter/Translators Also Specialize in a Non-Language Area.

Remember how I admonished accountants and computer programmers to learn foreign languages in an earlier chapter? Well, here I am going to mention an important point that many translator/interpreters ignore: language by itself isn’t enough. If you want to become a top-notch language professional in the translation field, then you have to become acquainted with something other than language.

Any person who knows two languages well can readily translate or interpret non-specialized content. However, very few customers hire a language specialist to handle general conversations or personal correspondence. In most cases, translators and interpreters are contracted for communications that involve business and technical matters.

This means that as an interpreter/translator, you will have to understand a lot of industry-specific terms and concepts. Suppose that you have been hired, for example, to interpret a discussion about a chemical process. You should be able to speak comfortably about valences, bonds, and atomic weights—in the foreign language as well as in your native tongue. This does not mean that a translator or interpreter working in the chemical industry would necessarily have to have a formal degree in Chemistry (although it would certainly be an advantage); but such an individual would need more than the smattering of basic concepts that most of us remember from high school.

Of course, there are only so many areas in which you can acquire true expertise. No one can master every subject. Therefore, the most successful linguists focus on a few closely related niches. If you are business-oriented, then you could specialize in translating and interpreting in the finance, banking, and insurance sectors. Alternatively, you might combine manufacturing, quality control, and industrial materials. The key is to select a small group of areas that form a logical combination.

Some novice translators and interpreters list every specialty under the sun in their online profiles and resumes. I recently came across the website of a translator who claimed to specialize in engineering, law, finance, the chemical industry, automotive manufacturing, and insurance. (And this translator had only a few years of experience.) He would have been far more credible if he had claimed expertise in only one or two of these areas.

Table of contents