Do I have to speak a foreign language to work overseas?

 “Do I have to speak a foreign language to work overseas?”

Conventional wisdom says yes…or at least this person, this person, this person, and this person seem to think so.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, this chorus of voices includes many universities and language schools—who are simultaneously pitching their (often costly) language and study abroad programs. Coincidence? Maybe not.

The result of this insistent message? Many people I speak with discount their ability to work abroad based on their lack of language skills. (“I’d love to work abroad, but I just don’t speak anything else but English.”)

Indeed, many people look at my own story — I started traveling abroad to study language, and have worked in many jobs that required fluency in other languages — as proof of the need for a second (or third) language to succeed overseas.

The reality is very different.

blah, blah, blah

First of all, my story is not the only one out there. In fact, I suspect that it is in the minority based on the people I have met along the way.

(In fact, one of my first serious professional overseas jobs was in London, speaking exclusively English and having nothing to do with my language background at all. It was a fantastic experience and opened the door for many other international opportunities down the road. As we’ll discuss later, overseas opportunities in your mother tongue can open doors to learning other languages.)

The truth is that there are tons of work opportunities for people who only speak their native language, particularly if that native language is English. (And if you are reading this, it more than likely is.)

There are four basic reasons why:

  1. Sheer numbers:  There are a lot of countries out there where English is widely spoken or is the official language.
  2. Other skills are more important:  People are rarely hired overseas exclusively due to their foreign language abilities
  3. English-speaking industries:  Some sectors of the economy practically run on English alone — or where the local language is only a value-add
  4. The need for fluency:  In many jobs, you really need to speak the foreign language well to have it be useful

We’ll get to a detailed explanation of each reason a bit later, but you don’t have to take my word for it.

The idea for this post came from a recent conversation I had with Steve Feldstein, a good friend of mine who has made a career in international affairs.

Steve has had a hell of a career. After graduating from college, he spent over a year working abroad with the International Rescue Committee. That experience led him to work as a staffer for the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations, and then to high-profile political appointments.

First, he served with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where he ran the agency’s policy planning office, and then as a deputy assistant secretary in the Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Bureau in the U.S. Department of State. Now he holds an endowed chair at Boise State University, charged with building an international relations program.

Not too shabby. That’s a career you can hang your hat on.

But the thing is, Steve agrees:  you don’t need to speak a second language to get started working abroad. And he openly encourages people to start looking for overseas experiences without a second language:

Now let’s break all this down in greater detail.

1)  Sheer numbers:  There are a lot of countries out there where English is widely spoken or is the official language.

We’ll start with sheer numbers.

First off, just in terms of people, over 7 percent of the world’s population is a native English speaker. That’s almost one in every thirteen.

The picture in the industrialized world is even better. In the countries that make up the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where about half of the world’s economic output is produced, the total percentage is even greater: 43 percent. [1] So if you picked 10 random people from that group of over 1 billion people, around four would speak English as a native tongue.

Those odds aren’t bad if you’re looking for a job.

How about the number of countries? Forty-nine countries have English as an official language or use it as the language of instruction in higher education. Add the United States (which does not have an “official” language) and that makes 50.

That means English is a primary language in over one-quarter of all United Nations member states (193 in all, plus two observer states). And that doesn’t count a lot of other countries where English is a primary language of business, like the Scandinavian nations, or the United Arab Emirates.

In fact, English is spoken in over 50 percent of all countries, per an academic study.

 

English is spoken in 101 of 195 U.N. member states/observer states.

Moreover, English language skills are, of course, a huge asset, but there is still a big market for other world languages. If your first language is another world language like Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Russian, there are still huge swaths of the world open to you (data from this great article from The Washington Post):

  • Spanish:  Over five percent of world population are native speakers,  and it is spoken in 16 percent of all countries
  • French:  About two percent of world population are native speakers,  and it is spoken in 26 percent of all countries
  • Portuguese:  Almost three percent of world population are native speakers,  and it is spoken in six percent of all countries
  • Russian:  Almost four percent of world population are native speakers,  and it is spoken in eight percent of all countries

So don’t let anyone tell you that the world isn’t open to you without a second language.

It’s simply not true.

 

2) People are rarely hired overseas exclusively due to their foreign language abilities

There are only two categories of people who are hired solely due to their foreign language skills.

Translators and interpreters.

Their job is to take something written or spoken in one language, and convert it to another. (Not as easy as it sounds, even with the Internet, which is why they are well-paid professionals.)

Pretty much everyone else hired overseas is there because they can do something besides speaking multiple languages.

That’s not to say that a foreign language isn’t a bonus, or isn’t a prerequisite for a number of overseas jobs.

But note the difference between that and the case of the translator. The translator is hired specifically for their abilities in multiple languages.

In contrast, most other jobs abroad require non-language-related skills. Think about it. If a business in Greece is hiring, for example, an IT specialist or a financial consultant, just being able to speak Greek won’t get you the job. You need IT or finance skills first and foremost.

After all, there are over 10 million people in Greece, most of whom speak Greek pretty darn well. You can’t compete with them based on your Greek skills alone.

Indeed, even in jobs where speaking Greek is a prerequisite, it isn’t the principal talent desired. Imagine you are a bartender in Santorini. Greek may be a necessary skill to serve drinks, but employers are really looking for other skills in a great bartender:  a good memory, friendly and positive attitude, cleanliness, and honesty with money. Your fluent Greek isn’t going to get you in the door by itself.

And in some contexts, where there is a lot of unmet demand for a type of job, you may be able to get by in English alone.

In other words, if Greece has such a shortage of IT specialists that speak Greek, a company may be willing to hire overseas talent that doesn’t speak the language well, assuming they speak English. And if you’re lucky enough to get the job, it’s a lot easier to learn Greek while living and working in Greece, rather than in a classroom somewhere in New York City.

3) Some sectors of the economy practically run on English alone — or where the local language is only a value-add

Finally, there are some areas where the value-add of a local language is minimal, namely, those industries where most business is done in English.

For example, think about jobs on cruise ships and other jobs in international tourism, where a local language is a “nice-to-have” but isn’t all that relevant to the job at hand.   In these types of jobs, the only real language that moves the needle is English.

And this dynamic isn’t just limited to those particular English-only industries.

Spend some time in overseas offices of multinational companies and you may notice something interesting: not everyone there speaks the local language.

But everyone speaks English.

The reality is that, depending on your line of work, English is the dominant language in the workplace. This holds true not only in the private sector (think investment banking or corporate attorneys working on M&A or other deals abroad), but even in some parts of the public sector.

This phenomenon comes from the fact that in jobs that largely involve coordinating transactions or relationships across large groups of people from many different nations, the only common language is…English.

This is true even when no one in the group is a native English speaker. Imagine working a deal where the relevant companies are South Korean, Chinese, German, and Swedish.

How else are you going to easily handle a conference call, other than having everyone speak English? Yes, you can hire interpreters, but most international businesspeople speak decent English, so it is easier just to work using the common language. Moreover, if you speak one of those other local languages (say, German), it is a value-add for working with one of the four companies, but it’s not essential to making the deal happen.

Bottom line: English is the dominant language of business—and will be for the foreseeable future.

Yes, Chinese is becoming more useful. Yes, Spanish is spoken by huge swaths of the Americas. Yes, Russian can be very useful in parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.

Still, nothing beats English, and nothing is likely to beat English for decades.

And for many jobs, you don’t need anything else.

 

4) In many jobs, you really need to speak the foreign language well to have it be useful

The last point is perhaps the most salient. In the working world, there is “speaking a foreign language” and “speaking a foreign language professionally.”

“Speaking a foreign language” refers to speaking another language well enough to “get by” – order food, have straightforward conversations with people, etc.

This level of skill will enrich your life greatly from a personal perspective. It also renders traveling to countries where that language is spoken a far more engaging experience.

What it generally does NOT do, however, is count as a foreign language skill in the working world.

This much more difficult ability is what I call speaking a foreign language professionally.

To figure out which category you fall into, ask yourself whether you could, in the foreign language:

  1. Successfully field a business-related phone call from a native speaker, no matter what the subject is? (That is, either resolve the caller’s issue if you know how, or get them to the person who can?)
  2. Complete a telephone interview (harder than face-to-face) for a job in your field without making any major errors?
  3. Write a short but formal business email without any grammar or spelling mistakes whatsoever?
  4. Give a 30-minute PowerPoint presentation and design the slides, without making any major errors?
  5. Read a complex document in your field and understand it, with only infrequent reference to a dictionary?

If you cannot answer “Yes” to all of the above, you may “speak a foreign language,” but you are probably not able to speak a foreign language professionally.

Why is that? Pause and think for a moment.

Ever call a customer service line and speak with someone who struggles with your native language? Or explain a problem with a defective product to a store clerk who had problems understanding you? How did that experience leave you feeling when you needed to have a complex question answered?

Be honest with yourself: You likely were left feeling frustrated. Maybe you couldn’t fully understand the answer they gave you, and they couldn’t fully understand what you were saying. That frustration likely carried over into your opinion of the business that person worked for.

All that is a natural human reaction, even if it may not be fair on a personal level to the other human being involved, who is probably trying their best. (I’ve been this person before. It sucks. You know you are creating problems for the customer, you can feel their frustration, and there is literally nothing you can do to save the situation.)

As a result, businesses obviously want to avoid this customer experience.

When you are handing transactions that mean something to a company’s bottom line, you can’t just skate by with basic — or even intermediate — conversation skills. Your language skills need to be good enough so that you are precise with your words, and can understand what people tell you the first time around. No business wants to give you a paycheck to confuse customers.

High school Spanish

Finally crushing it in Spanish.

The ante is upped even higher when you are creating written documents in the foreign language.

People will forgive an incorrect word or grammar error in speech far more readily than they will a typo.

The error in speech captures the listener’s attention for an instant, and then he or she moves on as you continue to talk.

The written error, in contrast, sits there on the page or computer screen an oozing linguistic wound. The client sees it again and again and again as they look at the paper. It constantly calls attention to itself.

(By the way, this is why there are countless online articles about hilariously bad signs written in English. This isn’t just humorous, though — it has an economic impact, which is why more authoritarian states like China have passed laws on the use of English on public signs.)

This can happen even with pretty good foreign language skills. I speak Spanish very well, but I will never forget when I was working for Bain & Co. as a management consultant on a project in South America. I had put together a presentation for a Cabinet minister about a proposed new piece of legislation we were helping to draft that would amend an existing law. In one slide, I referred to a section of the existing law as a “provisión,” mistakenly thinking of the English legal term “provision.” Wrong. The Minister called me out on it, asking me “where I came up with that Spanish word.” Ouch. I still should have asked a native speaker check the document. (The correct option was “disposición,” by the way.)

Similarly, I noticed firsthand that the skills that sufficed for most U.S. Foreign Service jobs that required a foreign language – a score of “3” in both speaking and listening on the chart below – will not suffice to pass a management consulting case interview in the same language. (My consulting interviews demanded at least a “4” in speaking and listening, as well as writing ability, which the U.S. State Department does not require.)

ILR language scale (0 to 5)

The Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of language ability. Most U.S. diplomatic posts require a score of “3” in speaking and comprehension. (Writing skills are not needed.)

A caveat here:  What I’m not saying is: “Don’t bother learning a language unless you can learn it really, really well.” Rather, I’m saying you should be honest and realistic with yourself about how good your foreign language skills are, and understand what sort of skill level the overseas jobs you want demand.

There are too many people out there who believe that taking some language classes in the United States to reach to a basic conversational level will be enough to get employers to care.

You need a lot of dedication and effort to bring your foreign language skills up to a high level. And once you do reach a high level, you still have to invest some time in maintaining those skills. You really need to want it.

Those skills can be incredibly desirable “value-add” to employers once you have them. But you won’t get them overnight, and if you wait to work overseas until you have them, you might be waiting a very long time.

(Also, having hired a good number of people in my life, including a fair number for jobs with foreign language requirements, believe me when I say that employers can smell B.S. about language skills a mile away. And we aren’t appreciative when we find out someone who says they “speak Spanish” can’t manage a basic phone call. Please, be honest with yourself and others!)

So, the short version is: It’s harder than many people think to develop kick-ass, professional-grade foreign language skills.

As a result, don’t wait “until you speak another language” to look for that job abroad! Chances are there are English-speaking jobs (or jobs requiring another world language) that also fit your interests. Plus, those jobs can often be the gateway to learning that language.

That’s how I learned my foreign languages, after all—I started with jobs that required mainly English and picked up the local language on the ground. My first overseas jobs were in Italy, but I was (1) an intern at the U.S. Embassy and (2) a co-author of an English-language travel guide.

In both cases, so-so Italian was enough, but English was the truly important language.  And as I stayed longer in Italy, my Italian naturally improved. (Sadly, after over 15 years of not using it, it has regressed to quite basic levels — a testament to the investment required.)

So if I could do it in the late 1990s, you can do it today!

 

Conclusion: Even if you don’t speak a foreign language, you can find great international jobs!

tl;dr – You are shortchanging yourself if you speak a world language (especially English) and keep thinking that you have to speak a second language to work abroad. You are forgetting about:

  • The large part of the world that speaks world language, especially English
  • Overseas jobs that don’t require a high level of proficiency in the local language
  • Industries like tourism that value English (or other world languages)
  • The chance to learn another language really well by moving abroad to take a job that doesn’t require strong foreign language skills

A lot people I meet could get a kick-ass job overseas if they could just let go of this limiting belief.

So—don’t limit yourself. Don’t fixate on language. Rather, think about all of your other skills that would add value to a business—the talents you are likely better known for than your language skills.

Chances are, a great overseas opportunity is waiting out there for you!

 

[1] This is a somewhat rough estimate, as it assumes that the entire population of the English-speaking nations here speaks English as a native tongue. That is of course not the case, but those economies run almost exclusively in English, and the comparison remains an apt one.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.