The Multilingual Advantage: What Career Development Professionals Need to Know

By Nataly Kelly

According to the 2000 U.S. Census, nearly 18 percent of the population speaks another language at home. Speaking another language, whether learned at home or in the classroom, can be a tremendous advantage at any stage of career development. Also, while starting young can make learning a language easier, it is really never too late to obtain a bilingual (or multilingual) advantage through the development of language skills.


Here are some ways that career development professionals can help individuals maximize their chances for success, in any language:


Foreign Language Courses - Encourage students to take foreign language courses. The more exposure children have to a foreign language, and the younger their exposure begins, the greater their chances will be of becoming fluent in another language. (Note: if a student speaks another language at home, do not assume that he or she is learning to read or write in that language. Taking the class as a foreign language may seem "easy" for heritage speakers when it comes to speaking the language, but they too will often need to learn the fundamentals of spelling, writing and grammar, as these are not commonly taught by parents at home.) 

Immersion Programs - Some immersion programs, often in the form of language "camps", are available around the country. Also, short trips to other countries can be organized through local non-profit organizations, social clubs and faith-based organizations. A true immersion experience will serve, not only to enhance students' interest in learning languages, but to pique their interest in other cultures.

Multimedia Programs - If foreign language courses are not available, many self-study courses, either software-based, audio-based or web-based, can be made available via inter-library loan.

Extracurricular Activities - Foreign language clubs, reading groups and study groups may be helpful for encouraging students to continue developing foreign language skills.


Advanced Language Study - Often, students see foreign languages as a mandatory course, and do not continue with the language once they have met their requirements. If they realize what a tremendous advantage bilingual skills can be for their career, they are more likely to continue to become proficient. After college, one year of a language will not likely give them much of an edge. However, four years of study most likely will. (Note: if a student who learned a language at home has reached college without formal coursework, now is the time to encourage the student to master written skills by enrolling in courses, in order to increase the student's ability to leverage his or her language skills on the job.)

Study Abroad - To truly master a foreign language, it is ideal to become immersed in the language and culture. Students can be encouraged to take advantage of study abroad programs for summer terms, semesters, or even year-long immersions.

Internships - If students have been learning a language, internships can be an ideal way to get them to see the applicability of their language skills in a professional environment for the first time.

Mentoring - For students who are learning another language, it can be extremely motivating for them to be paired up with mentors who use foreign language skills, who can show them that their language skills will not be wasted.


All Careers - Virtually any professional in today's job market will benefit from having experience in multiple languages. Many positions now list "bilingual" or "trilingual" in the title, and others require a working knowledge of another language due to interaction with offices in other countries and business travel. Even when language skills are not required, with all other factors equal, having a foreign language on one's resume can provide an edge over candidates who are only proficient in English. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (http://www.actfl.org/) measures language proficiency according to a scale that ranks individuals according to various levels. These tests can be scheduled anywhere in the country, for either written or verbal skills, through the official ACTFL testing office (http://www.languagetesting.com/). The ACTFL tests are used widely by government agencies and Fortune 500 companies. Listing an ACTFL rating, such as "Spanish ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview - Advanced High", will likely mean more to the prospective employer than "spoken Spanish", which could be used by individuals with varying levels of proficiency.

Translation - If an individual is truly proficient in two languages and is interested in rendering the written word from one language to another, he or she may wish to consider embarking on a career as a professional translator. However, while being bilingual is a prerequisite, it does not guarantee the ability to translate. In fact, it is preferable for individuals to pursue a separate degree in this field. Undergraduate and graduate programs exist around the country for this purpose. The American Translators Association (http://www.atanet.org/), is an association of nearly 10,000 individuals. Translation requires excellent writing skills in both languages, and translators usually specialize in one area (e.g. medical, technical, legal, etc.), and must pass a certification test to become certified. Also, translators normally work in only one direction, from their weaker language into their stronger, usually native, language (e.g. Spanish into English). Most translators do not work in both directions, although there are some exceptions.

Interpreting - In contrast to translators, interpreters render verbal information in real time from one language into another and vice versa. To work as interpreters, individuals must be fully proficient in both languages, ideally with speech that is easily understood by the listener (i.e. minimal accent). They must also pursue advanced training in interpreting skills in order to work as an interpreter. For the most part, interpreters do not have the ability to check a dictionary when working, so their knowledge of vocabulary must be excellent. Interpreters most commonly work in face-to-face settings, but using conferencing technologies, interpreters can also work over the telephone or via video. Like with translation, interpreting requires advanced study and training, and is often divided into sub-specialties. In the United States, two of the areas with largest demand for interpreters are court interpreting and health care interpreting. The National Association for Judiciary Interpreters and Translators (http://www.najit.org/) and the National Council on Interpreting in Health Care (http://www.ncihc.org/) are good sources for information. There are a number of state-based associations for interpreters as well. A variety of training, testing and certification programs are available around the country.




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Nataly Kelly is an independent consultant and researcher, as well as a certified court interpreter and professional translator for Spanish<>English.. She is the author of the book, Telephone Interpreting: A Comprehensive Guide to the Profession, published by Multilingual Matters (UK). Ms. Kelly has also studied French, Italian, German, Japanese, Arabic, and is currently studying Irish Gaelic. A former Fulbright scholar in sociolinguistics, she has visited and/or lived in more than 20 countries on 4 continents. Ms. Kelly holds degrees and certificates in Spanish, Latin American Studies, Cultural Policy and Intercultural Communication. She can be contacted via email at natalyekelly@yahoo.com.

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