I was escorted to the conference table sporting my best black blazer, pencil skirt and pallet of make-up. The receptionist handed me an ice-cold bottle of water and nodded curtly, “the manager will be with you shortly.” She smiled warmly before exiting the room and gently closing the door.
I planted my elbows on the table, folded my hands and took a wide, but tall and defiant posture. I listened to a TED talk once about how body language alone can make or break your chance of getting hired. Retreating inwards and folding your arms and legs make a candidate look timid; however, sitting tall, lifting your neck, holding up your shoulders and puffing out your chest denotes confidence. I was going for the latter look.
Three women strutted into the office with a polite but tired smile. I must have been the third or fourth interview of the day. I stood up to shake their hand firmly and make a strong impression.
This was my eighth interview in one month since returning to the United States.
“We’re extremely impressed with your resume and your,” the woman coughed before continuing, “experience abroad.”
In other words, they thought I was goofing around in Asia getting drunk and teaching English.
“Yes, your language skills are most impressive,” the woman peered at my resume before making eye contact with me again. “But I must admit while having language skills is useful here, it’s not actually mandatory.”
Another way of putting it: we can hire someone without your language skills and get away with paying them less.
I talked up my other skills beside language. I worked in public relations. I had a degree in writing with experience to boot. I was in consulting with the big dogs, and I was capable of in-depth analysis and report writing.
Yet they were not convinced, and again I was not hired.
I was fluent in Chinese and Japanese with relevant and professional experience from overseas, yet employers in America did not want me. The only companies that appreciated my skills were Japanese (and we all know how that turned out).
Even a very famous Japanese game company (let’s just say they make Final Fantasy) offered me a job as a translator–but when I saw the pay, I was aghast. It was almost equivalent to minimum wage.
College continually shoved the lie down my throat that a foreign language would secure me a job. Going abroad and getting international experience, many counselors recommended, would make me a highly desirable candidate to employers.
Yet no one was hiring me.
Can Foreign Language Skills, Specifically Chinese and Japanese, Really Get You A Job?
According to the Joint National Committee on Foreign Languages, the language industry employs more than 200,000 Americans who earn a median salary of 80,000 USD annually. The U.S. Department of Labor cited Translator and Interpreter to be one of the 15 fastest growing occupations in the next decade. In fact, when I search the word ‘bilingual’ on indeed.com, almost 100,000 jobs appear up for grabs in the United States alone.
With statistics like those listed above, it seems strange that someone like myself, or many other multilingual job-seekers, are having a tough time finding employment.
However, most jobs do not require another language as a mandatory skill–rather, it’s an added bonus. A bilingual lawyer, engineer or nurse is a hot item; but someone who can only rely on language skill is usually stuck with one career path:
Translator or Interpreter.
While this isn’t a terrible job, most translators work freelance without a stable paycheck or benefits to pay for healthcare (which is a big deal for those who live in the U.S., where universal health care does not exist). Interpreting is also conducted freelance where candidates face tough competition and high turnover rates.
Finally, being an interpreter or translator is hard. Being bilingual doesn’t mean one can automatically take up a job as an interpreter. It’s a finely tuned skill that takes years, if not decades, to truly master and accomplish on a professional level.
While statistics may talk up the benefit of language learning by telling you that the translator/interpreter industry in the United States is expected to rise 36% from 2014 to 2019, the simple truth is: not everyone can be an interpreter/translator, and quite frankly, the majority of those that actually can perform this job will probably not enjoy it.
Foreign Languages Are a Side Dish, Not the Main Course
So am I telling you foreign language skills are useless? Not necessarily.
Think of your career as a nice meal at a five star restaurant. The main course, let’s say an expensive cut of kobe beef, is your in-demand skill. This is your technical “hard” skill. This talent encompasses an actual job title, such as: web designer, doctor, nurse, engineer, computer programmer, lawyer, financial agent, banker, and more. It’s a very specific career niche that will get you a job as a stand-alone skill.
Eating kobe beef by itself is kind of boring, so throwing in a kale salad, or a french onion soup, or some other side dish will spice up your dinner–in other words, “beef up” your resume.
Languages help boost your credentials as a potential candidate, but they are not the end-all-be-all. Unless you want to be a translator or interpreter, a foreign language alone will most likely not help you find a job… that is, in the United States.
Do Language and Location Matter?
In America, I had eight interviews in one month and I was still unemployed.
In Shanghai, I had three interviews in one week and I was already commuting to my new office by my second week in China–all while I was on a tourist visa! (I wasn’t illegal, my companies sponsored my visa and picked up the tab!).
I was floored at just how in-demand my Japanese skills were in Shanghai. In China, my Japanese language skill led me to work in business consulting, advertising, and professional interpreting.
In my case, language and location was essential to my successful job search in Shanghai. Japanese and English dual language ability is a huge asset to have in China, especially in cities like Shanghai which serve as a major import-export hub between China and Japan.
Demand for certain foreign languages vary by country, and sometimes even city.
For example, if you speak Arabic or another middle-eastern language (such as Farsi), the United States government is sure to have a job lined up for you. If you want to work with refugees from Africa, being bilingual in French is a definite must. Spanish speakers are also able to easily find work as an interpreter for hospitals in Southern California. It’s all about location and demand.
Sadly, however, I feel that the United States does not welcome multilingual employment as much as other countries. While I have no data to back it up, from my own personal experience I find that the United States does not highly value multilingualism. 87 percent of executives for firms in Britain and Germany said that knowing more than one language was an absolute must. In the United States, I don’t think many firms would say the same. While many U.S. employers may be impressed with the fact that you’re fluent in six languages, it’s not enough to get you hired.
So to sum it up: No, a language will not land you a job (especially in the United States).
Foreign language can, however, assist you in getting a job. It makes a strong candidate look even more powerful and allows your resume to stand out from the rest–but as a stand alone skill, it doesn’t hold up very well.
However one thing is for certain: I will never go hungry knowing Chinese or Japanese. If I were to lose my job or be continually unemployed, the option of freelance translation is always there–and to have that safety net, that is, beg for translation work instead of on the street, is reassuring indeed.
Do you think foreign language skills alone can get you a job? What has your experience, or perhaps a friend’s experience been looking for a job as a bilingual? In your country are more languages more favorable than others?