6 questions to ask yourself before studying a foreign language

Hiring trends are changing and professionals with more than one language is highly preferred. Should you start learning a second or third language now? Photo by: Zen Sutherland / CC BY-NC-SA

Speaking a second, third or even more languages is a common skill in the international development sector. Living in different countries provides ample opportunity for learning a new language, and those interested in this line of work tend to also be the kind of people attracted to foreign language study.

English fluency has become a requirement for most international development positions, as it has solidified itself as the dominant international language. But what if you don’t speak a second or third language? Is it necessary to learn one if you want to pursue a career in global development? While the benefits of being multilingual in an international career may seem obvious, the decision to tackle a new language isn’t as clear.

Here are six questions to ask yourself before attempting to learn a foreign language.

1. Where do I want to work?

There are some regions of the world where speaking the local language is almost always a firm requirement. If you want to work in Latin America, for example, Spanish language skills are a necessity. If you want to work in Francophone Africa or Haiti — where a lot of international development work is conducted — French fluency is almost always required.

In these regions, business is conducted almost primarily in the local language. There are plenty of qualified local professionals or fluent Spanish or French professionals available to take these positions. So if you want to be marketable in these regions, you better speak the language.

However, in many parts of the world, international development work is primarily conducted in English. So while having additional languages can be a benefit, it won’t necessarily be the difference between landing a job or not.

2. Will it give me a competitive edge?

There are regions where a lack of local language skills won’t prevent you from landing the job if otherwise qualified, but it would give you an edge over the competition if you do. In the Middle East, for example, Arabic is often cited as a strong preference and many employers struggle to find qualified Arabic speakers.

There are specific countries where speaking the local language is heavily preferred — and required in some cases — but there are limited qualified professionals who can speak them. Portuguese speakers will find many opportunities in Mozambique and Angola, while Bahasa Indonesian speakers will be demand in Indonesia

Even though these regions may not offer as many potential job prospects as Latin America and French-speaking Africa, speaking the local language will undoubtedly give you a competitive edge.

Other languages that can help you stand out are Urdu if you want to work in Pakistan and Haitian Creole if you want to work in Haiti.

See what language skills recruiters say are most in demand in 2015: Who are global development employers hiring?

While many positions may not require a second language, having at least some exposure can help signal to recruiters your interest in learning about and working with other cultures. This can be more important at the beginning of your career when you don’t yet have international experience to showcase.

3. Do I want to work for the United Nations system?

There are some institutions that require speaking more than one language, even if isn’t a direct requirement of the job. One of the biggest is the United Nations system. Most U.N. staff positions require English language fluency plus proficiency in at least one additional U.N. official language: French, Spanish, Arabic, Chinese or Russian.

While there are some exceptions for contract or hard to fill positions, this is typically an unbendable rule with U.N. agencies. If your dream is to land there, you better speak at least two U.N. languages, including English.

For more advice on working with the U.N., check out all of our U.N. career advice articles on this dedicated page.

4. Am I committed to becoming fluent?

To reap the benefits of a second language skill in a professional setting, you will need to master it at a level that enables you to conduct your work in this language.

You may be comfortable ordering dinner or asking for directions, but can you lead a presentation? Negotiate a partnership with a government official? Navigate delicate issues between national staff? Jobs and organizations that require foreign language skills expect you to be at a near fluent level. Merely speaking at a conversational level may not be enough for landing a job with a language requirement.

5. Are there other more marketable skills I could build instead?

It takes a great deal of effort to become fluent in another language. Could you be putting your time and efforts into another skill that might be more attainable and just as — if not more — impactful on your career?

For example, gaining experience overseas through a volunteer opportunity, pursuing a certificate of accreditation important to your specific field or pursuing an additional degree?

If you are banking on an additional language skill being the secret ingredient to obtaining the career you want, make sure you aren’t forsaking other potentially more important experience first.

READ: 8 things to consider before pursuing a graduate degree.

6. What is my motivation?

Perhaps the most important question to ask yourself is: What is my motivation?

Is it to increase your employment options? Then weigh the practical reality of how likely it is you will become fluent with how in demand the language is — particularly in the areas you want to work.

Is it for bragging rights? Even if you never use it in a professional capacity, there is some merit to speaking another language at some level just so you don’t stand out as one of the few monolinguals working in international development. Many professionals I encounter who do not speak a language beyond English often feel embarrassed when surrounded by their more linguistically gifted colleagues.

Are you interested in learning for your own personal interest? Even if you can’t conduct business in a foreign language, basic language skills can help you assimilate to a new culture much more easily. Learning a new language can also be a fun way to get to know a culture better. If your expectations do not go beyond learning a new language for the sake of learning, there is really no downside to taking on the challenge.

Do you speak more than one language? Do you wish you spoke another language? How have your language skills — or lack thereof — impacted your international development career? Please leave your comments below.

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About the author

  • Kate Warren

    Kate Warren is Executive Vice President and resident talent and careers guru at Devex. With 15 years of global development recruitment experience advising international NGOs, consulting firms, and donor agencies, she has a finger on the pulse of hiring trends across the industry and insider knowledge on what it takes to break in.