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Foreign language skills in international development: What’s in demand

By Ingrid Ahlgren07 March 2011

An aid worker with Project Hope examines a child during a medical operation in Haiti. Photo by: David Danals / CC BY-SA

Foreign language skills can give you an edge as you’re applying for international development jobs or consulting gigs, and they may even affect your pay. But, which languages are in high demand – apart from English, which most aid groups require applicants to speak fluently?

Is it worth learning one of the major languages like French and Spanish, which are suitable for many countries but won’t make you “stand out” as much as a local? Or is it more beneficial to become proficient in a lesser-known language?

Being proficient in certain languages can help candidates get hired, international development recruiters and other experts interviewed for this article agree. Which languages are most attractive to an organization depends largely on where it is headquartered and where it operates – but it also depends on the position within an organization you’re seeking to fill.

“We do look for language skills, particularly for our overseas positions,” said Valarie Barksdale, a recruitment specialist for Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, Md., who recruits for both domestic and overseas positions. “All program manager positions require professional proficiency in French, Spanish or Portuguese, and we’re now also looking for Arabic, though it’s not a requirement. We’re always looking for French speakers for francophone Africa.”

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About the author

Ingridphoto
Ingrid Ahlgren

Ingrid is a Devex correspondent based in New York City. She worked as a staff writer for Vault.com from 2007 to 2009, helping to write guidebooks, including the "Vault Guide to the Top Government and Nonprofit Employers." Before moving to New York, she was a researcher for National Geographic Traveler magazine in Washington, D.C. Ingrid holds a master's in journalism from the University of Missouri. As the daughter of a U.S. diplomat, she grew up all over the world.


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