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How to Develop a Career in Foreign Languages

Do you have a gift for languages? If so, you have a wide range of career options available. Speaking at least one other language is, of course, essential, but other preparations depend on what you want to do. Here is a sampling of careers for experts in foreign languages as well as the skills you need for each:

Community language expert

Community language experts provide services to serve community members who don’t speak the dominant language. They may work with first responders like fire and police, with schools, with hospitals, etc. They can also work with local government to translate forms and documents. While some jobs may require a college degree, many just require fluency in the relevant languages.


Translators take written text in one language and rewrite it in another language. It could be anything from product manuals to business reports to legal documents to song lyrics. Many work as freelancers, but there are also opportunities with agencies or with individual companies. Translators need a thorough understanding of the written version of both the source and target languages, and formal education will make you more competitive. Expert translators make use of things like online dictionaries and translation software like TRADOS.


While translators work with written language, interpreters work with spoken language. There are two types of interpreters:

  • Simultaneous interpreters translate what a speaker is saying on the fly: While the speaker is talking, they’re translating. It’s a high-pressure job that requires exceptional understanding of the spoken language of both the source and target. Good preparation would include language classes that focus on speaking as well as immersion courses in which students live in a particular country and learn the language by living there.
  • Consecutive interpreters listen to the spoken word and transcribe it for review in another language. This job requires fluency in both written and spoken language. A combination of university courses and immersion training would be good preparation.


Linguists are experts in the science of language: how it develops, what different sounds mean, the relationship between language and culture, etc. Post-secondary education is critical, as the linguist is more focused on theory than application. Many end up working for universities, but there are also opportunities with government, private corporations, research facilities, etc.

Foreign agent

Perhaps the most exciting career for an expert in foreign languages is that of foreign agent -- in other words, a spy. Foreign agents live and work in the communities where they’re based and most often try to pass as a native. Flawless spoken and written language skills are critical, as is the ability to handle the pressure of operating illegally in a foreign country. Good preparation would include a degree in international relations or political science.

Language analyst

A close second in terms of excitement is a career as a language analyst. Language analysts work for government intelligence agencies, translating both intercepted and open-source communications. This is a high-pressure job in which nuance and cultural context are critical. In fact, decisions of global importance could be decided based on the interpretation of a single word. While classroom education is important, the most successful language analysts have actually lived and worked in a country where the source language is spoken. In some cases, it’s their native language. They understand subtleties, like how the southern U.S. expression “bless your heart” can be either supportive or insulting, depending on the context. And they’re able to handle the pressure of knowing that governments will be making major decisions based on their reports.

If you’re fluent in two or more languages, especially if you can read, speak, and write both with expertise, your career opportunities are almost unlimited. They key is to identify the career you want and to then do the legwork that will equip you with the necessary skills.



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