Using your language skills

You can use your language skills in many careers and job roles, from translating and interpreting to teaching or working in marketing or logistics.


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Language skills: why employers want you | translating and interpreting | teaching | cultural consultancy | business services | travel and hospitality | legal and administrative | academic, information and public | specialist training

Language skills are used for many different careers and job roles across the public and private sector. Aside from the primary and direct use of a language in careers such as translating, interpreting and teaching, being able to speak different languages can also be an added bonus when combined with other skills and roles in different sectors such as business services, travel and hospitality, legal and administrative, academic, information and public.

Global businesses with international operations and clients recruit employees with linguistic skills. The languages and level of proficiency required will depend on the role in question and the regions in which the business operates.

Why your language skills are attractive to employers

Employers are keen to recruit global graduates, and being adept at communicating in additional languages is definitely a valuable asset. Languages can be your unique selling point, giving you the extra edge and setting you apart from other graduates with similar backgrounds.

Language skills are vital for business and the economy; recent reports show that the UK loses almost £50bn a year in lost contracts due to poor language skills in the workforce (All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages, 2014). The latest Confederation of British Industry (CBI/Pearson) Education & Skills survey shows that almost 50% of businesses recognise foreign language skills as beneficial to them.

Studying and being proficient in languages can help you develop many skills that are attractive to employers: enhanced communication ability, interpersonal skills, analytical abilities, strong presentation skills, attention to detail, independence, and adaptability. Good cultural awareness and knowledge is particularly attractive for employers operating in international markets and those with overseas clients. Additional languages help companies to expand their business into emerging markets.

Consider the languages that are most vital for businesses and expanding markets. European languages head the list of those in demand (French 53%, German 49%, Spanish 36%). Mandarin and Arabic also feature in strongly desirable languages.

What type of language job roles are there?

Being able to speak another foreign language is an essential part of some jobs and roles.

Translator and interpreter roles

Translating and interpreting are essentially about language conversion, usually into the native language. The primary difference is that translating focuses on written text, covering a range of topics such as business, science, legal and technical. Interpreting uses speech in a range of settings: one-to-one communications, meetings, events and conferences.

Excellent knowledge of both foreign languages and mother tongue is essential. Attention to detail, good grasp of IT and research skills are also important. Translators need to be able to work to deadlines. Interpreters should have strong concentration skills, an ability to analyse and think quickly. Cultural awareness and knowledge of current and world affairs is crucial.

Freelancing is the primary option and requires good networking and marketing skills, although previous experience is necessary, even if through volunteering.

Translators and interpreters work across public and private sectors. Major employers include Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ). Both the Security Service (MI5) and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) employ linguists. There are opportunities through the Civil Service Jobs site and more specifically, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), where Arabic, Russian, French, Spanish and Mandarin are priorities. Other major employers are the United Nations (UN) and associated agencies such as UNESCO.

The European Commission has two separate language services: Directorate General for Interpretation and Directorate General for Translation. They recruit independently of each other and with different criteria. To work for the EU Interpretation service, you will also need a postgraduate qualification in conference interpreting or significant professional experience.

Other sources of employment include: law courts, local government, NHS, mental health services, charities and refugee and asylum services, small businesses and community centres.

Oxford University Press (OUP) and HarperCollins are major employers of translators, e.g. for bilingual lexicography. If working for an agency, check if it is a member of the Association of Translation Companies (ATC). Having qualifications or experience in other subject areas is an advantage. Language versioning agencies offer a range of services such as voice-overs, translating, transcribing, and subtitling, ideal for those with language skills.

The National Register of Public Service Interpreters (NRPSI) exists to resource public services and has a large pool of freelance interpreters used at numerous locations throughout the UK.

Useful professional bodies include the Institute of Translating and Interpreting (ITI) and Chartered Institute of Linguists, which hosts the Find-A-Linguist site for free advertising of services. There is also the International Association of Conference Interpreters.


Teaching is a great way to share your love of languages, with options to teach in schools, further and higher education, teaching English as a foreign language abroad, and also in a freelance capacity.

  • Teaching in schools. Secondary schools offer more opportunities to teach languages, particularly in schools that have specialist language status. The three most common languages taught are French, German and Spanish; others include Italian, Urdu and Bengali. Bursaries are available for trainee teachers of modern and ancient languages. In Wales, Welsh is widely taught as either a first or second language.
  • Teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL). This is a popular career choice, particularly for gap years and vacation work. There are numerous TEFL providers and organisations offering opportunities in different countries. China, Spain and Italy are among the most popular destinations. Speaking the native language isn't a requirement, but it can certainly be an advantage in terms of communicating with students.
  • Further education (FE) lecturing. FE colleges for students over the age of 16 offer many language courses, including part-time courses from beginners to advanced level. Part-time courses often result in sessional teaching contracts in colleges, which give the advantage of flexibility, but may mean job insecurity.
  • Higher education (HE) lecturing. Studying languages at university will mean being able to teach at a more advanced level. However the HE sector has faced a crisis in language teaching with drop in number of universities offering languages degrees over the last couple of years.
  • Freelancing. Freelancing could involve sessional work in FE colleges or adult education centres, or working as a private language tutor to individuals or commercial companies.

Further information on teaching and education is available on TARGETjobs and TARGETpostgrad.

Cultural consultancy

Cultural consultancy usually combines translation, interpreting and cultural awareness. A growing number of consultancies focus on this area of work and being able to speak another language when delivering cultural awareness training can be useful. Government departments such as UK Trade & Investment (UKTI) employ Language & Culture Advisers who assist companies to overcome language and culture barriers when doing business internationally. 

What type of job areas can I work in?

There are many job areas where being able to speak another language could prove to be an asset. This is particularly the case in the private sector with the increasing globalisation of businesses. But even in the public sector there are numerous avenues where linguists could be welcome.

Business services

Market research, marketing communications (digital marketing and social media), brand management, direct marketing, advertising and public relations (PR) are areas where foreign languages could be useful, especially if dealing with international audiences and clients. Roles such as marketing executive or sales account executive could offer a good opportunity to use language skills.

If you are considering self-employment, then language skills and an understanding of different cultures can help with new business ideas, such as developing new products or services.

With purchasing and buying, many companies source raw materials, components and equipment globally, contacting suppliers to obtain quotations and prices. Jobs such as retail buyer and global sourcing would be relevant.

Languages can be useful for the transport, logistics and distribution sector, which offers the possibility of roles in areas such as import/export and international logistics. Supply chain management for some multinational corporations could involve overseas postings.

Travel and hospitality

International conferences, events management and exhibitions are a good way to use language skills. Often marketing and events roles are combined and such employers would look for speakers of other languages.

The hospitality, travel and tourism industry is a global business, covering areas such as adventure tourism, food services management, hospitality services and hotels both in the UK and abroad. Language skills can be particularly useful for hotel staff, airline crew and tour operators.

Legal and administrative

There are opportunities to work as a multilingual/bilingual secretary and some companies will seek administrators with language skills.

Global investment banks operate across different continents. Speaking one or more European languages can give you an edge over other candidates. Firms such as Bank of America, Commerzbank, Credit Suisse, Nomura, and UBS, all state that additional languages are definitely an advantage.

The ability to speak a foreign language is becoming increasingly useful in the legal sector and in some cases international law firms will not hire legal professionals without language skills.

For a trademark attorney, having modern languages may increase chances of getting into this role. Working for the European Patent Office would require knowledge of some European languages.

Global accountancy practices with international clients would benefit from employees with linguistic ability. Many larger insurance companies have overseas departments. Once graduates have undertaken professional qualifications, overseas jobs may be possible.

Academic, information and public

Additional languages may be useful for international officers in universities, when assisting new students with queries and orientation.

Some media publications and newspapers require journalists to communicate with industries and experts abroad. Media companies such as Bloomberg and Reuters are keen to recruit linguists. In the UK, different ethnic minority communities have media in their own language, with a growing number of publications and TV channels requiring speakers of Arabic, Asian or African languages.

There are numerous opportunities to use language skills in the charity and voluntary sector, for example in roles such as international aid and development.

In the museums sector, some areas will require languages, for example, the European Parliament recruits for curators, museum educators and conservators for the House of European History. Knowledge of more than one EU language may be required.

Within library and information management, subject and liaison librarians may require specialist subject knowledge; a degree in a relevant subject or fluency in a language as appropriate.

Vocational further study: specialist training

Entry into the translation industry requires a degree or post-graduate qualification in translation. A number of universities offer an MA or MSc in translation studies. For interpreting you’ll need a degree in a language and/or interpreting itself. Post-graduate training is vital and extensive experience is regarded favourably.

European Masters in Translation (EMT) is a project between the European Commission and universities offering master's level translation programmes. It has established a quality badge for university translation programmes that meet agreed professional standards.

European Masters in Conference Interpreting provides information on conference interpreting training at postgraduate level provided by a group of European universities in partnership with the European Parliament and Commission. 

Refer to the Institute of Translating and Interpreting (ITI) Universities & Courses list for information on a number of universities and colleges offering courses in translation and interpreting. These universities are corporate education members of the ITI and have a commitment to provide quality training for the translation and interpreting industry.

The ITI also includes information on continuous professional development, with events, training and opportunities for people at different stages of their career.

Written by Monira Ahmed, University of Central Lancashire, 2015