More and more of us are working abroad.
In 2016, there were reportedly 50 million expats worldwide, and this number is sure to grow with the rise of flexible and remote working and the growth of digital tools easing communication and productivity.
Working abroad has never been easier, but language skills are still the determining factor.
Without the right level of language comprehension, finding work or an internship abroad is simply a non-starter.
Getting experience or taking your career abroad offers huge benefits. Where that might be will be defined by the language skills you possess.
Here is everything you need to know about language skills for working overseas, including how to find opportunities once you’ve decided where to go.
What language skills do I need?
English is a good start (including for reading this article...).
English is the lingua franca of international business, and as a result many multinational companies have English as a corporate language, regardless of where they are headquartered, especially between offices spread out across the world.
The use of English (and any other languages) will vary of course, depending on the location of the office in question, and on the nature of the role.
At root, the level of language proficiency you will need depends on two things:
- The type of position you are applying for. (More on this below).
- The country where you are applying for work. It may not be necessary to have any knowledge at all of the local language, but it will often be helpful. If you don’t, then it is likely your skills in your native language and/or a major world language such as English, Russian, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese or French will be the determining factor.
Language proficiency is commonly referred to in the following ways:
- Native: this is your mother tongue, or you are so good that it may as well be.
- Fluent: you have next to no problems with the language, but may make small errors occasionally, especially with regional language and slang terms.
- Advanced: you are a confident user of the language, but make errors occasionally and have incomplete knowledge beyond the subjects you are used to.
- Intermediate: you are able to communicate with others but regularly make errors and often do not understand 100% of what is being said or written.
- Basic (or Beginner): this category covers everything from your first word to a few sentences about who you are and everyday essentials. It will not be enough to use professionally.
For some more precise levels and the various systems regulating them, keep reading.
I am fluent or native
If you are fluent or native in English it should be possible to find many opportunities for work abroad.
Native-level proficiency in any language can be especially valued, such as with roles that involve writing.
I have advanced proficiency
If you are able to speak, write, read, and listen confidently in English, then you may be a very good candidate for certain positions that require advanced, but non-fluent, proficiency – especially for roles that require a combination of advanced English and your native language.
If you have advanced skills in a foreign language you may be well served looking for work in countries that use that language and host companies that do business in countries where you would be a native speaker. Or vice versa.
In most cases, the employer will specify the language requirements (often with the required proficiency level) in the job offer.
I’m only at intermediate level
Some jobs, such as technical professions or service positions, may only require intermediate level language proficiency in the corporate language (probably English) or the language of the country where the company is based.
Your job search and research should take into account whether you will need fluent, advanced or simply intermediate level language abilities.
Should I exaggerate my language abilities to get the job?
Always be honest about the limits of your language skills. The simple reason is that the truth will soon come out, most probably at the job interview, where the required language abilities will be judged.
It’s fine to say that you are working to improve your language skills, but an employer will never take this as a guarantee.
If you only need intermediate language skills to do your job, be confident in the skills you do have and try not to worry too much about the limits of your linguistic prowess. If the employer wants to hire you for the high level skills you possess in other areas, then they should accept your limited ability to communicate and adapt accordingly.
How do I know if my language skills are good enough?
There are a number of widely recognised ways to measure language proficiency, such as the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), with levels from A1 to C2; or the Interagency Language Roundtable scale, with categories ranging from ‘Elementary proficiency’ to ‘Full professional proficiency’ (the latter is used on your Graduateland user profile).
Any system you consult will have an explanation of what each level represents.
If a specific level of language proficiency is required by an employer, the system that that level refers to should be stated. Otherwise, you should take them to be referring to the commonly agreed notions of language proficiency mentioned earlier.
If you are unsure about what language skills you currently possess, there are various ways to test yourself:
- Official language tests such as IELTS or TOEFL for English, TFI/DELF for French or DELE for Spanish. (Unlike universities, most companies do not require applicants to complete language tests. However, mentioning your results in your CV can strengthen your application).
- Free online assessment tests can be found for many languages such as English, German, French or Spanish.
- Talk to your friends, classmates or colleagues and ask them which proficiency level they put on their CVs. Consider how your own language skills compare with theirs.
- Language schools conduct placement tests before you start a course. This is a good option if you are reasonably sure that you need to improve your language skills to some extent before finding work, and might consider starting a course.
How can I improve my language skills?
There are many ways to improve your command of a foreign language.
Assuming you have some comprehension already, it is wise do the classics: watch movies and TV series, listen to music, radio and podcasts, and read books and news stories in the target language.
Video and audio are especially helpful for improving your listening skills and ear for regional variants, while reading is a great way to broaden your vocabulary and improve your grammar.
To make serious progress, especially if you are still at beginner level, consider doing one, some (or preferably all) of the following:
- Formal language school or university courses
- Online language classes and private tuition
- Language textbooks, audiobooks and instructional videos (e.g. on YouTube)
- “Language exchange” events at cafes or other public places
- Practice with a friend or acquaintance who speaks the language
- Language-learning apps, such as Duolingo
- Visiting a country where the language is widely used
- Read articles on the Graduateland website in different languages (Danish, German, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and English are available!)
Whatever you do, make sure your learning is regular in order to make progress.
It is also a good idea to consider how you learn best. Whatever seems to be working best for you should be how you focus your learning in the future.
To ensure your learning will help you succeed in the workplace, look for ‘business’ versions of language courses and tuition, and try to find resources relating to the field or industry you are aiming to work in.
How do I find positions abroad?
Jobs are posted to Graduateland from far and wide – and include graduate positions and internships. Simply search for the city or country you’d like to find work in.