The Gift of Tongues Keeps on Giving

Fluency in a second language commands a premium on the job market. How one goes about acquiring it depends on what best suits the individual

Q: What does Corporate America regard as the most efficient way to become bilingual? I'm a mechanical engineer who will graduate with a Master's degree in the spring, and am very interested in learning a second language. Is the best way to do this to get a university degree in a language? Or are there more practical ways to learn? -- M.A., Akron, Ohio


Your question isn't the only one we've received lately about foreign language skill and employment. Another reader wants to know how to make fluency in a second language pay off in a job search. Let's tackle both.

Yes, it does pay to speak a language other than your mother tongue. Globalization means that more executives and managers are working abroad. Anything that allows you to conduct business more easily in far-flung places is a big plus, says Clement Johnson, a recruiter at executive recruiting company Heidrick & Struggles [the Careers channel is a collaboration between Heidrick & Struggles and BusinessWeek Online.] Indeed, some employers pay a premium to multilingual employees, says Anita Komlos, national director of business development for Berlitz, which is often hired by companies to test employees on their language proficiency.

There's one big footnote to all this good news: If you intend to use a foreign language intensively on the job, you need to speak it very, very well. And true fluency -- meaning the ability to do more than order from a menu -- requires a lot of time, much of it spent immersed in the language, says Michael Katz, dean of language schools at Middlebury College (Vt.), which offers intensive language training to adults during the summer.


  You can learn some key phrases in a few hours, he says. But depending upon the difficulty of the language and other factors, it could take five years or more to achieve fluency. Still, don't discount the importance of being able to speak only a little bit of another language. Your international associates will appreciate the effort.

Therefore, determining your language goals will help you figure out which course of study to pursue. A university degree, combined ideally with living abroad, will give you a good shot at mastering another language. There are lots of other options, however. Berlitz, for example, has a smorgasbord of classes, ranging from group instruction, sometimes at workplaces, for several hours a week, to total immersion training. Another company, Ceran Lingua International, sends students abroad for two weeks of intense language instruction.

Fees can be hefty. A six-week course at Middlebury, for example, costs about $5,000. But often, employers will foot the bill -- or at least share it. One way to sniff out courses, says Steven Levy, acting director of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, is to contact the embassies of the countries where the language you hope to learn is spoken, and find out what they recommend.


  If you already are fluent in another language, highlight that skill in your resume, says Dale Winston, CEO of Battalia Winston International, a New York-based executive recruiting company. Also target companies based in the country where your second language is spoken, she says. You might also want to take time to research professions for which bilingualism is a must. Komlos of Berlitz says that health care employers are increasingly eager to hire multilingual professionals, in part because they want to minimize the possibility of an erroneous mistranslation leading to a medical mishap.

Finally, if you're not wedded to business, consider a career with the feds. The FBI can always put Spanish speakers to work, according to a spokesman for the agency. After September 11, the bureau is particularly eager to hire those who have mastered Arabic, Farsi, or Pashto, which is widely spoken in Afghanistan.

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