Do you really need to be fluent in a language to work abroad?

by Adriana Stein
March 05, 2021
woman living travelling and working abroad who isn't fluent in any other languages

Have you ever found yourself wandering in a foreign country where nobody spoke your language? The simplest things suddenly become so complicated – from asking for directions to buying bus tickets and ordering food.

I’ve certainly had my fill of “lost in translation” moments back when I was backpacking around Europe. But as you’ve probably also experienced, there’s so much you can communicate using only hand gestures and a translation app. You don’t really need to be fluent in the local language to enjoy a short trip. 

But how about if you’re planning to move and work abroad? Find out more below!

Do you truly need to be “fluent” before working abroad?

If you’re an English speaker and plan on going to a country for work that has a different language, learning the local language seriously makes your life a lot easier. For example, when I moved to Germany, learning to speak German helped me tremendously in navigating the public offices (particularly the foreigner’s office), as well as boosted my ability to find freelancing opportunities.

And even if you only speak English, there are still plenty of work options for you, but it really depends on the type of job. Let’s explore some of your options depending on the language skills you need.

Jobs where you can work abroad with English

A few of the most typical jobs you can work abroad with and speak English are:

  • Tour guide
  • Teacher
  • Digital nomad
  • Nanny and babysitting
  • Cleaning and service jobs (waiting tables, bar, delivery)
  • Science and research
  • Academia (when the program is in English)
  • Engineering
  • Flight attendant

Teaching English abroad is one of the most common ways English-speaking foreigners support themselves. You can work as a teacher in a traditional school or teach online. If you’re considering pursuing teaching, most companies are looking to hire those who speak English as their first language (and in this case, you wouldn’t need to learn another language). As an expat in Germany from America, this was actually how I started working in Germany.

The ultimate moving to Germany checklist (with a free downloadable guide)

Digital nomadism – yes, it is as cool as it sounds

Nowadays, digital nomadism is becoming more of the norm. In fact, American digital nomads have increased by 49% since 2019 and, by the end of 2019, there were 22.400 coworking spaces worldwide. Digital nomads can do anything from video creation, editing, blogging, UX design, or even running an online business.

If becoming a digital nomad is what excites you, rest assured that you can find plenty of English-speaking jobs abroad and online that will fit your skills without having to learn the native language. Whether you’re set on becoming an au pair, flight attendant, or taking the leap into digital nomadism, working abroad will certainly transform your perspectives… and change your life.

However there’s one very important thing I’ll stress here that I learned from personal experience: if you live in a country where there is a different language, learning it is one of the most worthwhile career investments you’ll ever make in your entire life. 

Jobs where you likely need to learn the local language

Some jobs may require you to be fluent in the language, especially when the position involves understanding local laws and procedures. A few examples are: 

  1. Law
  2. Doctor and other healthcare
  3. International business (all related positions)
  4. Government positions
  5. HR
  6. Banks
  7. Translator / Liaison
  8. Customer Service Representative 

It is no secret that learning another language opens more opportunities for you, and helps you stand out on your resume or cover letter. Although the country you’re working in will be new to you, speaking their language instantly helps you navigate around (personally and professionally), and increase your business connections

Of course, if you’re looking to become an international or domestic lawyer in a particular area, you’ll be required to understand the law relating to that country, which means you’d have to know the language quite well (and most likely also have a special degree, too). Most government, healthcare, HR, and banks positions will also require location-specific knowledge based on the native language and culture.

How to meet people while travelling (or living abroad)

The best languages to learn for working abroad

If you’re wondering about which languages to focus on for working abroad, learning Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, or German are the languages most likely to land you the top jobs. And not to mention it opens up huge opportunities for generally communicating with more people. Just take Spanish, for example, which is a language that enables you to talk with literally 500 million more people. That’s a pretty good portion of the planet, so you can only imagine the career opportunities that language brings you.

And in any case, translators and international liaisons are needed in almost every large corporation, so being bilingual or multilingual helps you land these positions overall – regardless of the language.

Language skills make it easy to work abroad

Whether you’re enjoying a croissant with a new coworker in a boutique cafe while using your new French vocabulary word, “délicieuse” (delicious) or explaining to the German bank teller that you “brauche eine Auszahlung” (need to withdraw money), your new language will serve you well both in your personal life and throughout your career. 

Day to day interactions will be more smooth, and certainly, the challenges that arise while getting accustomed to a new lifestyle and work culture will seem easier. So, it’s important to start learning early to prepare for bilingual business conversations because the right connection could be one Spanish word away (or any other language, but I think you get the idea).

Learning a new language is not always necessary, but it will certainly help you to fully immerse into the new culture, boost your career, and to find your new self in this phase of your life.

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