There are few things more powerful than being able to communicate with a customer in their own language - or at least in a common language you share. My favorite story about this involves a customer who was from the Near East. He didn't speak English, I didn't speak his language. But... we both spoke French. A huge smile burst across his face as we were able to directly communicate with each other for the first time.
We recommend putting languages on your resume for more than the utilitarian aspect of being able to hold a conversation with a foreign colleague or customer. They are also a diplomatic signal of being a well rounded, educated, and worldly personality, capable of operating beyond typical space of the average American worker. Extensive travel sends a similar signal but risks offending the less fortunate. Being able to claim working knowledge of several foreign language sends a similar signal with less of the social baggage. The people judging you will infer a certain perspective and breadth in your experience.
Which Employers Care About Language Skills?
Within the North American market, there are a couple of different reasons an employer might give additional weight to candidates who claim specific language skills on their resume.
- Spanish: Spanish is frequently sought after by companies and public service organization to for customer-facing roles. This includes customer service (being able to take a call in Spanish), logistics (coordinate cross-border movements and interact with foreign carriers), public service (interact with Spanish-speaking residents), and Medical personnel. It may also be of value in ministry and non-profit roles that are focused on serving the Latin American community. With Cuba opening up, watch for additional demand for Spanish language in import/export trade.
- Sales Professionals: Being able to directly communicate with your customer is always of value in convincing them to buy from you. This is particularly powerful in wholesale and retail trade, especially for firms serving communities with a strong first generation immigrant population. Imagine the trust you could generate for your firm as the only Korean-speaking rep calling on Korean customers. The same could be said for any small firm serving a focused community.
- Import / Export: Required to discuss terms, agree on price, and manage logistics.
- First-Line Management Roles: The specific situation would vary by employer, but speaking Spanish is of value in industries that regularly employ large numbers of recent immigrants. Examples include manufacturing, logistics, agriculture, and construction / landscaping. The same would apply to human resources personnel supporting these companies. Being able to talk to an employee in their native language leads to better performance and a safer workplace.
One language to never put on your resume: English. With rare exceptions, it is highly unlikely your prospective employer expects to transact business in any language other than English. Therefore, your knowledge of English should be a given (for candidates applying through listed postings). Raising any mention of your proficiency only surfaces doubt; don't list English, quote test scores, etc. Obviously, your resume should be perfect with regards to grammar and spelling. Get help on this if you need it.
Describing Language Skills on a Resume
Language skills are traditionally listed towards the end of the resume, in a skills listing which lists the language and your rough proficiency level. A commonly accepted scale of language proficiency would work roughly as follows:
- Basic / Elementary: Generally not worth including on the resume. Unless you are capable of navigating around that country on your own for a day and conducting basic business in that language, it is probably not worth including in on your resume.
- Conversational: You can carry on a steady conversation in that language, without many pauses or having to stop to look up common words. You are capable of handling an extended stay in that country, with few Americans nearby. While the pace of your answers may vary and you will have to look up rare / hard words, you can generally keep up with people.
- Proficient: Sufficiently skilled in that language that you could operate in an office or retail enviroment dealing with the public. You are a fast confident speaker, albeit not quiet at the native / bilingual level yet. You can easily discuss current events, manage a project, or negotiate a transaction in that language.
- Fluent / Native / Bilingual: You can speak the language at least as well as the typical native born speaker. To claim native or bilingual status, you need to have at least one parent who was a native speaker of that language themselves.
Building Credibility About Your Language Skills
If knowing a specific language is part of the role you are applying for, be sure to mention when and how you used that language in past roles. For example, if you were tasked with handling spanish language patients in a past job, mention it (as part of your bullets for that position) and explain the level of discussions held.
Another good indicator of crediblity in language is the degree of trust employers placed in your expertise. So if you worked on a particularly "high stakes" translation situation such as negotiating a legal contract or complicated business arrangement, be sure to mention that. If you were effectively unsupervised in your translation efforts, as the sole representative of the company, be sure to work that into your materials.
And Above All...
Never lie or exaggerate language proficiency . This isn't prompted by ethics - there's just too much risk of running into a real native speaker on the company's staff and being caught in the lie. It's a trivial matter for someone on their team to ask you a couple of questions in that language to see how much you know. Don't torpedo your candidacy by fluffing your language expertise, even in an obscure one. It really just isn't worth it...
Want more examples of how to set yourself apart on your resume? Check out our guides on career strategy: