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Getting The Most From Your Language Skills On A Resume

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.

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:

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:

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