One of the most common questions I’m asked as a translator is: “how do I start learning a language?” I completely understand why people often do not know where to begin — as there are tons of language learning resources out there that promote their products and learning systems as the quickest and/or most accurate way to becoming fluent in a language.
Don’t tell me you’ve never seen them… “Become fluent in Spanish in just one month!” “Have your first fluent conversation in just 48 hours!” These money traps exist everywhere, and they should certainly be avoided.
My advice? Arm yourself with immersive resources. Setting your mind to learning a language is something that takes commitment and dedication. It is not enough to set aside thirty minutes a day if you want true fluency.
The language learnings resources I mention below are non-specific. Why? There are a number of reasons, including the fact that different resources exist for different languages, and that we all have different learning styles. Below are simply my suggestions for various resources that will help you learn a language by immersing yourself in it, whether learning for international work, travel, sports or other hobbies.
If your first instinct is to run to Amazon and find “[Language] for Dummies,” that’s okay. Textbooks and other written resources for language learning are excellent entry points for learning a language. Understand that these books are often not comprehensive — the reason that many language textbooks are specifically for classroom use is that the classroom time contributes to language fluency.
The main focus for in-home use should be gaining comfort with a language. These resources will help you acclimate yourself to the rules of a language and give you a guide to language learning flow, i.e. where to start, grammar structure, basic lessons.
Apps are a great idea if you want to learn languages quickly. That’s not to say an app can speed up the fluency process, but language learning apps like Duolingo can help you to familiarize yourself with common phrases rapidly. This helps to establish base words within your memory bank.
If you want to learn a language with a different character system (like Korean, for instance), memorizing the new alphabet involved can be an arduous task, but lessened by the use of apps. Apps can go wherever you go, making memorization much easier and also entertaining. Have a long wait in the doctor’s office? Pull out your app and get learning!
Apps for language learning try to be the digital version of old-school, paper flashcards, but they cannot replace them. Flashcards should definitely have a place in your language learning resource arsenal. Unlike apps that involve tapping and swiping, flashcards offer a more tactile form of learning that also includes a visual aide.
Flashcards are great for casual learning. Keep a stack next to your bed and study them a few times before you fall asleep. Also, it’s a common mistake to only use flashcards for vocabulary words. But flashcards are also great for memorizing grammar, sentence structure rules and other more conceptual ideas about a language.
Last, but certainly not least, media is one of the most important resources you can utilize when it comes to language immersion and language learning. Sites like Netflix have a wide array of television and movie options from different countries. Find a selection that contains the language you want to learn and start watching!
Pronunciation, repeated words, phrase structures — this is important when it comes to adapting your brain to a language. When you immerse yourself in a language’s media, you’re more likely to achieve and retain fluency.
There are a lot of blogs out there instructing you on how to best learn, speak and understand a language. I’m here to tell you that a lot of these blogs are wrong!
Below are a few language learning myths that are floating around out there. For each one, I explain why these tips or simply myths that are not conducive to language fluency.
“Focus on literal translation.”
We often think that in order to learn something completely, we have to focus on 100% accuracy. This makes sense in subjects like math where one number off can mean the difference between right and wrong. This isn’t true in language.
Literal translations are often jagged and don’t translate well. Fluency is about understanding what the context of the words mean, not their literal translation.
“Go at your own pace.”
It’s often said that learning is something we shouldn’t force on ourselves — that we should go at our own pace for our own benefit. Again, this doesn’t apply to learning languages.
When you go at your own pace, you run the risk of losing the language and eventually forgetting it entirely. You HAVE to be able to commit to daily learning time and immersive language methods.
“Language technicality is the most important part.”
In line with literal translations, language technicality isn’t nearly as important as language fluency. While it’s good to know the technical aspects of a language, they don’t mean much if you can’t converse fluidly. Many language students can rattle off what Spanish words mean and great French phrases, but this is about rote memorization — not actual conversational understanding.
“Stick to long-term goals.”
I often hear people say “I plan to learn Russian by the end of the year!” or some other variant with a different language. This isn’t how learning a language works. It’s important that you try your best, but it’s not conducive to education to stick to rigid goals.
Work every day and check where your fluency is at in regular intervals. Sometimes it takes longer than a year. And even if you FEEL fluent at the end of a year, that doesn’t mean you need to stop learning. Languages can be lost if you don’t use them: “Use it or lose it!”
“Focus on your weak spots.”
This tip may be great in other areas of learning, but it does not make sense in the context of linguistics. If you want to REALLY learn a language, you can’t treat it like you’re trying to get a good grade on an exam. If you focus too heavily on your weaker areas, you run the risk of ignoring other areas, leading to a collapse in fluency.
“You have to live and breathe the language!”
Is immersion good for learning languages? Of course. Do you have to become obsessed and run yourself ragged in order to become fluent? No.
Just like any other hobby, going overboard means you’re more likely to give up. You have to find the right balance between committing to daily memorization and exercises while also not pushing so yourself to the limit. Learning a language fast also usually means you have a good ability for memorization, NOT for actual fluency.
These are only a few of the tips I’ve found that I don’t agree with. Are there any language learning tips that you’ve found which are totally bogus?
So you know a lot of languages and want to monetize your skill…that’s great! Now it’s time to figure out language profitability. That is, what languages will net you the most when it comes to translation jobs?
Figuring out what language will net you the highest paying translation jobs is difficult. Why? There are a lot of variables involved in determining language profitability.
One variable is location. If you live in Saudi Arabia, the most profitable translation jobs are probably not the same ones as in the USA. Location matters, both in terms of which languages and in which sectors are most highly prized. Therefore, it’s hard to pinpoint which languages are the most profitable across the board.
For the sake of this article, let’s say you live in a certain unnamed US city. What languages will make you the most money when it comes to translation work?
Japan currently has a lot of trade deals with regards to technology and products coming in and out of the USA. In fact, the United States and Japan partner on many, many things. Therefore, companies from both countries are always looking for translators that can help them with all types of communications.
The good news is that while there is a high demand for Japanese translators, the competition is relatively low due to the complexity of the language. Therefore, Japan has a high language profitability in the USA.
There’s a little more competition when it comes to Chinese translation jobs, mostly due to the fact that it’s the most widely spoken language in the world. Many Chinese citizens often snag these jobs because they learn another language as their second language. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for other translators in this market.
Also like Japan, China has a lot of reason to need English-to-Chinese translations and vice versa. There’s a lot of demand, quite a bit of competition and a lot of money involved.
German is considered to be a rare language in the United States. Despite there being a substantial German population within many states, it’s not a commonly spoken language. If you walk into a building and ask if anyone speaks German, there’s likely to be a low positive response. Especially compared to other languages like French or Spanish.
This is a circumstance in which there’s a large population with little outside fluency. Meaning, many companies are willing to pay top-dollar for German translators that can help sell products and services to an untapped market.
Swedish (and Other Nordic Languages)
Swedish, as well as other languages that exist in the Nordic region, is also gaining popularity among translators. Why? Because jobs dealing with Nordic languages pay well. The Nordic countries are quickly bringing in more and more Western influences to their major cities, which means they have to acclimate to Western languages.
The good thing about learning a language like Swedish is trans-language fluency. If you know Swedish, you’re more than halfway there to learning Norwegian and Danish. Learning any one of these languages and studying the other two lightly can net you three potential translation pools.
Finally, countries in the Middle East are also looking to communicate more and more with countries that speak English. Larger companies are already on top of this, especially if they’re in the oil industry. Now, the little guys are looking to cash in on business deals with companies in the United States, too. Arabic isn’t a language commonly learned in the United States unless you’re specifically looking for work in the Middle East.
Remember that the above example is for the USA, and language profitability depends on your location. Therefore, if you live in England, the languages that will net you the most may be different. Be sure to ask your fellow translators working in similar locations or in similar sectors for advice. What languages have netted them the highest paying translation jobs?
Is learning languages a hobby for you? Are you a polyglot, someone who speaks multiple languages fluently? Have you thought about what are the best jobs for polyglots?
Learning languages as a hobby and being a polyglot has many perks, like being able to understand sports commentary delivered in other languages or the ability to read texts written in obscure languages like Cyrillic. That’s fine and good…but what if this hobby could be monetized?
A lot of people out there know more than one language, but they don’t actually use this special skill in a way that makes them money. Being a polyglot is attractive within many different job fields, including these four jobs that are absolutely perfect for polyglots.
This is perhaps the most obvious career you can have when you’re a fan of languages. Translation is simply taking words in one language and translating them into another, like translating a brochure written in English into Chinese.
The problem many polyglots encounter when it comes to translating is that they don’t expect the career to require so many other varied tasks. A translator needs to be a “people person”, understand project management responsibilities and language fluidity. It’s not enough to translate words directly — you have to write them in a way that flows well.
Language Training or Teaching
You’ll find that foreign language teachers are always in demand, and the more “rare” the language, the more likely you’ll be to find a job. This job choice may require special certification or specific degrees depending on the state or country involved. Some countries require Bachelor’s Degrees in order to teach a foreign language while teaching languages out of the country can require other specifications.
Teaching also doesn’t have to occur within a classroom. From community centers to online courses, you can find teaching and training positions outside of education establishments.
Finally, online streaming services and media manufacturers are constantly looking for skilled linguists to translate their content into different languages for scripting and subtitling. Netflix and Hulu are two big employers of polyglots. They need multilingual translators to help grow their language base by adding multi-language subtitles to their video content.
If you want to avoid writing, there are other types of jobs for polyglots, too! For example, interpretation may be the better job position for you. Interpreting is like translation in the spoken sense. Imagine there are two people who want to talk but who share no common language. As an interpreter, you can bridge this communication gap by translating for each person. This is also a very basic interpretation of the career; some interpreters help translate for large audiences and within other scenarios.
Interpreters must also be in tune with people. They must be ready to translate tense situations, especially depending on where they’re interpreting. Airlines, pharmacies, police stations, schools. Interpreters exist everywhere, and the context of the conversations change depending on the setting.
Jobs for Polyglots
These are four examples of great jobs that polyglots can apply to and likely land with no problem. However, that doesn’t mean they’re the ONLY four jobs out there. Many different vocations look at someone who has language skills as preferable when compared to someone who only knows one language.
In short, when you put “polyglot” on your resume, you’re likely to get a lot of job offers — but which one will you choose?
(and which they unfortunately hear way too often)
Here are some of the comments I have heard firsthand from potential customers, over my many years working in the field of translation. I think that all translators have heard these at some point …
1 – You say you’re a translator and you can only speak three languages???
Or: You’re a translator and you don’t know how to say “Best Regards” in Chinese?
2 – I have about 45 pages to get a rush translation on by tomorrow, can you give me a discount?
3 – The document I have enclosed is a PDF created with InDesign. I absolutely need the formatting to be maintained.
4 – US$ 300,00 to translate 3000 words ? I am not prepared to pay that much. My nephew studied one month in France, he can handle this translation perfectly well for US$ 50,00 .
5 – You are a thief! I know a translator and he only gets a few cents per word, and you want US$ 400 to translate 5000 words !!!
6 – My secretary is bilingual and read your translation into Spanish. She thought it was absolutely terrible.
7 – Can you translate “Revenge is a dish best served cold” into one single Chinese character? It’s for a tattoo…
8 – I need my website www.domain.com translated. Part of it is Flash and the remaining part is dynamic content managed via a database. Please look at the website and send me a detailed quote.
9 – What does “XXX” mean (word taken out of context)? If you are a real translator, you should know!
10 – What did you study in order to become a translator? Literature?
Or: Translation isn’t a real job.
Or the ever popular: You spend your life sitting at home, working at your computer in your pajamas, and you earn your living doing that?
11 – The document to be translated is confidential and I can’t send it to you, but I need to know how much you are going to charge for it to be translated!
12 – Why are you charging so much when there are free software programs that do machine translations?
13 – Why do you need dictionaries? Aren’t you a professional translator?
14 – There’s no way that could take so long. This text is only about 20 pages long and that shouldn’t take you any more than two days to translate!
15 – Please provide me with a rush translation of this 10 page contract. My customer is waiting in my office to get the document in his language.