Guide for Language Majors

In Paris they simply stared when I spoke to them in French; I never did succeed in making those idiots understand their language.
--Mark Twain

What Is Language Studies?

If you have a natural aptitude for languages, you can use that talent to open up careers in international trade and politics, or in helping other language communities in your area to receive full access to services and opportunities.

Keep in mind that a language major is not the same as a linguistics degree. Linguists study language itself, from the way we make sounds to the words and sentences we use. Language majors choose a particular language (and, by extension, a culture) to study and become fluent in, leading to job opportunities around the world.

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Careers for Language Degree Holders

Jobs that make direct use of the skills earned in a language degree program involve either interpretation (the spoken word) or translation (written documents). Other career opportunities for language majors exist in international relations, diplomacy, intelligence gathering, literature, journalism, law, medicine, education, tourism, the Foreign Service, environmental agencies, non-profit organizations, information technology, and international commerce.

Translation & Interpretation Careers

Interpreters and translators enable the cross-cultural communication that is crucial in today's society. Translators are most in demand for the languages referred to as "PFIGS"--Portuguese, French, Italian, German, and Spanish, and the principal Asian languages--Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

Using a Language Degree in the Business World

Even with the growing popularity of English as the unofficial language of business, it's to your great advantage to be proficient in the language of your potential business associates. By knowing their language, you gain a deeper understanding of their culture and customs and have a clearer view of how your business fits in with their needs. Reading their newspapers, trade publications, or viewing their popular media via satellite can give you an advantage in understanding their environment and how it affects their opinions.
The more education you have as an interpreter or translator, the better, since you may be asked to deal with complex issues or very technical explanations on behalf of your client. You do more than just translate words - you relay concepts and ideas between languages.

Some interpreters and translators expand their formal education to meet the requirements of their chosen fields, such as medicine, technology, culture, or politics. Online college classes can provide training in the newest technology that aids in translation work. Special software now provides professionals with automatic translation, memory to compare previous documents on the same subject, and sources to provide further research into word definitions and usage.

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Career Education in Languages

College Degrees in Languages

Although training requirements can vary, almost all interpreters and translators have a bachelor's degree. Even if you are already fluent in another language, a formal education enhances your cultural awareness, attention to detail and nuances in communications, understanding of contextual vocabulary and slang, and it builds superior listening and communication skills. A degree in a certain language will help you develop an understanding of the literature and culture of its speakers. If you can't take the time for a traditional college degree, you can take online college courses in many languages, which can lead to certificates or accredited degrees.

When choosing electives, you should try to get a good mix of both language courses and cultural study. Include courses in history, politics and even religion to help you understand the environment of the people who speak that language. Your language degree program also helps to hone research and memorization skills that you'll use for translations, not to mention giving you practice in working with reporting, deadlines, and communications.

So if you decide, for example, to become an acquisitions specialist in Italian Renaissance art, it's important to not only have Italian fluency to deal with the sellers or lenders of the art, but a cultural fluency as well, to perform research and translate any historical documents pertaining to the pieces you are considering. If you work in an inner-city medical clinic serving Spanish-speaking patients, you can converse with them about their specific concerns, but also read what is written in their native country or get a sense of how to approach the problem with cultural sensitivity.

Language classes designed for the workplace will teach you grammar, word usage, pronunciation and conversational style. Specialized college courses online can teach you the specifics you'll need to work in professional areas such as business, fire science, law, human resource management, and healthcare management.

Other Language Courses

Language certificates can provide proof of proficiency if you are already a working professional who needs to be fluent in another business language. If you decide to go for a master's degree, you can specialize in specific languages, interpretation, translation, or foreign or comparative literature. A master's degree in languages is good for anyone who wants to work as a conference interpreter or in more technical areas, such as localization, engineering, or finance.

What Can You Do With a College Degree in Languages?

Many translation/interpretation careers require certification. A recent increase in demand for interpreters and translators has resulted directly from the broadening of international ties and the increase in foreign language speakers in the United States. Technology has made the work of interpreters and translators easier, but shouldn't diminish demand, since artificial translation cannot make the subtle judgments that a trained professional will - based on cultural knowledge, familiarity with slang and nonverbal communication cues.

The job outlook varies by your specialty and language combination. Approximately 20% of interpreters and translators are self-employed and the work is often sporadic or part-time. Nearly 30% work in public and private educational institutions, such as schools, colleges, and universities. About 10% work in healthcare; over 10% work in other areas of government, such as federal, state and local courts. Other employers include publishing companies, telephone companies, airlines, and interpreting and translating agencies.

Language degrees can be combined with teacher certification to teach in the K-12 system, or at the college level with an advanced degree. Many opportunities for multilingual professionals exist in international business and global relations.

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Career Requirements in the Language Arts

Language specialists must thoroughly understand the subject matter in which they work, so that they are able to convert information from one language, known as the source language, into another, the target language. They must remain sensitive to the cultures associated with their languages of expertise. Interpreters are often required to translate to and from both languages, while translators generally work only in one direction, translating the written word from the source language to the target language. It is important to understand what is communicated in both languages, and to express thoughts and ideas clearly. Strong research and analytical skills, mental dexterity, and an exceptional memory also are important.

Advancements in technology allow translation work to be done via computer, and most assignments are received and submitted electronically. The Internet provides advanced research capabilities and valuable language resources, such as specialized dictionaries and glossaries. Machine-assisted translation, including memory tools that provide comparisons of previous translations with current work, helps save time and reduce repetition. This same technology also allows aspiring translators to take their college classes online, allowing them to expand their knowledge while still maintaining a normal work and life schedule.

A bachelor's degree is almost always required in this field; specialized training in how to do the work can also be required. Interpreters might also find it easier to break into areas with particularly high demand for language services, such as court or medical interpretation. Once interpreters and translators have gained sufficient experience, they may move to more difficult or prestigious assignments, earn editorial responsibility, or even start their own translation agencies.

Specialized Language Career Choices

You might choose to specialize in one area of expertise or in a variety of areas, if you are doing contract work. Some of the most common areas are listed here, in addition to business, social services, or entertainment opportunities. Conference interpreters work at conferences that involve non-English-speaking attendees. This work includes international business and diplomacy, although conference interpreters also may interpret for any organization that works with foreign language speakers. Employers prefer high-level interpreters who have the ability to translate from at least two passive (learned) languages into one active (native) language. For some positions, such as those with the United Nations, this qualification is mandatory.

Guide or escort interpreters accompany travelers to ensure they are able to communicate during their stay. These specialists interpret a variety of subjects, both on an informal and a professional level. Frequent travel, often for days or weeks at a time, is common, a factor which some find particularly appealing.

Judiciary interpreters and translators help people appearing in court who are unable or unwilling to communicate in English. They must be thoroughly familiar with the language and functions of the U.S. judicial system, as well as other countries' legal systems. Court interpreters work in a variety of legal settings, such as attorney-client meetings, preliminary hearings, depositions, trials, and arraignments. They may be asked to translate and read aloud written documents.

Literary translators adapt written works, such as journal articles, books, poetry, and short stories, into the target language in such a way as to reproduce the content and style of the original. Whenever possible, literary translators work closely with authors in order to best capture their intended meanings and literary characteristics.

Localization translators constitute a relatively recent and rapidly expanding specialty. Localization involves the complete adaptation of a product for use in a different language and culture. This work had previously dealt primarily with software, but has expanded to include the adaptation of Internet sites and products in manufacturing and other business sectors. Translators working in localization need a thorough understanding of technical concepts and vocabulary, and a high degree of knowledge about the intended target audience or users. Because software often is involved, a strong background in computer science is important.
Medical interpreters and translators help patients communicate with doctors, nurses, and other medical staff. A big part of the job is interpreting patient materials and informational brochures, issued by hospitals and medical facilities. Medical interpreters need a strong grasp of medical and colloquial terminology in both languages, along with cultural sensitivity regarding how the patient receives the information.

The opportunities that exist for Foreign Service Specialists are as diverse as the 265 posts abroad in which they serve. Foreign Service Specialist jobs are grouped into seven major categories: administration, construction engineering, information technology, international information and English language programs, medical and health, office management, and security. The U.S. Department of State offers career opportunities to professionals in specialized areas around the world.

Earnings Information

Salaried interpreters and translators had median hourly earnings of $15.67 in 2002. High-level conference interpreters working full time may earn over $100,000 annually. Interpreters and translators with specialized expertise, such as those working in software localization, generally command higher rates. Language specialists for the federal government earned an average of $64,234 annually in 2003. For those who are not salaried, earnings may fluctuate, depending on the availability of work.

Certification, Licensure, and Professional Associations

There is currently no universal form of certification required of interpreters and translators, but there are a variety of exams you can take to demonstrate your proficiency.

The American Translators Association provides accreditation for its members. Other options include a certification program offered by the Translators and Interpreters Guild. Federal courts have certification for Spanish, Navaho, and Haitian Creole interpreters, and many state and municipal courts offer their own forms of certification. The National Association of Judiciary Interpreters and Translators offers certification for court interpreting.

The U.S. Department of State has a three-part test for interpreters, including simple consecutive interpreting (escort), simultaneous interpreting (court/seminar), and conference-level interpreting (international conferences). These tests are not referred to directly as certification, but successful completion often indicates you have an adequate level of skill to work in the field.

Organizations dedicated to these professions can provide valuable advice and guidance for people interested in learning more about interpretation and translation. The language services division of local hospitals or courthouses may also offer information about available opportunities.

For career information, contact the organizations listed below:

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