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Ask the Expat & International Career Coach: How Do I Build a Career Abroad When I Don't Speak Another Language?

Megan Fitzgerald, Expat and International Career Coach, shares how to build a career abroad when you don't speak a second language.

This is the next post in my "ASK THE EXPAT & INTERNATIONAL CAREER COACH" blog series. 

Today's question is very common one I get when speaking to people considering building a career overseas. Some are overseas already but feel predominantly held back professionally because of their lack of language skills. 


Only speaking your native language obviously significantly limits the number of job opportunities available to you in other countries where your mother tongue is not spoken.  

This not only has an impact on your chances of building a professional life but also being able to enjoy living in that country from a lifestyle perspective. Of course many expats take language classes before or after they've arrived in their new home to develop a functional fluency which does allow for engagement but not immersion into their new home culture. If that approach works for you and your native language is the one you are looking to depend on professionally, you still have options. 

The first and obvious option is to find other countries where your language is spoken. When I ask people how many countries speak their language, very few can give me an accurate number. People are generally surprised to find out how many countries from which they have to choose. 


English is an official language or is predominantly spoken in over 50 countries: Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Botswana, Brunei, Cameroon, Canada, Ethiopia, Fiji, Gambia, Ghana, Grenada, Guyana, India, Ireland, Israel, Jamaica, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Malta, Marshall Islands, Mauritius, Micronesia, Namibia, Nauru, New Zealand, Nigeria, Pakistan, Palau, Panama, Papua New Guinea, Philippines, Rwanda, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Samoa, Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Singapore, Solomon Islands, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Kingdom, United States, Vanuatu, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. 


French is an official language in the following countries: France, Canada, Madagascar, Cameroon, Cote d'Ivoire, Burkina Faso, Niger, Senegal, Mali, Rwanda, Belgium, Guinea, Chad, Haiti, Burundi, Benin, Switzerand, Togo, Central African Repubilc, Republic of Congo, Gabon, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Dijibouti, Luxembourg, Vanatu, Seychelles and Monaco.  

There are also what they call "dependent entities" where French is also an official language: Pondicherry (Asia), New Caledonia (Oceania), Mayotte (Africa), Aosta Vally (Europe), Jersey (Europe), Guernsey (Europe), Saint Martin, Wallis and Futuna (Oceania), Saint Barthélemy (North America),  Saint Pierre and Miquelon (North America) and Clipperton (North America).


Spanish is the official language in these countries:  Columbia, Spain, Peru, Venezuela, Ecuador, Guatemala, Cuba, Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, Paraguay, Costa Rica, Panama and Equatorial Guinea. Puerto Rico is a dependent entity whose official language is also Spanish.

The countries where Spanish is a de facto official language though it was never given official status include Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Uruguay.

There are also places where Spanish is spoken by more than 10% of the population that could be possibilities:  Brazil, Belize, Andorra, Gibraltar, Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic, Aruba, Guam, Morocco, Netherlands, Antilles, the US and the US Virgin Islands. 

With a little research, you might be surprised what options might open up for you.


What is very important to note however, is that just because people in another country speak the same language as your own, it does not mean that their cultural beliefs, traditions, values, and communication styles are the same. All of these things play into how people interact, communicate and operate, so one must always do their homework to understand how any country's culture affects all aspects of the job search. 

Being an American and living in London for over 4 years, I can tell you that it's those subtle differences that can be most problematic.  There are many who believe that American English and the Queen's English are very different languages. Having received a certification from Cambridge to teach English as  a second language I had an in-depth look into those differences from both a personal and "educational" perspective. And indeed they did affect me as a working professional.


Your second option is to start a portable business which would allow you to work from wherever you are and with whomever you want - including those who speak your native language.  All you need is a phone line, a computer with the right software and an internet connection to get started from a logistical and technical perspective. The reach a portable business can have today with low to no cost technology is simply incredible.  I’ve worked clients from over 20 countries from the comfort of my own home (and sometimes in my pajamas!).

For more information about portable careers, I suggest the following:

• A Portable Career - Do What You Enjoy While Living Where You Want

• A Portable Business gives the Expat Entrepreneur Freedom and Success Abroad

• A Portable Career: A Slideshare presentation 


YOUR EXPAT CAREER SUCCESS TIP: If you are a current or aspiring expat looking to build a career abroad and have only your native tongue to depend on professionally, find the list of countries where your language is spoken. Then go through the list and review each location to see if it might give you the lifestyle you are looking for. Once you've honed down the list to the top 1, 2 or 3, continue to do research on the country, culture, the primary industries and what careers may be in store for you there. Selecting a target country that fits you and your lifestyle of choice is an extremely important part of being able to build a satisfying professional life overseas.