10 Professions Where Fluency in English is Essential


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In India, employees who speak English can earn up to 34% more than their non-English speaking counterparts; in Brazil, it’s an even more remarkable 51% more, which can be even higher depending on the job level (middle management seems to have the biggest salary increases for English speakers, possibly because those skills are rarer at that level). Speaking English not only earns you more money, but can lead to faster promotions, too. If you’re working somewhere with a shortage of English speakers – or you’re the best linguist in the office – you’ll quickly become invaluable for proofreading, editing, and possibly even attending higher-level meetings than you might otherwise be invited to.
Spending time honing your English won’t do your future career any harm, then (unless your department is so keen to keep you that they resist you being promoted). But there are some professions in which knowledge of English is even more important than this; where, if you don’t speak fluent your English, chance of being hired or subsequently being promoted are drastically reduced. In this article, we take a look at the careers where if you want to succeed, you’ll need to ensure that your English is as good as can be.

1. Science

Four hundred years ago, if you were writing a scientific text – inasmuch as there was such a thing as a scientific text at that time – you would write it in Latin. A hundred years later, you would probably write it in French, though English and German might also have been possibilities. A hundred years ago, you would be looking at the same mixture of languages, but German would be the most likely choice.

Up until relatively recently, German was the language of science.
Up until relatively recently, German was the language of science.

But the intervening hundred years featured two world wars splitting German-speaking scientists from their French and English-speaking counterparts internationally, as well as ensuring that German stopped being taught in American schools. As the USA became increasingly English-speaking and monolingual, it also became more and more of a superpower. English became increasingly the language of science around the world, up to the present day when scientists routinely publish papers in English regardless of their native language.
About 6% of the world’s population has English as a first language, but 80% of journal papers are written in English – and that’s a conservative estimate. The top 50 most prestigious scientific journals in the world are all published in English. While this state of affairs is restrictive for scientists who might be brilliant in their field but lacking in language skills (which was still the case when science was in Latin), it does enable easy collaboration and transfer of knowledge across the world, and so is unlikely to change.

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2. Academia

Good English isn't only vital for an academic career in the sciences.
Good English isn’t only vital for an academic career in the sciences.

More than 30% of the academics at top British universities including Oxford, Cambridge, UCL, KCL and the LSE come from countries other than the UK – for UCL, it’s around 45%. We spoke about science above because the need to speak English is particularly marked in scientific fields (and extends beyond academia into industry), but it’s important for anyone wanting to succeed in academia regardless of their field.
There are plenty of universities in non-English speaking countries that teach some or all of their courses through English, not only to attract international students, but for the benefit of local students too, who wish to learn through English to improve their language skills. This is particularly the case at postgraduate level. There are even some academics who are more comfortable using English in academic settings than they would be their native language, even though their native language comes more naturally to them in social settings.

3. Online business

A global business requires global communication.

The great advantage of doing business online is that you can sell to people all over the world, with only customs and postage costs to stand in your way. But the language of the world is English, and until translation software improves considerably, that means you’ll need to be able to speak it, not only well enough to understand native English speakers, but also well enough to understand people whose English may be significantly worse than yours. If you’re shipping products internationally, you’re likely to be dealing with people primarily over the phone or via email, where language barriers are exacerbated by your inability to read each other’s body language. And of course, the success of the transaction may depend on your ability to comprehend what your customer is saying to you.
This doesn’t apply just to online-only retailers, as well. If you’re running a business that gets most of its customers online, you’ll want to have a good level of English in order to interact with customers from around the world, whether they’re going to be renting your apartment on Airbnb or having your company install their swimming pool.

4. Tourism

The tourist industry requires knowing English to such an extent that we’ve broken this down into more sections to highlight the jobs where English is particularly necessary.

"'ere, Tracy - reckon they'll serve us fish and chips?"
“‘ere, Tracy – reckon they’ll serve us fish and chips?”

The earliest known phrasebooks were produced in the early Middle Ages for the use of pilgrims to the Holy Land, covering European languages as well as Greek and Hebrew. The first phrasebook for business was produced in 1424, for the use of Italian merchants who wished to trade in German. Phrasebook production took off properly after the development of printing, and particularly with the growth of international trade and the Grand Tour from the 17th century onwards.
Yet native English speakers are increasingly monolingual, and English is increasingly the second language of choice across the world – so a growing number of travellers will assume that if they are visiting a country, their hosts will be able and prepared to use English as a lingua franca. The stereotype of British and American tourists who think that speaking English louder and slower will make them understood is an unpleasant one, but rooted in truth. For some travellers – for instance those with mobility issues, or tricky dietary requirements – being able to communicate effectively at their destination is vital, and their custom may depend on it.

5. More tourism: ski instructor

There are lots of different types of instructors who you might encounter on your holidays – climbing instructors, for instance, or watersports instructors. But of all the jobs relating to this niche of the tourist industry, ski instructors are arguably the ones who most need to speak English, dealing as they do with a particularly multinational group of people. While there are ski slopes that are mostly used by people from that country, these are more likely to host experienced skiers who don’t require the services of instructors.

Seasonal work on the slopes is a great experience for many.
Seasonal work on the slopes is a great experience for many.

In some cases, English is actually more useful for ski instructors than being able to communicate in the language of the country where they’re living, which is one of the reasons why it’s frequently the seasonal job of choice for gap year students. Other reasons include the sociable hours (people ski during the day, so instructors are free in the evenings) and the chance to do something for a living that for most people is a hobby.

6. More tourism: tour guide

Speaking as many languages well as possible is obviously a key skill for a tour guide, along with a knack for public speaking and solid local knowledge. But English’s role as a tourist lingua franca is particularly vital. In other scenarios, you might be able to get away with a few words – for instance, waiting staff might need vocabulary relating to food options, and possibly to do with directions and general friendly small talk, but they can manage without anything much more complicated than that.

Throw in a dash of charisma and you're the perfect guide!
Throw in a dash of charisma and you’re the perfect guide!

Tour guides, on the other hand, need a much more complicated vocabulary; think about a tour around a cathedral, where the guide might use terms like “flying buttress”, “chancel” or “lancet window”. They need to be able to discuss history, culture and geography – and if they want tips, the ability to make a few jokes helps too. That’s a demanding level of linguistic ability, especially for what is often a seasonal, temporary job.

7. More tourism: estate agent

The market for holiday homes shows no sign of slowing.
The market for holiday homes shows no signs of slowing.

Being an estate agent doesn’t sound like a tourist role. But the market for holiday homes is buoyant and shows no signs of slowing; it’s actually quite challenging to find statistics on the number of holiday homes bought in France because there are so many websites jostling for attention trying to sell them. That means there are jobs available as an estate agent specifically for sale to the tourist and expat market, and they’re sufficiently in demand that this is another job where speaking the local language is less important than speaking English.  
Effective communication is a huge selling point from start to finish. It’s well-known that people are willing to pay more for something that has been described in more elaborate terms, so “rural house” is less likely to draw attention than “rustic cottage in a secluded rural location”. And once you have a prospective buyer, being able to communicate fluently with them is essential to sealing the deal.

8. Diplomacy

"Ambassador, with these English language skills you are really spoiling us!"
“Ambassador, with these English language skills you are really spoiling us!”

Diplomacy is one of the few areas where a lingua franca other than English has held on – in this instance, French. (Another example would be the role of Italian in musical notation). The reasons usually given for the continuing survival of French as one of the two main diplomatic languages are varied. Some argue that tradition is key, while others have suggested that it is the idea that French is a very precise language, producing longer sentences but leaving less room for ambiguity than English does. Unfortunately, there’s no real evidence for the claim that French is more precise than English; both can be equally precise if used by someone who is skilled at expressing themselves well. More plausible is the idea that French has persisted because so many diplomatic functions are based in the French-speaking city of Geneva.
If that’s the main reason, then it’s unsurprising that English is increasingly stealing a march on French even in the world of diplomacy. English and French are the two main languages of both the UN and the EU, and among both communities of nations English speakers outnumber French speakers. If you’re looking at a diplomatic career in the future, it seems likely that French will be increasingly optional, and English increasingly necessary.  

9. Management consultancy

In professions such as these, effective communication is key.
In professions such as these, effective communication is key.

Management consultancy is one of the better-paid professions out there, particularly for people who want to earn a high salary straight after graduation. But in order to earn it, you will need the requisite skills, and fluent English is likely to be preferred if not essential, as well as speaking the language of the country you’re based in. As with many of the points above, this is because business is international, particularly businesses that have enough income to be able to afford the high fees of consultancy companies.
Travel is a standard part of management consultancy, and that might mean visiting the head offices of the company you’re working with in three different countries. You won’t be expected to speak to everyone there in their native language, but you will be expected to use English confidently as a lingua franca.

10. Finance

The top ten financial centres worldwide, according to the ranking of the Global Financial Centres Index, are London, New York, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Zurich, Washington DC, San Francisco, Boston and Toronto. Eight of those ten places have English as a primary or official language. One of the two exceptions is Zurich, where the primary language is Swiss German – but as 61% of the population of Switzerland also speak English, and a tenth of the population there speak English at work. The other is Tokyo, where only a tiny percentage of the population is non-Japanese. So if you want to work in finance at the top level, the importance of speaking English is clear.

English native speakers make up just over 5% of the world’s population, a remarkably small amount when compared with the 14% of the world’s population who speak Mandarin. But the influence of English internationally is disproportionate, and the spread of English shows no sign of halting. Whatever your career path, making sure your English is as good as it can be is a clear route to success.
Image credits: colleagues talking; lone tree; sea urchin egg cells under microscope; bodleian; meeting in café; tourists in spain; skiers; tour guide; cinque terre; ferrero rocher; consultant


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