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What if you could get paid to learn a language?
I’ve spent most of my adult life doing this. I’ve gotten jobs overseas and then learned the local language on the job.
While I don’t think it’s necessary to live in a foreign country to learn a language, I will admit that I see the appeal. Learning languages by immersion fed my insatiable travel bug.
The problem with learning by immersion is that it can be a pretty expensive affair – unless that is, you nab yourself a job in the process.
Not just any work, either. I’m talking about jobs that enable you to continue building upon your language skills, while you’re at work.
Yep, these jobs do exist. I should know – I’ve pretty much worked them all, at one point or another.
Working while you travel means you can spend more time overseas. That makes it easier to learn the local language. Plus you don’t have to stress about running out of money.
Why I Travel to Learn Languages
You don’t have to travel to learn a language. Plenty of language learners enjoy learning a language in the comfort of their own home (which is an approach I recommend), or in a classroom.
Classroom learning didn’t work for me. I tried and failed for years to learn languages in an academic setting.
It wasn’t until I moved to Spain that I finally achieved success.
After a very frustrating first few months of trying to learn Spanish and getting nowhere, I managed to crack the language learning code. I realised if I stopped talking in English and started forcing myself to speak Spanish as much as possible (and embraced the fact that I would make mistakes), something might actually sink in.
That’s exactly what happened, and it completely changed my life.
My time in Spain was the beginning of what would become over a decade’s worth of travel adventures. For years, I country-hopped, often living in places for as long as my visa would allow.
Wherever I was, I would endeavour to do my best to immerse myself in the culture of the country, learning how to communicate with locals. There are a lot of benefits to English-free travel. You get a completely different (and I’d say better) experience than tourists who only use English. Plus you can save a lot of money.
These days, I make my living as an author, professional speaker and by creating language courses. This wasn’t always the case. I wasn’t some trust-fund kid, seeing the world on my parent’s money. I had to figure out a way to support myself if I wanted to keep travelling long-term.
I realised two things pretty early on. If I wanted to keep travelling, I would have to learn how to do it cheaply. I would also have to work – just like pretty much everyone else in the world does, to survive.
The key thing was, I didn’t want any old job. I don’t say this with a snobby, “better than thou” kind of attitude. After successfully learning Spanish, I decided that I wanted to have a crack at becoming a polyglot. So, I needed to find jobs that would assist me in my language learning. If a job cleaning toilets meant that I had the opportunity to practise my language skills, than I would have done it!
As it was, I worked some pretty unglamorous jobs during my time spent trotting the globe. Most notable was when I worked as a youth hostel receptionist in Rome. I did 24 hour shifts, for €10 a day. I can tell you now, I earned every single cent of that ten euros! Thankfully, room and board were thrown in too.
So yes, it is possible to “earn as you learn”, and perhaps necessary if long-term travel is something that entices you.
The Benefits of an Earn As You Learn Job
Learning a new language while working has a lot of benefits:
- You’ll have a stable paycheck, so you can travel longer.
- You’ll be able to enjoy the benefits of living in a foreign country, such as eating out and attending events. You earn money to spend it (wisely), after all!
- Work is a good opportunity to meet people who are native speakers of your target language, outside of the “expat circle”. This will give you an opportunity to practise your speaking skills (along with meeting amazing new people!)
- You’ll be able to put down roots, of sorts. You can rent an apartment rather than stay in a hostel. You can cook at home. You can join a gym. You can seek out new friends. All these things give you a chance to have an authentic experience living in a foreign country. You’re unlikely to get that if you’re just passing through.
- If you have a job that has a bit of downtime or social interaction with locals, the more hours you work, you more you get to practise your language skills.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few career ideas for language learners. The good news is that these are really interesting jobs too.
5 Ways to Earn Money While Learning a Language
Is your heart set on moving overseas to learn a language? Then I say go for it. You’ll need some savings to get you started, but as long as you’ve got the correct visa, it’s a pretty safe bet that you’ll find work along the way.
Let’s take a look at jobs that are relatively easy to find, and that can help improve your language skills.
Some of these jobs require you to speak fluent English. Others are available for speakers of any language.
1. Work Abroad as an Au Pair
Working as an au pair is basically performing the duties of a live-in nanny. On getting a job, you’ll be provided with food and accommodation, as well as a salary. Pay varies from country to country, although as your basic needs are covered it will be enough to get by, and perhaps a bit more. You can put aside money for savings to travel later, or use it to enjoy yourself in your new country.
Although you’ll probably be expected to speak English with the children, it doesn’t mean you won’t get chances to pick up some of the family’s native language.
Working as an au pair is a good way to sidestep what would otherwise be a complicated visa process. Visas for the USA are notoriously hard to obtain. As a European citizen wanting to improve your English, you’d be allowed to come and work in the States for a period of 1-2 years, enabling you to improve your language skills and have a firsthand experience of American culture. The same can be said for the likes of Americans, Canadians, Australians and New Zealanders wanting to seek work across Europe.
So, if you enjoy spending time with kids, au pairing may be one way you can live overseas and earn a living while learning a foreign language.
2. Travel and Teach English (ESL Teaching)
Teaching English as a second language is a popular way of earning for travellers and language learners alike. Some places only require you to have a university degree and be a native English speaker. Others require you to have a TEFL (Teaching English Foreign Language) certificate. Most courses are inexpensive, and once you’re certified, you can work pretty much anywhere in the world.
It is not uncommon for nomadic sorts to settle down in a city such as Bangkok for a few months and earn some money by teaching before moving on to a new location. As a language learner, you can take advantage of the situation by giving yourself opportunities to practise your speaking skills, while teaching your pupils all you know about English in the process. Give a little, take a little.
Salaries vary by country, but you should earn enough to live quite comfortably. The best paying jobs tend to be found in Asia. Many programmes include housing, health insurance, flights to the country and pretty decent pay.
I worked as an ESL teacher in Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Brazil, and Ireland. I found it to be a rewarding and reliable avenue of work.
3. Get a Job in Hospitality: Hostel/Hotel Workers
I was employed in a youth hostel as a receptionist when I was living in Rome and learning how to speak Italian. I would work a full 24 hours, then have alternating off days, which I spent cramming in as much Italian learning as I could.
My boss didn’t like having Italians staying in the hostel, which was annoying as I didn’t have any native speakers to practise with! However, it did give me the opportunity to maintain my Spanish with the many Spaniards who checked in, which helped me to keep my two foreign languages separate in my head.
I also had a bit of downtime here and there, particularly in the late morning, which I used to memorise vocab lists and do other study. That’s the beauty of jobs in hostels or hotels – there are long spells in which you’ll find yourself with nothing to do. If you’re willing to take advantage of these moments, you’ll find you have more time than you ever anticipated, which you can use to study your language. A much better investment than binge-watching TV on Netflix!
Although the money was not great (well, terrible if I’m going to be completely honest), I at least had accommodation thrown into the equation, which many other hostels offer in compensation for their terrible wages!
4. Serve in a Restaurant or Cafe as a Waiter/Waitress
A hop, skip and a jump away from working in a hostel/hotel is service work. Waiting on tables or serving drinks in a bar gives you plenty of opportunities to practise your language skills.
Here is a job that brings you into direct contact with members of the public, who will almost certainly be native speakers. On top of that, fellow staff members will probably be young, looking to make friends and ready to mingle after a long day at work.
Although service wages can range from livable to abysmal, if you’re looking for a job that is socially rewarding, you can’t do much better than this.
5. Practise Your Language Skills as a Translator
Once I had a few languages under my belt, I began to work quite a lot as a freelance translator. This type of work was a lifesaver during my time spent living in Canada, when I had failed to get a work visa before entering the country!
My initial approach to finding work as a translator was clumsy and slow. I sent out 2,000 emails to translation companies! I now know that there are freelance translator sites like ProZ, which are perfect for those looking for freelance work.
Many translators charge by the word, meaning that you can make a comfortable living if you’re good at it. Here’s the crucial thing. Translation is not necessarily easy. Just because you speak a language, doesn’t mean you know all the subtle nuances that come with it.
For this reason, I would only ever advise seeking work that allows you to translate to your mother tongue. It’s also best to look for translation work in a field you specialise in. Particularly lucrative fields are medical, legal and tech.
Although it can be a bit hard to get the ball rolling, once you have, you’ll have access to as much work as you need. Plus, the job can be location independent. As long as you have access to the Internet, you can work almost anywhere in the world.
Working Overseas: Other Location-Independent Jobs
Speaking of location-independent jobs, there’s a long list of ways to earn money that have become possible, thanks to the Internet.
Freelance translation was the first location-independent job I had, but it didn’t end there. My blog allowed me to become an online entrepreneur, which led to gigs as a writer and professional speaker.
Popular choices for location-independent jobs include:
· Writer – online publications are always looking for writers. If you do the legwork and find a few gigs that guarantee you work on a regular basis, it’s possible to make a good living from freelance writing. Although you’ll have deadlines, you’ll also have time you can dedicate to your language pursuits. Better yet, you may even find an avenue online where you can get paid to write about your language learning efforts!
· * Web Developer/Coder – as the Internet grows, programming and design skills are increasingly in demand. Working online gives you the opportunity to work with companies from your native country, as well as wherever you happen to be travelling at the time.
· * Poker Player – you may laugh, but I’ve known a few people who’ve earned a decent living from playing poker online.
You Could Always Take Your Current Job to a New Country
Don’t want to change careers? Then consider taking your job overseas. There are plenty of industries that allow you to work in foreign countries, such as health, law, media, entertainment, government and teaching.
You’ll be able to continue climbing the career ladder, gaining valuable work experience, while building upon your language knowledge.
I have a Bachelor’s degree in Electronic Engineering, and because of this I have had opportunities to work in related roles throughout my career, in countries such as France.
Although I later embraced my new career path as a full-time language hacker, I don’t see my degree or the time spent working as an engineer as being pointless or wasteful. In fact, I believe that it was my background in engineering that set me on the trajectory to where I am today.