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Talk Up Your Foreign Language Skills

Talk Up Your Foreign Language Skills

Mastering a foreign language while you're in college can help you land your first job after graduation. Just ask Lauren Mehler.

Mehler, 21, recently graduated from Rutgers University with a degree in political science and minors in Italian and history. She'll soon start her new job as a marketing associate at Minneapolis-based General Mills, the international food marketer that's home to such brands as Cheerios, Betty Crocker and Pillsbury.

How did she land such a great gig, especially at a time when the entry-level job market, while improving, is still highly competitive? In many ways, she says, it came down to her proficiency in Italian and all the related experiences she gained while studying abroad.

"It wasn't the Italian per se that did it," Mehler says. "It was the fact that I knew a language and had an understanding beyond my own town and community."

A Second Language Is a First-Rate Investment

Learning a new language isn't an afternoon project, of course. It's a significant investment of your time, energy and money, particularly if you're wise (as Mehler was) and choose to spend some time studying the language in a country where it's spoken regularly, rather than learning it solely in a classroom setting.

So what will the return on your investment be?

  • You'll communicate well with people in or from other countries. "I can hold a pretty good conversation [in Italian] on a variety of topics," Mehler says. "And after studying abroad for a semester, I was very good."
  • You'll show employers that you understand the big picture, because you've seen it. Mehler says that during her recent job interviews, "employers would always say, ‘Oh, you studied abroad,' and I would tell them about my experiences and how I saw the US in a different light, or how I understood how products and ideas were viewed differently overseas." She adds, "Having an understanding of the international and global markets made me more desirable, I think, because it showed that I could see the business on a macro scale."
  • You'll show employers that you could expand your language skills if necessary. "The fact that I had studied a language meant that if I needed to, I could learn another," Mehler says. "And since Italian is so close to Spanish, I could understand that language as well."
  • You'll do more than say you're adaptable -- you can prove it. Studying abroad "showed I had a lot of spunk," Mehler says. "It showed that I could live by myself in a country where my language skills were just emerging, and I think that's appealing to companies that are looking for leadership skills."
  • You'll always have something that distinguishes you in interviews. "I knew that studying abroad and studying Italian were experiences that had changed my perspective on a lot of things, and I knew it set me apart," Mehler notes. "So I almost always brought it up in interviews if I wasn't asked about it outright. I knew it was something different -- something beyond."

Mehler stresses that foreign-language expertise and experience will boost your own self-confidence. That's what it did in the interview where she clinched the General Mills job.

"Since General Mills doesn't have a General Mills Italy, I told them I would help start one in five years," she says. "I made the recruiter laugh, and I made myself more memorable."

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