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7 Ways To Improve your Language Skills for International Development Work


Foreign language competency is one of the most crucial skills for international development and humanitarian workers. Whether you’re working in your home country or abroad, chances are you’re often interacting with people who don’t speak your native language. Language fluency is immensely helpful in developing projects, negotiating with governments and other stakeholders, and interacting with the local population. In addition, language competency can be a useful way to distinguish yourself from other applicants during your job search.

However, if you’re not currently working in the field or doing direct service it can be challenging to keep your foreign language skills sharp. Many UN Vacancies require fluency in at least one, more often two, of the six official UN languages. Some of the most competitive jobs in the sector of international development are directly bound to your language skills. So if you’re feeling rusty or want to improve your personal profile, take a look at these free or low-cost strategies you can use to maintain and improve your fluency.

  1. Talk with friends

The best way to keep your language skills sharp is to talk often with native speakers. If you have already spent time living, working, or volunteering abroad you likely have a network of contacts who can be your tutors. Instead of sending emails or texting, take the time to set up a video chat. Any kind of conversation can be helpful, but push yourself to incorporate new vocabulary words and complex sentence structures. Be sure your friends know you’re working on improving your language skills and invite them to offer corrections when you make errors. To thank them for their help, you can offer reciprocal language tutoring services or even money in exchange for their expertise.

  1. Join a language exchange

If you don’t have anyone you can easily talk with you can join an exchange that will match you with a partner who speaks your desired language and wants to learn yours. Dickinson College runs an online language exchange to match up people from across the world. A new app called Biligua will match you with a language partner based on shared interests. The chat function also includes a bot that will help guide the conversation so that both partners continue learning. HelloTalk is another app that lets you exchange text and voice messages with speaker of over 100 different languages. It also offers an easy transliteration feature for non-Roman-based languages.

  1. Download an app

Some foreign language learning software can cost hundreds of dollars, but there are good options to be found for very little money. Duolingo is a free website and app that offers courses in over 20 languages. While they’re mostly game and quiz-based, they’ve recently added a new feature that allows you to engage in text-conversations with foreign-language speaking bots that are powered by artificial intelligence. Busuu is a language learning app that offers flash cards, grammar lessons, quizzes, conversation partners, and even an official certificate. The free version has minimal features but the paid monthly plans are amongst the most affordable. If you’re looking for a greater investment, Rosetta Stone is considered the most thorough and trusted language-learning software program.

  1. Read something

If you’ve got a computer connected to the internet you are only a few clicks away from all the foreign language content you could desire. Try visiting sites of foreign language newspapers or reading some of the stories the BBC offers in more than 30 languages. Not only will you improve your language skills, you’ll stay up-to-date on the news from the regions that interest you. There are also plenty of ways to turn your regular web browsing into a foreign language lesson. Wikipedia offers articles in over 280 languages and every social media platform features users interacting in the language you want to learn. With a little bit of searching you can even find people speaking about the international development issues that interest you. Not only will you be practicing your language skills, but you’ll also be staying informed about important events and that impact your work.

  1. Listen to something

Reading is just one element of language learning. It’s also important to keep listening to native speakers to master elements like accent and inflection. The website Radio Tower lists free, streaming internet radio stations that are searchable by language. If podcasts are more your speed check out Radio Lingua Network and Language Pod 101 for focused language instructions. For advanced speakers, you can find news and special interests podcasts in any language you desire. And finally, TV and movies can be a fun and relaxing way to practice a foreign language. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon offer plenty of options in different languages, but be sure to check out Viki, Crunchyroll, and Deyhko Bollywood for lots of TV and movies from across Asia.

  1. Visit The Live Lingua Project

The Live Lingua Project is the world’s largest collection of free audio and ebook language learning materials, representing over 130 languages from around the globe. Most of the information comes from the language training programs of the US Peace Corps, the US Foreign Service Institute, and the US Defense Language Institute. Because this is public domain government material it may be a bit outdated. In addition to this archive, Live Lingua offers paid Skype lessons with accredited teachers in eleven languages.

  1. Take a class

If you learn best in a school setting you can brush up on your foreign language skills through a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC). Some of the most prestigious universities in the world make their instructors and materials available online through MOOCs for anyone who wishes to access them. Some even offer a paid option that allows you to complete graded assignments and receive an official course certificate. While MOOCs usually only offer courses in the major European and Asian languages, you know that the instruction you’re getting is reputable.

Language and culture MOOC sites:

Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative




Center for Open Educational Resources and Language Learning, University of Texas at Austin


About Author

Global Peace Careers is a website dedicated to career related information in the sectors humanitarian aid and action, international development, peace and conflict studies, negotiation, conflict resolution, diplomacy and international law. On our website we collect and distribute information about entry level jobs, paid internships, affordable master degrees, free online courses and other opportunities.

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Disclosure: Global Peace Careers may be compensated by course providers.