A Second Language Is a Marketable Skill. Here’s How to Make Money With It

Two women use sign language as they sit at a cafe.
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Are you fluent in another language?

I don’t mean ‘I spent a semester abroad in Italy’ fluent.

Or ‘I’ve spent the pandemic building up an impressive Duolingo streak’ fluent.

The type of fluency I’m talking about allows you to drift between two languages, intimately understanding the cultural context and nuances of each. It’s something that’s often born of intense study and requires extensive exposure to native speakers.

Fluency is not something easily achieved. But if you have it in your toolbox, there are plenty of ways to monetize it.

You can even make money using your foreign language skills remotely during the pandemic. Many of the remote side hustles you’ll find in the field of language can be built into full-fledged careers too.

Interpreting

Interpreting is when you facilitate communication between speakers of two different languages, often in real-time. For example, if someone was visiting the doctor and didn’t speak English, the doctor might need an interpreter to facilitate communication.

Another example is when interpreters accompany public officials at press conferences, facilitating the presentation for viewers who speak another language.

Interpreting involves more than fluency. In addition to language skills, you’ll need to be familiar with cultural norms in both languages. Then, you’ll need to mediate between those cultural norms in your interpretation.

Remote interpreting has become prolific during the pandemic. You might have an interpreter on a Zoom call, for instance, where before the interpreter would have gone on assignment in-person.

How much can you make as an interpreter?

Interpreters can make a decent living, depending on the regional demand for your second language.

Educational interpreters for the Deaf in K-12 settings may make anywhere from $18 to $30 per hour depending on location. Whereas interpreters for the Deaf who meet state requirements to work in legal settings can make anywhere from $50 to $90 per hour.

Interpreters often work as independent contractors through an agency. This is great if interpreting is your side hustle. It allows you to pick up jobs that fit your schedule.

If you’re looking for a full-time job, though, there often aren’t benefits when you work with an agency. Plus, work availability can ebb and flow.

If you work as an interpreter directly as a full-time government employee, your hours are more likely to be predictable and you’ll have access to benefits. Though your per-hour pay may be a little lower than freelance rates.

What certifications do you need to become an interpreter?

Many of the standards for interpreters are set at the state level. Check your state’s standards for the language and sector in which you want to work.

Certain sectors require special certification in addition to what’s required by your state. If you are interpreting Spanish for federal courts, for example, you’ll need to take the Federal Court Interpreter Certification Examination.

Those who want to work in medical settings need certifications from the National Board of Certification for Medical Interpreters (NBCMI) or the Certification Commission for Healthcare Interpreters (CCHI).

Interpreters for the Deaf have to meet separate certification standards. Those who work in the educational setting will want to take the Educational Interpreter Performance Assessment (EIPA).

Most ASL/English interpreters in other settings should seek joint certification from the National Association of the Deaf (NAD) and Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID).

Translating

When you translate, you don’t work with live people. Instead, you’re working with texts.

It’s important to note that reading another language at the word-for-word level isn’t enough to become a translator. You need to be able to take things a step further. You need to understand things like poetry, nuance and idioms in both the source and target language to succeed at this job.

How much can you make as a translator?

Your location and experience level will affect your earning potential. So will the language you speak. Translators generally work on a per-word basis, though there is a growing trend to move to an hourly pricing structure.

Generally speaking, a professional can translate 400-600 words per hour. To make $20 per hour, you’d want to find assignments that pay at least $0.05 per word.

If you’re just starting out, you might find yourself working jobs in the $15-$20 per hour range depending on your second language. However, if you have experience or multiple certifications, you could earn $38+ per hour.

You can check going rates for professional-level translation assignments by language here.

What certifications do you need to become a translator?

The more letters after your name, the more you can get paid. You earn those letters through certifications.

Translators working in the United States are certified by the American Translators Association (ATA) and/or the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC).

Another certification option is going through ALTA Language Services. In addition to basic language proficiency tests and professional certifications for translators, ALTA provides industry-specific testing for fields like legal services, government positions, medical settings and customer service representatives.

ALTA also provides testing services for interpreters in niche settings.

Tutoring

You can certainly tutor native-English-speaking students in a second language if you are bilingual. But you’ll find that one of the languages with the highest demand for tutors is English itself.

When you’re tutoring a student in English, ideally you’ll speak their native language, too. This allows you to break down and explain complex differences between the two languages to your student. These explanations can help them generalize grammar, slang and other linguistic concepts in a more meaningful and permanent way.

This ideal is not a requirement, though. Many American-based English tutors speak only one language: English.

How much can you make as a foreign language tutor?

There are many online platforms that allow you to work remotely as a language tutor. These platforms can pay anywhere from $15 to $80 per hour. The more experience you have, the higher your pay.

You should be able to achieve pay in excess of $20 per hour on some of these virtual platforms even without background in the classroom.

In non-pandemic times, teaching English abroad is also a way to travel on someone else’s dime. Depending on the country, you can make anywhere between $600 to $4,000 per month. Higher-paying gigs go to those with the most experience and credentials.

For many, the pay isn’t the incentive, though. The draw is living abroad. In some countries, teaching English is one of the easiest ways to gain a long-term visa. Some programs include housing in addition to monthly pay.

What certifications do you need as a tutor?

In reality, you’ll probably be able to skate by as a tutor without certifications. And you’ll probably be able to earn in excess of $20 per hour.

If you want to travel abroad or secure those $80-per-hour jobs, though, it’s a good idea to get your Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) or Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certifications.

Another way to secure those higher paying jobs is through traditional, post-secondary education. If you are a certified teacher in your state with at least a four-year degree, that will bode well for your earning potential.

For this particular linguistic side hustle, teaching credentials may have a bigger impact on your earning potential than your second language skills.