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The importance of language skills in human rights work

Maybe this has happened to you. You scroll through the job description. Everything seems to be something you qualify for. Nothing has yet sent you mortified in an exacerbated, blaring doubt that you will never be hired in the human rights field, never work with the United Nations or even feebly emulate the career of Amal Clooney. Then you see that one line which grabs your throat. It starts to sear into your qualifications. Do you have that one missing requirement? No. Are you now even remotely qualified enough to apply for the job? Maybe.

Our vulnerability surfaces as the fresh open wound when we assess what skills we possess and magnify those we do not. But we have to, essentially. Otherwise, how will we improve? Yet assuming that the ambiguous gloom hovering over us as we submit job applications has begun to simmer down, perhaps we can focus on those skills we possess while considering the skills we do not have as ones that we possibly should.

Consider: language. Disputing against the practicality and utility of knowing another language is arduous enough in today’s globalizing world, yet it is also a common factoid that not everyone is “made for” language acquisition. As in, they feel their relationship with language resembles that of oil and water. Quant and qual. Some people are born as language-learners. I only know how to say “Hello”, “Goodbye”, “I am hungry” and “Help me” in Mandarin. But why emphasize language skills in human rights work? Knowing another language in human rights work increases opportunities of employment, provides unexpected experiences that can further defend human rights accurately, and ultimately forms a stronger diversified network. It’s that subsidiary tool reaping primary results. We know this. Yet even within the curriculum of prestigious graduate programs solely focusing on human rights studies and preparation into the human rights field, knowledge of another language is often times not a core module or even emphasized at all — despite the fact that some applicants to the programs might have been favored over others due to knowing seven more languages. This article is not to promote that everyone in the human rights field should at least be a polyglot, but to emphasize that if you only speak your own tongue, or if you do speak another, it is worth tapping into that foreign language to become better acquainted with international cultures you will inevitably work with.

Illuminating the complexity and power of language, Chomsky states in a 1984 interview that “Communication refers to an effort to get people to understand what one means. And that, certainly, is one use of language and a social use of it. But I don’t think it is the only social use of language. Nor are social uses the only uses of language. For example, language can be used to express or clarify one’s thoughts with little regard for the social context, if any…I think the use of language is a very important means by which this species, because of its biological nature, creates a kind of social space, to place itself in interactions with other people.”

And this social space is teeming. If you haven’t realized already, speaking another language opens doors rather than closing them in general. Despite the scarce mentioning of language learning that seems to go uncontested in human rights academia, most often than not, if you are seeking international human rights work, you will be required to speak another language given the very international nature of what you are pursuing.

In addition to positions at prominent larger organizations like the UN or Amnesty International, speaking that extra language will likely provide more opportunities than not. For example, by speaking Spanish, you could technically apply to work with NGOs in 21 different sovereign states across the world. You get the picture, but you already knew this. The little push here is to somehow relay the thoughts that even if you barely know another language, try to pursue it. Even if it is not a widely spoken language, try to pursue it if you are passionate about it. Go a bit further. Because the chances are, when it is vexing to pinpoint exactly what type of work you want to do concerning human rights, possessing foreign language skills can provide clarity in options much more than you would expect.

In what situations? The six official languages of the United Nations are Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian and Spanish, where English and French represent the official working languages. But say you learned Korean at university and you speak at a conversational level. Although you may not necessarily be working right away in New York City, Geneva or Brussels, you would be surprised at the demand needed in human rights translation work in Korean with NGOs or independent groups. Building connections through such platforms with the use of your language that you thought was rather “unnecessary” may foster the growth of more internationally diverse relations that serve as further diplomatic bridges. You become more educated and involved with various human rights cases involving Korea.

You will bring clarity with first hand material. Do certain words in Russian or Thai evoke a different concept than what they are purportedly translated to be? Familiarity with the local colloquialisms, dialects, or accents all play a significant role in human rights work when you know that second language. Take a case study where you are working with a team that believes a target group of women trafficked at the border between North Korea and China are entirely Chinese. Yet with closer investigation and appropriate translation, which you contribute to because of your set of language skills, you realize due to their different intonation that these are not Chinese women but North Korean women who have been abducted in China. This changes the course of the case. These are particular situations, but they do happen.

Overall the perspective of your work will change once you begin to utilize your languages.
Once you have reached a level of proficiency, translation opportunities will arise. You will also gain a perspective that is not limited to the borders of cultural differences but rather provides sharper insight into those differences. Even if you are not fluent or conversational now, set a goal. From deciphering material that could be overlooked in primary documents with inadequate native-language awareness, to building local relationships with an entirely new community of people for a stronger network, your efforts are not wasted.

So get the training and practice while you can. Time is precious. Time is luxurious. But when you do find some time at all, sign up at the nearest language school near you. Find a tutor. If financial issues are hindering you, look online to access free online language learning material such as with Duolingo or Memrise. Download those podcasts while you have breakfast. Read the news in French, find a German conversation partner or contact your old Japanese teacher. Change your Facebook language settings to Spanish and always keep in mind that nothing grows without practice.

Or don’t. You don’t have to. But the situations you encounter when you build your language skills in human rights work just might be worth it on your CV and in your life.

About the author

Human Rights Careers

Human Rights Careers (HRC) provides information about online courses, jobs, paid internships, masters degrees, scholarships and other opportunities in the human rights sector and related areas.

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