By Kristine Hansen

Curt and Chris are applying for the same help desk job at a slick California firm with good benefits and opportunities for promotion. Their resumes are practically identical—a mix of support, quality assurance, and networking jobs at dot coms and corporations—except Curt speaks, reads, and writes fluent Spanish and understands a little Hindi.

Ask yourself, “Who will land the job?” If you guess Curt, it’s because you already know that the crossing of geographic borders—metaphorically—is becoming more important in the information technology field. With software products being shipped to more countries than ever before, and an increase in the number of non-English speakers in the U.S., companies are scouting the marketplace for bilingual or multilingual IT workers.

We spoke to several people in the IT trenches about the growing need for bilingual or multilingual employees, especially in customer-intense positions. This is what they had to say about capitalizing on this in-demand skill.

Wanted: Multilingual techs
“We actually do look for people who have language skills. Most of our clients now are international,” said Jack Kalander, vice president of customer care and IT for Firstlogic, Inc. in LaCrosse, WI. The business-to-business software company sells to IT shops that are international or that market to clients in other countries. “The person with the foreign language skill set is certainly going to have the advantage.”

Kalander said that there’s enough competition in the marketplace right now that companies are pushed to look for workers globally.

Kristian Coyne, an IT worker in Colorado hunting for a position, thinks he would get his foot in the door a lot sooner if he spoke Spanish.

“I think that is becoming more and more important in this part of the country, the Southwest,” he said, referring to the customer service and technical support industries.

Verbal skills may outweigh written
If you are lucky enough to already be proficient in a foreign language, verbal skills are used more often than written on a daily basis. Often foreign-language documentation writing is outsourced, but customer contact work is kept internally. Jobs that constitute a bulk of customer contact need multilingual folks.

A way to capitalize on your foreign language skill set is to find business drivers within the IT world that are valuable globally, and then demonstrate to the hiring manager how you can help, Kalander advises.

Erick Recinos-Rosas could be a poster child for multilingual IT workers. He’s a San Francisco consultant who provides IT support to nonprofit organizations. He speaks English, Spanish, and Portuguese; his clients speak Tagalog, Spanish, Hmong, Amharic, and many indigenous Latin American languages.

Gaining foreign-language skills
To become proficient in a language, look first to your company’s tuition reimbursement program. Be prepared to pitch to your employer why fluency in Cantonese, Spanish, or Japanese will make you an asset to the bottom line.

“Training and resources are scarce in these areas,” said Recinos-Rosas “Cost and accessibility are big factors in digital divide issues.”

Places to get quick instruction are your local college or university, which often offer crash courses for travelers, or conversation groups. Businesses like International Linguistics Corp., of Kansas City, MO can mail you books and audio recordings to get you started on a do-it-yourself program.

One of the most renowned options for language instruction is the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center in Monterey, CA, which doubles as a school for military personnel. An associate of arts in foreign language degree is awarded after 36 semester hours in the foreign language and 27 semester hours in nine subject areas of lower division general education.

Berlitz International, Inc., whose worldwide headquarters are in Princeton, NJ, offers a Total Immersion program at any of its 60-some Berlitz Language Centers in the U.S. The programs run anywhere from two to six weeks and pricing varies according to the student’s level and need for frequency, among other factors. To complete the programs, students must learn to handle rapid-fire question and answer drills in any of 54 languages, some as diverse as Swahali and Farsi.

Who needs multilingual employees?
You won’t have to look far for IT opportunities that require foreign language skills. Macromedia Inc., based in San Francisco, recently launched a search for an international quality assurance engineer who possesses native-level fluency in Japanese and has some written knowledge of the following languages: German, Korean, French, Chinese, Spanish, Dutch, Italian Swedish, or Brazilian Portuguese. At LeapFrog, a job advertisement for a quality technician requires that candidates be bilingual in English and French or Spanish.

IT companies with clients only in the U.S. don’t have a strong need for employees who understand more than English. However, Diane Rivers, HR manager of Berbee Information Systems in Madison, WI, said there is value in speaking multiple languages in large markets.

Rick Sadowsky, systems administrator for a law firm in Des Moines, IA, said that in a firm of 36 attorneys “there has been no great need for bilingual or multilingual personnel,” especially not in regard to his position. He said he feels this is in part due to the small Des Moines technical market.

How have you capitalized on your multilingual skills?

Has learning another language or two given your career a boost? Tell us about your experience or post about it in the discussion below.