Learn a New Language For Your Library Career!

by Raymond Pun, reference and research services librarian in New York University Shanghai
peviously published 7/14/2014

Learn a New Language For Your Library Career!

languages ray pun

One of the most important and useful skill to have is knowledge of another foreign language. Libraries today are interested in having someone who has multilingual skills and experiences working in a diverse environment.

Whether you are interested in being a cataloger, rare books librarian, branch librarian or subject specialist, these positions and many others may require or prefer a candidate who has another language skill. Knowing another language introduces you to a whole new world filled with different cultural ideas and values.

Today, there are many opportunities to learn another language. This post will cover some ways to learn another language for your library profession.


What Languages to Study?

  1. You can choose the most popular language in your community: if your library serves a large Vietnamese community, it might be a challenge to learn Vietnamese but it can become a major advantage for you to connect with your library community. You can practice your language skills with locals as well.
  2. If you love challenges, you can learn the most critically needed or hardest languages according to the United Nations – foreign languages such as Arabic, Russian and Chinese are difficult but you can really brand yourself for an appropriate library position if you know those languages.
  3. Focus on your goals: if you want to be a European Studies or Middle Eastern Studies librarian, you will need to know another language and sometimes two other ones. Being a subject or area studies specialist may require more than one foreign language because you are collecting materials in their languages and also you may need to provide research support in various languages. If you want remain competitive in the job market, knowing another language can also introduce you to positions in technical services, collection development or rare books. It all depends on your plans.


Resources to Support your Language Study

  1. One of the most popular learning language initiatives is Skyping with people from different countries. You can find a friend or partner to exchange languages with you – you can teach English while they teach you their native language. You can also write emails or send letters in the language or keep a blog of your writing. Skype also have groups where you can find or partner with other people learning languages as well.
  2. Read newspapers, comic books, popular magazines and fiction in the language you want to learn. Popular fiction works well because you can use the English version to help your reading comprehension. Your local library should have a collection of these works. If not, you can search for resources easily online such as Google Books, Hathi Trust, Digital Public Library of America, etc.
  3. You can also learn languages through social media or language sites such as YouTube, BBC Languages, Wikipedia articles, Duolingo, and your local library’s databases like Mango Languages, etc.
  4. Watching T.V., listening to the radio or music online, these are also ways to get you thinking and hearing your language passively. It’s also fun to read transcriptions or captions at the same time because it may help you recognize the spell and pronunciation.
  5. If you have time and money, you can take a language class in your local community college, or continuing education course, or if you work for a school, you can get free tuition as well. Some graduate programs also offer classes in “reading levels” meaning they will teach you to read the language but not to speak it, it is useful for technical services and collection development purposes.
  6. Online tools and dictionaries: there are online flashcards you can make to support your study such as cram.com; or set “daily email” of new vocabulary such as Spanish Word a Day. You can even use apps to study your targeted language now. Learn language forum is my favorite site to learn the latest resources or tips in learning a difficult language.
  7. The most expensive approach: travel! Go to the country and explore, use the language, and practice it! But most of all have fun learning it. It’s not just for a job but also for your life.


raymondp1Bio: Raymond Pun is currently a reference and research services librarian in New York University Shanghai where he provides research support to faculty and students. Previously he worked as a librarian in the New York Public Library where he offered research and instructional services, and coordinated outreach and programming services. In 2012, the Library Journal nominated him as a Mover and Shaker and this year, he is one of the ALA Emerging Leaders. He has presented and published widely on various topics such as Chinese cultural history, international librarianship, digital literacy, etc. He holds an M.L.S and M.A in East Asian Studies and you can find him on Linkedin and discover his travel blog!


Find INALJ’s interview with Raymond Pun here!

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list INALJ.com (formerly I Need a Library Job). Founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard, INALJ’s social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ.com. INALJ has had over 19.5 Million page views and helped thousands of librarians and LIS folk find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in a month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 & 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro. She presents whenever she can, most recently thrice at the American Library Association's Annual Conference as well as breakout talk presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa and as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting, at the National Press Club, McGill University, the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She was a 2013 Library Journal Mover & Shaker and has served on the University of Maryland iSchool Board from 2014-2017. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has relocated to being nomadic. She runs her husband’s moving labor website, KhanMoving.com, fixes and sells old houses and assists her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food as well. She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay. 


  10 comments for “Learn a New Language For Your Library Career!

  1. Hannah
    October 5, 2015 at 12:42 pm

    And don’t forget that there are languages other than foreign languages. If I had the time and patience, I would totally learn Python or Pearl – computer language is a great type of other language to learn that helps bridge that gap between technologically-minded people and non-tech people.

    But German is first on the list of foreign languages for me – just to gain a different understanding of that particular culture that has a different perspective of libraries and information.

  2. July 19, 2014 at 8:01 am

    This can definitely be helpful advice for everyone but I feel it’s especially good for those who live in countries where there is more than 1 official language; my frame of reference here is Canada. We have 2 official languages, french and english, those job seekers fluent in both have many opportunities that are not available to someone who is only fluent in one or the other. That’s why I’m trying to get my fluency in french back up to where it was when my father passed. I’ve tried some of these tips but I haven’t tried others. I didn’t even know this skype method was a thing! I would love to learn more about that and explore that it sounds like it would be very close to a full immersion experience.

    Another thing we considered doing, since we live in a college and university town, was renting a room in our house to an exchange student who speaks french and wants to learn english, so that we could teach each other. Not an option anymore though as a family member moved into our spare bedroom.

    The usefulness of this all comes down to the individual, what type of positions they want to chase and where they want to chase them. Someone who speaks more than 1 language is going to have the flexibility to go to more places than someone who only speaks 1.

  3. July 19, 2014 at 1:37 am

    While I haven’t found my German or French language skills all that helpful, even in an academic setting, but I am currently trying to up my Spanish fluency. In a public library setting I find knowing Spanish extremely helpful. You never know when your language skills will come in handy.

  4. Jeannine
    July 17, 2014 at 12:01 pm

    I have to admit that my Western European language skills have yet to land me a position in a library (of any sort). I would’ve liked a course (in my MLS program) on grant writing, too.

    • July 17, 2014 at 12:14 pm

      Hmm, both comments seem to think this article implies learn a language=get a job. It doesn’t. But learning another language has helped many people, including the author.

      • James Cohn
        July 18, 2014 at 7:05 pm


        I think the issue should be considered in terms of opportunity costs. The most sought after applicants will be those who combine business and technical skills. Learning additional languages is an option which probably won’t be quite as useful for current candidates. A knowledge of Hebrew and Arabic was a real asset in getting me my first two jobs (my B.A. in Spanish Literature wasn’t that helpful). But those two jobs came along in 2001 and 2006 respectively.

        • July 18, 2014 at 10:33 pm


          I don’t think that it is an issue that can have blanket statements- do this not that due to opportunity costs- applied to it. It still is not bad advice as I know many librarians who have found jobs in the US and abroad and their language skills were key in making them desirable candidates. Not for every job.

          I disagree that learning additional languages probably won’t be quite as useful for current candidate. It can be and Raymond’s experience is not unique.

          There are other skills that one can get that depending on the job may hold more value. That does not disqualify Raymond’s advice which holds value and merit too.

        • July 18, 2014 at 10:38 pm

          Also James, it sounds like you might want to write an article on skills you see as valuable to candidates. See our blogging guidelines on INALJ.com to submit ideas. :)

  5. July 16, 2014 at 11:43 pm

    Love this advice, Ray!

  6. James Cohn
    July 15, 2014 at 9:09 am

    I think librarian would be better advised to pursue skills such as grant writing, marketing, web authoring, or computer programming. I can read 5 languages (including some Arabic), and while that knowledge was helpful 10-12 years ago, it doesn’t seem to be so useful today.

Comments are closed.