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Language professionals: are you getting your money’s worth?

Many will tell you that speaking a foreign language increases your income and opens the doors to better opportunities; but how do languages influence the size of your paycheck when your entire career relies on them?

The language industry is made of a group of professionals that aid in multilingual communication, may it be written or spoken. This definition often brings to mind just a handful of professions, being foreign language teacher and translator some of the best known. However, the spectrum is much broader. Here is a list of the most relevant language-related fields:

Language fields:

  • Translation. Including localization (translation that is region-specific).
  • Interpretation: Including conference and educational (in-classroom) interpretation.
  • Bilingual Sign Language Interpretation.
  • Foreign Language Education.
  • Subtitling and Dubbing.
  • Linguistics: Including language revitalization (the efforts made to reverse the decline of a language or to revive an extinct one).

Other language-related fields:

  • Lexicography: Designing, compiling and evaluating dictionaries.
  • Terminology: Studying of terms and their use.
  • Dialect/Accent/Language Coaching: Reducing or teaching regional pronunciations.
  • Speech/Language Pathology: Working with communication and swallowing disorders.
  • Forensic Linguistics: Analyzing linguistic patterns in both written and oral evidence to identify or discard their author.
  • Language Engineer: Creating software that can be easily adapted to another language, thus simplifying the localization process.
  • Language Professional: Supporting non-native authors to find appropriate scope and quality, usually in the research setting.

Given the list above, it is clear that translation and foreign language education are just the tip of the iceberg. How much do the professionals in these fields actually make, you ask?  The answer to these questions is as complex as the industry itself. Factors such as education, experience, credentials and language pairs, as well as the characteristics of each project and the conditions of each particular market, all contribute to the bottom line. In addition to this, the amount of freelancers in the language industry, and the unwillingness to share information about real rates, make income references scarce and unreliable.

Nonetheless, and in order to shed some light on this topic, we selected 10 global cities around the world and compiled data on the average incomes of the most common language professions from several sites such as and, in which current job offers are measured by profession, location and income. You can see our full reference list at the bottom of this article. Here is what we found.

The table and graph below show the average annual income of 11 professions in the language industry, in two of the most important global cities in the world. Incomes here range from a modest 28,000 per year to a whopping amount close to 200,000 per year. However, common professions such as translator, interpreter or foreign language teacher show a somewhat consistent tendency towards the lower side of the spectrum.

Table 1. Average Annual Income

Table 1. Average Annual Income (New York vs. Paris)

Graph 1. Average Annual Income

Graph 1. Average Annual Income (New York vs. Paris)

As with every industry, incomes of the same professions vary greatly from one city to another. But let’s take this information further. The following table shows the average annual incomes of three common language professions in several cities around the globe. In this scenario, interpreters in Dubai make up to over $150,000 a year, overshadowing the income of a dubber or voice actor in New York. The lowest income also changes considerably: translators and localizers in Shanghai can make as little as just $12,000 a year, and interpreters in Mexico City may earn less than half the amount their peers in Paris and New York are making.

Table.2  Average Annual Income (around the world)

Table.2  Average Annual Income (around the world)

Graph.2  Average Annual Income (around the world)

Graph.2  Average Annual Income (around the world)

Yet, a question remains: are language professionals earning more money than the average Joe? Not everything that glitters is gold and having a dollar in Shanghai is not the same as having a dollar in Dubai. So let’s put these numbers into perspective.

 In the next table we compare the overall average income of language professionals by city with the corresponding average income by country. Here we can see a clear tendency to outweigh the medium national incomes.

Table.3 Average Annual Income (Language Industry Around the World vs Overall Income)

Table.3 Average Annual Income (Language Industry Around the World vs Overall Income)

Graph.3 Average Annual Income (Language Industry Around the World vs Overall Income)

Graph.3 Average Annual Income (Language Industry Around the World vs Overall Income)

Now let’s have a closer look. The following table compares average incomes of the corresponding countries with the average incomes of each of the above mentioned professions by city. The information is presented in percentages, may they be above or below the average incomes of each country.

table 4

Table.4 Average Annual Income (% Compared to Average Income by Country)

graph 4

Graph.4 Average Annual Income (% Compared to Average Income by Country)

Although the earnings of the language industry in cities like Mexico City and Johannesburg are more modest than those of their coequals in London and Paris, language professionals living in the latter two cities are more likely to get less value for their money. And so, despite earning similar wages in both Shanghai and Brussels, foreign language teachers living in these cities are in no way in similar conditions. According to our findings, teachers working in Shanghai can earn up to 314% more than the national average, whereas those who work in Brussels are likely to earn around 37% less than other professionals in the same country. Translators working in New York and Johannesburg are presented with a similar situation, in which New Yorkers earn about 12% less than the average, while their peers in Johannesburg can aspire to earn over 400% more than the national average. In Dubai, interpreters are expected to earn up to almost 300% more than the average pay.

Many speculate on the reasons for these peculiar numbers. Some suggest, for example, that recent economic growth in China has lead to a larger demand for foreign language teachers, giving them an upper hand in salary bargaining. Similar proposals have been made about interpreters working in the United Arab Emirates. In Mexico, above-average salaries for foreign language teachers are often explained by the country’s strong economic relationship with the United States and by an increasing amount of private institutions willing to pay better wages for native-speaker teachers. In New York, where the average income is among the highest in the United States, many translators are employed by the law system and, as a result, earn a somewhat modest paycheck, especially when compared with the income of, for example, a New York lawyer or broker. And in South Africa, the large difference between incomes is often attributed to the high unemployment rate (around 20% in 2009) as well as to the growing need for multilingual communication.

So, do language professionals actually earn more than the next guy sitting next to you? Well, as you can see, the answer depends largely on where they are living and in which field they are working.

What about you? Are you getting your money’s worth?

Alexandra Freeman