Most native English speakers can pretty easily go through life without straying from their linguistic comfort zone. Of course, if you happened to be brought up in the most successful language in history, that is a stupendous blessing. But it can also be an impediment: you may never be forced to surmount the intellectual and emotional barrier of practicing a new language, but that also makes it near impossible to improve.
Most people do graduate from secondary school having taken several years of French, Spanish, or something else. But when they go to apply to jobs, they are often warned not to advertise their language skills. Courses in the US, especially, feature precious little useful practice; many people are so petrified of being put on the spot that they decline to mention any foreign language background at all.
Of course, if you get caught out claiming to be fluent in French, that can be embarrassing, and may even derail an interview. But, as a native English speaker who never left my home country before pretending to know Mandarin in order to go study in Shanghai at age 15, I completely disagree with the conventional wisdom. Putting yourself out there, if done the right way, is not only professionally useful, but personally rewarding.
Of course, navigating that caveat is key: how do you do it the right way? There is, unfortunately, no global standard way to refer to language skills. The Germans have a detailed scheme ranking professional fluency from A1 (which qualifies immigrants only for the most basic jobs) to C2 (more or less everything), but the rest of us are not so organised.
My first tip would be that, if you do feel at least somewhat confident, claim you are “proficient,” or maybe “intermediate.” With that label, no one is going to expect fluency, and some jobs may even offer opportunities to burnish needed skills. Even if you are “basic,” having a language listed at least implies some cultural dexterity, a valuable trait for any position. As I have mentioned before, language knowledge is a bit like having a background in physics: even if it never comes up at work, it generally makes people think you are smarter. I am bad at Latin, and I (almost) never use it at work, but the fact that I list it regularly comes up in interviews.
Of course, whether you ever have to put your skills to the test depends on the job. I have an American friend who bartended in Amsterdam for years without knowing Dutch. Europe generally is pretty English-friendly, if you are working at an international firm. In the East, things can be more complicated. Language background is, of course, preferred in Dubai or Singapore, but typically not required. In Tokyo and increasingly Hong Kong, it is generally more important.
In my experience, Latin America offers an interesting and illustrative example of why and how to burnish your language skills. Most (not all) Latin Americans who do business internationally do speak English pretty well. But they generally would prefer their own language; conversations and even meetings freely oscillate between English, Spanish, and some mix of the two. I am writing from Santiago, Chile, where I am working this summer (winter here) at a law firm. I gave a presentation last week on “el Business Judgment Rule,” in which I referred to most US legal concepts by their English names, which is pretty much the standard practice here.
Speaking from experience, putting yourself out there certainly is awkward at first. But the more you leap in, the faster you get your footing. One thing to keep in mind is that, even if people you talk to speak some English, they are just as grateful to speak their native language as you are to speak yours. And if you do get put on the spot, an excellent trick is to loop someone in who does not speak the other language. I had to do a call recently with JP Morgan Zürich, and after some German pleasantries switched to English, for the benefit of my colleague from New York.
Today, a lot of business all over the world looks and sounds largely the same. But cutting-edge apps that don’t really work are still no substitute for human intelligence, and even if you never reach business fluency, colleagues and clients will always remember you as the person who put in the effort. There will never be a replacement for the personal connection that comes from speaking the same language.