What's fueling this trend? Homeland security issues, large numbers of foreign-language speaking immigrants, and recent requirements for federally funded healthcare facilities to provide language services to non-English speaking patients, mean that people with the knowledge and familiarity with various languages are in-demand.
President Bush announced the National Security Languages Initiatives in January 2006, requesting more than $100 million in funding to develop the country's foreign language skills, especially in "critical need" languages like Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Persian, Hindi and Central Asian languages.
This increased attention to "critical need" languages puts translators and interpreters with these skills in the catbird seat. Language specialists working for the federal government earned an average of nearly $72,000 in 2005, and some specialized translators can earn more than $100,000 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
"A translator or interpreter with security clearances and knowledge of a "critical need" language can make upwards of $140,000 a year with an assignment in Iraq," says Kevin Hendzel, spokesman for the American Translators Association.
While homeland security jobs may have a high profile, the increasing number of non-English speaking immigrants in America are creating a large number of jobs as well.
"In Alexandria, Va., the local schools need to provide services for people who speak 82 different languages," Hendzel says. In addition, demand for those who can translate, interpret and have certifications to do so rises exponentially within public services, like hospitals and court systems.
"A translator or interpreter working full time can make between $40,000 and $65,000 a year on average," Hendzel says. "But many choose to work as freelancers for $200-$500 per day."
Other opportunities for translators and interpreters come from the global economy. "Open any VCR and the directions are in five languages -- that's all work done by translators," Hendzel says. "Corporations operating in many countries require a number of translators and interpreters. The European Union spends over a billion dollars a year on interpretation and translation."
But just because you're fluent in more than one language doesn't mean you can do the job of an interpreter or translator. "If you're multilingual and think you can translate, it's like being able to type and calling yourself a novelist," Hendzel says. "Translators and interpreters deal with meanings, not just words. It takes creativity and the ability to process two languages simultaneously."
If you're multilingual but not qualified to serve as an interpreter or translator, careers as an ESL teacher or multilingual hospital worker are also growing fields. A student today who is fluent in more than one language would do well to study in a specialized field like medicine, sciences or law, as each of those fields have their own language of sorts, says Hendzel, whose own specialty is physics.
Though many people call translators and interpreters "linguists," the true definition of linguist is very different.
"Classic linguists don't even need to be fluent in more than their own language," says Anthony Aristar, professor of linguistics at Eastern Michigan University and moderator of the Linguist List, a listserv for linguists. "What they need to know is how language works."
In recent years, the demand for linguists has also been increasing. With an advanced degree in linguistics, one could pursue careers in such diverse tracks as pharmaceutical research and information technology.
"Languages are dying at a large rate," Aristar says. "While there are about 7,000 languages in use today, in another 100 years, there will likely be only 2,000." Pharmaceutical companies use linguists to identify how plants are used in healing by tribes, extrapolating clues for their use from language. For example, Aristar says one of the first drugs to come from this sort of exploration is quinine, which is used for malaria.
"Linguistics today is a very formal discipline, more like mathematics that anything else," Aristar says. Training a new generation of part-detective, part-mathematician, part-scientist scholars will provide fascinating challenges, if not the more attractive salaries of the private sector.