Using Your Language Skills Professionally – An Interview with Critical Language Mentor Co-Founder Garrett Guinivan

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Garrett is the president and co-founder of Critical Language Mentor, a mentorship website for the Class A critical in-demand languages of the United States. CLM’s goal is to create the largest crowdsourced resource and mentorship website for language learners. Garrett is also an officer in the US Army serving as a linguist and a language enabled analyst in the government-contracting sector. In this interview, we explore how learning a critical language can open up professional opportunities in the future as well, shed light on how companies and organizations evaluate an applicant’s language skills and provide some tips on how you can improve your language level.

What initially drew you to study Persian and Arabic?

I originally started learning Arabic while I attended Penn State for my bachelor’s degree in Agriculture Science.  I studied two semesters of Arabic before I traveled to Jordan for a trip with my international agriculture class.  I was able to use my very crude, basic MSA Arabic with Jordanians and loved it. I saw how much they appreciated my attempts at Arabic even though I looked like John Cena (they loved John Cena, luckily).

Once I graduated from Penn State in 2010, I kept up with Arabic and began learning Persian on my own while working full time in the agriculture sector.  I liked my job but also wanted to continue with my language pursuit, and serve my country.  I applied to multiple ROTC and language programs across the country and accepted an offer to Indiana University for a Critical Language Scholarship as a Masters Student in their Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures Department (not the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies).

How have your language skills opened career opportunities for you both as an army officer and in the private sector?

My language skills have opened up so many doors in my career both on the military and civilian sectors. My language abilities help me lead linguists in my current job, along with providing context, speaking directly with linguists, and transferring cultural and linguistic nuances to government and military customers.

What are the most critical languages you currently see in the government contracting / defense space and why?

Critical Languages include Arabic, Farsi, Hindi, Chinese, Russian, Turkish and few others defined by the US government.  When I spoke with an Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) recruiter at a job event, he said you cannot go wrong learning Chinese, Arabic and Russian (CAR), since we will always need linguists in these languages.  Obviously needs will ebb and flow but if you look at current events, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Farsi and Korean will always be languages in need.

When it comes to the cyber realm, how useful are foreign language skills and what sorts of career opportunities are there?

The cyber realm presents many possibilities to use languages, especially in the threat intelligence and intelligence fields.  It’s no secret our main cyber adversaries are Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and other non-sate actors, so by knowing Russian, Chinese, Farsi, Korean, and Arabic, you will be a key asset.  Also, on the defensive side of cyber too, our partners and allies also have large cyber organizations which the US government and civilian sectors partner with.  Think Arabic with our gulf state partners, French and German.

How should someone measure if their language skills are up to par with private sector requirements?

Overall, you need to have a tangible language score for your resume, no excuses.  Whether it’s a DLPT if you are government or military, an ILR exam or ACTFL, you need to have actual scores for your language proficiency.  Having “advanced-level” on your resume means nothing to a recruiter and means nothing as it relates to hard skills. Especially for work in the government sector you need to have test scores verified to even begin the process to meet the government requirements for work.

How large is the language skills gap between recent college graduates and the skill-level required of employers?

Usually, there is a very large gap between academic and what is needed to start, this is in general for the ‘normal’ 4-year, 3-day a week language program.  Honestly, without a summer intensive program or overseas immersion, you will likely come out of college with a 1+ or 2 level on the ILR scale.  There are always exceptions but it is difficult to gain a higher proficiency without a significant amount of extra studying and self-learning.

What tips can you recommend to people who want to become a language analyst/linguist in the private sector to maintain or improve their skills?

Foreigncy is one of the best-advanced level training platforms I have found. When I was out of school, I used this website with a few other resources and increased my DLPT score 1/.5 on Reading and Listening in roughly 6 months.  Another couple of resources I used include DLI GLOSS, the Memrise Flashcard App and I routinely listening to Farsi podcasts and Audible books in Farsi (there are a ton of in language books for Chinese, Russian, Hebrew and Arabic as well).  I really encourage using the ‘dead time’ in your day i.e. (commuting on the metro, on the bus or driving, walking to class).  Listen to language podcasts, audiobooks or read books about your country of interest. You really need to immerse yourself in the language at all possible times.  For example, listen to YouTube channels of your target languages instead of rocking out to T-Pain and T-Swift at work (I am old but those are the best references I have).  Listening to newscasts and cultural programs will constantly train your ear in the language.  This goes for any level of language learner because you can always pick up small things and new vocabulary no matter your language level.

What is the most rewarding part of being an Army Linguist / private sector language analyst?

For me it’s getting to use the skills which I learned in school, which as many college graduates know, this is not always the case with your actual job and major.  Every day is different because you always seem to learn or recognize a new word and understand how they’re used in different contexts.  In addition, the second language opens your eyes to a whole other world when you read foreign language articles. Reading in a foreign language provides you with insights into the culture and nuances between how the language is used.

What are CLM’s plans and goals for the future?

Right now, we have a large language partnership “Operation Language Mentor” between Critical Language Mentor, Indiana University, University of Maryland and No One Left Behind.

We will be creating language mentor programs, for Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) families arriving from Iraq and Afghanistan, and creating in language quick reference guides for families living in the DC area. This pilot program will assist hundreds of immigrant families in assimilating in the United States and allow them to improve their English language skills to open up further opportunities for them.

We hope to pilot this program in the DC area and then push it out across the country as a template for NOLB to use.  We then hope to continue this program for other immigrant assistance organization across the country. We are very excited to collaborate with two great university language programs and benefit SIVs who served alongside US forces who now living in the US.


If you’re interested in more blog posts like this, check out The Daily Study Method to Defeat the ILR


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