Ace the job interview (even if you’re not fluent in English)

You have the skills for the job, but how do you make a good impression when you can’t speak the language?

Interviewing for a job in the U.S. can be intimidating if you aren’t fluent in English. Heck, it’s hard enough for native English speakers to land a job, so having a language barrier can be a lot of added stress.

Take a deep breath. Whether you’re interviewing for a part-time position or your dream job, we have some tips that will help you not only make a good impression but convince the company you’re the best person for the job.

Overcoming The Language Barrier

The first thing you’ll need to do is get comfortable steering the conversation without studying the whole English language. Knowing a few language tricks can help you get back on track and talking about the things you can explain well.

Language tip #1: Study the terms

In the week before the interview, identify any difficult terms or industry-specific questions that may come up. You can find many of these in the job description itself, or on the company’s website. If you can’t find a job description, call the hiring manager and ask for one. Study these terms and questions ahead of time and bring a notepad with you for quick reference.

Language tip #2 Fall back to past tense

The most common English mistake non-natives make is speaking in mixed tense. To keep your language consistent, use past tense to talk about your career and experience. Using past tense is an easy fallback, and your interviewer isn’t likely to notice or be distracted by it. (You can also simplify your resume by using past tense verbs.)

Language tip #3: Remember to ask this question:

During the interview, you may get asked a few questions you don’t understand. Anytime this happens, remember to ask “Can you say it another way?” and the interviewer can quickly rephrase the question. This is a great tactic that helps you hear familiar words, and it doesn’t put a halt to the conversation.

You can also ask the interviewer for a “synonym,” meaning a word similar to the one you don’t understand. For example, if you were asked about your “certifications” and didn’t understand the word, your interviewer could use a synonym like “qualifications,” which you might understand better.

Make sure you’re heard

Be sure to speak slowly and enunciate your words throughout the interview. Listen carefully to the interviewer and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification. Tip: If you use a pocket translator, ask your interviewer if it’s allowed on the job and in the interview, but try not to rely too heavily on it.

Land the job

We also have a few general recommendations for interviewing regardless of whether English is your second language. After you’re comfortable with company terminology, use these tips to convince them to hire you.

Learn all you can

First, be prepared! Learn all you can about the job (again, using the job description), and get to know the company. Try to learn the company’s history, how the company makes money, identify their competitors, and know what challenges the company may face today and in the future. Not only will this help you look interested in the job, but you can use this information to position yourself as a solution to the challenges they face.

Identify your success stories

You need to be able to communicate how you solve problems and meet goals, and you can do this by identifying success stories from your career. This can show you are adaptable and perform well in a variety of situations. This tactic is especially important if you are switching career fields or don’t have related job experience.

We recommend using the STAR approach for explaining success stories:

S: Identify the challenging Situation you faced

T: Describe the Task you had in the situation (your responsibilities)

A: Explain the Actions you took to solve the problem

R: Describe the Results of your actions.

Practice answering the questions

Another part of being prepared is to practice interviewing with a friend. You can do this by identifying 10-20 common interview questions, have an English-speaking friend or family member ask them, and then do your best answering without reading from notes. The first few times will be rough, but your comfort level and performance will improve the more you practice. It’s best to practice in a setting similar where you’ll interview, like an office or library meeting room.

Bring your own questions

This interview is not just for the company to make sure you’re right for the job; it’s your opportunity to make sure the company is a good fit for you. Asking your own questions also makes you look more selective which gives the company incentive to hire faster. We like these example questions from, and also have a few of our own to add:

  • How diverse is the company workplace?
  • Have you hired foreign nationals before?
  • Are you willing to sponsor my path to permanent residency?

How to dress

Be sure to dress appropriately for the interview. Most interviewers say that being dressed more formally is better than being dressed too casually. The Career Services office at Emory University offers an excellent tip sheet for what is and is not professional business attire.

American greetings and etiquette

Here are a few unspoken etiquette rules that will help make the interview a little less awkward for you:

  • Greet the interviewer with eye contact and a firm handshake.
  • Nod and smile while the interviewer is talking. (This is proven to activate positive thoughts in others.)
  • Don’t interrupt the interviewer.
  • Arrive 5 – 10 minutes early. Have a travel plan in place to get you there with time to spare.
  • Remove any gum, mints or candy before you arrive.
  • Speak loud and clear.
  • Turn off your phone.

Practice these when role-playing. Once the interview ends, thank the interviewer for their time. Then, send a handwritten thank you note. We recommend a note that includes at least two reasons why the company should hire you. You can drop this off before you leave or send later that day.

Don’t give up

Finally, trust in your preparation and hope for the best! Your dedication will be appreciated and is sure to pay off. While you may not get hired after your first interview, your chances of getting a job will increase by practicing these tips. Don’t give up and keep on applying for the jobs you want.

Getting a job is a major step toward integrating into a new community and can be very helpful if you’re working toward citizenship. Know that the skills you bring to the American workforce have a positive impact on our economy. We’re here to give you resources and make your job hunt as stress-free as possible.

Did we miss anything? What helped you get your current job? Any resources you’d like to share?

Email for help in regards to obtaining your US H-1B work visa, or getting sponsorship.

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