You Don’t Have to Speak Another Language to be a Global Agent

Speak different languages


No hablo español!  我不会说中国话。

Et je ne parle pas français non plus.

   No problem!


If you are concerned that you won’t find success as a global real estate practitioner because you don’t speak another language, think again. In the international business world, you’ll find that English tends to be the common language. While Americans, generally, are not as aggressive when it comes to learning foreign languages, in countries throughout the rest of the world, it is not at all uncommon for people to speak more than one language. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has noted, “Only 18% of Americans report speaking a language other than English, while 53% of Europeans (and increasing numbers in other parts of the world) can converse in a second language.” Chances are that many of the foreign buyers/sellers that you’ll encounter will have some command of the English language. However, if their English is broken, or if they don’t speak it at all, what should you do?

Obviously, foreign language proficiency is a huge advantage, but it certainly is not a deal-maker, and it doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker either. There are ways you can get around your foreign language deficiencies and still work with international clients successfully.

Listed below are resources and tips to help you overcome language obstacles.

Seek Talented Teammates
If your talents don’t include linguistic proficiencies, turn to your teammates. Many real estate firms employ multilingual professionals who can assist with translation and interpretation. If your office does not already have a multilingual staffer, think about hiring a buyer’s agent or office assistant, on either a full or part-time basis, who speaks the language(s) that you need assistance with the most.

If you don’t have the resources to hire a new employee, think outside the box. Is there is a college or university nearby your office? If so, look into contracting a multilingual or international graduate student. Additionally, many universities have internship programs where students have the opportunity to intern in exchange for course credit. Perhaps you can hire a student who is studying real estate, business, marketing, or another relevant field, to work for a semester in your office. Not only will you benefit from their language skills, but it may also be a way to generate leads. Many families of international students purchase homes for their children to reside while they study in the United States.

Tip: If you are not used to working with interpreters, be sure to practice before business meetings. Not only will you need to get used to speaking and allowing time for translation, but you also want to ensure that the interpreter understands the technical terms of real estate. The ideal hire would have an understanding of the real estate industry in both the United States and the home country(s) of your foreign clients. However, if your translator does not have a real estate background, spend some time educating him/her before they accompany you on client meetings.

Turn to Technology
With the real estate industry becoming more globalized every day, and with the assistance of international lead generating sites, such as® International which automatically translates for-sale and rental listings on® in 11 languages, it’s likely that the frequency of overseas customers contacting you will increase. If your initial exchange leads to further e-mail, telephone/Skype, or in-person communications, and you discover there are language barriers, take advantage of the many translation tools available to you through your smartphone. Listed below are a few resources that may be of assistance.

Available on iOS and Android, this no cost app allows you to translate words, phrases and text in over 80 languages. Users can also select between different dialects, male and female, and even control the speaking rate. iTranslate provides a dictionary, text-to-speech, and Romanization (characters are converted into English letters). Voice recognition services are also available via the premium upgrade, iTranslate Voice ($1.99).

Google Translate
This free app which interprets speech, text, handwriting, and even text in images, can translate between 80 languages and provides results either written or spoken aloud. If you are trying to communicate with someone and you don’t share a common language, Google Translate’s “conversation mode” can be very helpful. Additionally, Google Translate offers offline language packs that will enable you to use the app when you are not connected to a network.

SayHi Translate
For $1.99, you can download the SayHi App which translates your voice in 41 languages. An additional 40+ languages and dialects are available through the premium package ($2.99 for 3 months/$4.99 for 6 months). The app is designed to accommodate conversations where each side talks and the app speaks the translation aloud. Additionally, the full text of every translation is provided on screen. The app boasts high quality speech recognition with a 95% accuracy rate. App is only available for iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad owners.

Tip: Double check online translations. When using translation apps/websites, be aware of their limitations. Ask a fluent speaker to edit documents. Online- or software-generated translations cannot capture the nuances of another language. Try to avoid using colloquialisms and acronyms that may not make sense when translated into other languages.

Know your Resources
Did you know that many state REALTOR® associations offer translated copies of forms and contracts? While the buyer/seller will have to sign the official version in English, non-English speakers can use translated copies for points of reference. Reach out to your state association to find out what resources are available to you.

Additionally, consider giving foreign speaking clients a glossary of real estate terms and jargon in their own language. These can be obtained from the Federal National Mortgage Association, Fannie Mae.

Strengthen Cross Cultural Business Skills
Non-verbal communication skills can be just as important as verbal skills. When you are working with a foreign client, depending on where he/she is from, you may need to adjust your behavior and practices to ensure your customer is comfortable. For example, the pace of “getting down to business” will differ when you are working with a client from China, versus a client from Canada, versus a client from Mexico. And, depending on their cultural norms, some clients could be offended if you ask them about their families, while others could be offended if you don’t ask them about their families. Even if you don’t speak their language, it is very important that you have an understanding of your client’s culture.

Tip: Get your Certified International Property Specialist (CIPS) designation. In the CIPS courses you'll learn about business practices and social behaviors specific to individual countries and cultures. Elective courses are divided up by regional focus- Europe, the Americas (Caribbean, North, Central, and South America) and Asia/Asia Pacific. Classes are offered online and in the classroom. For more information, visit

Last But Not Least…..Make an Effort
As noted above, there are many resources available to help you work with non-English speaking customers. But, if your plan to grow your global business includes concentrating the majority of your efforts on a specific country or region, we encourage you to make an effort and begin to study their language. Even if you learn only a few key phrases, knowing how to greet your customers in their native language will go a long way, and ultimately, it will make your job easier.

Tip: You don’t have to spend money signing up for language classes or purchasing programs to study at home. As members of the National Association of REALTORS®, you can access language books/programs at no charge via NAR’s library.