Growing up with a mother in the military, Shahidah Foster was used to “change” as a child. As someone who had to constantly adapt to new communities because of frequent moves, Shahidah would find new ways to connect with other kids through learning. Her love for languages grew as she moved from city to city, but she began to notice she was often the only black girl in her French classes. This feeling of isolation within the linguistic world stayed with her into adulthood, until she decided to do something about it and create Black Girls Learn Languages, also known as “BGLL”.
BGLL is a multiplatform digital community for black women worldwide who are language learners, language enthusiasts, language nerds, and linguists. Through her website, Shahidah shares global stories of black female linguists in hopes of inspiring other black women to enrich their lives by learning languages. In this interview with BAUCE, Shahidah, who is an African-American now based in Germany, shares how learning a new language and moving abroad could transform your life for the better.
What inspired you to travel and launch a career abroad?
Shahidah: My mother was in the military, so I’ve been traveling since I was a kid. I’ve lived in a variety of places, but it was our time in Germany that exposed me to a different culture, a different language, and a different way of living. This is what sparked my desire to travel and my passion for a global career.
Would you recommend working abroad for everyone? is there anyone that you feel like it wouldn’t be a good fit for?
Shahidah: I notice two types of people who seem to have difficulty with working abroad — people who don’t like change and people who are highly dependent on the close proximity of loved ones. For the first set of people who don’t like change, I find it a little unfortunate. Especially because life is all about continuous change and growth. If your life is the same, day in and day out for years, are you really living life?
For the people who don’t do well without their support system, as a person who is family-oriented, I can relate. I find that FaceTime, Google Voice, Whatsapp, etc. keeps me connected to my family, even though we are so far away from each other. It also helps to build a support system locally, full of friends who are as supportive, uplifting, and positive as the family members and close friends you have back home.
There’s nothing that’s a “one size fits all” in life, no matter what. There will always be people who may not be particularly suited for working abroad. Even so, I still think it’s something that people should at least try. You never really know what you’re made of until you’ve been put to the test.
How has learning a new language helped you transform your career?
Shahidah: When I started working, I was at a call center in the travel industry, trying desperately to get out. When I finally realized my experiences abroad paired with my language skills resulted in a global mindset, I started to leverage that in the job hunt and it changed trajectory of my career.
Marketing my global skills allowed me to leave a dead-end job and land a professional opportunity with a Fortune 500 German company in the aviation industry. I was offered a relocation package and worked on extended assignments in Germany. I then decided to make a change and start a career in the beauty industry, working at Sephora on Fifth Avenue, the #1 Sephora branch in North America with heavy tourist traffic. In order to get hired, I leveraged my multilingual abilities in German, French, and Spanish in lieu of my lack of practical cosmetic experience.
Most recently, I was able to secure a position on the management track with a German company in the New York City area. I submitted a proposal to work abroad remotely and as a result of my multilingual skill, was counter offered to work at headquarters (in Germany). This was after only being with the company for eight months!
If I was monolingual, I wouldn’t have landed my first global job opportunity traveling between Florida and Germany for work. I wouldn’t be in Germany right now working for a pharmaceutical industry leader while getting my master’s degree for free.
Which languages (outside of English) would you highly recommend as marketable skills for getting a job abroad?
Shahidah: Well, this is a tricky question to answer, because there are two sides to this coin. On the one side, any language is marketable if it’s your true passion. There’s a gentleman that’s a Harvard professor right now, because he speaks Geechee. I mean, who would have thought? Right?
But on the other side of the coin, there are areas of opportunity based on where in the world you’d like to work. For example, if you want to work in Europe, German is the most widely spoken native language on the continent. However, as it pertains to the most widely spoken languages worldwide, German isn’t on that list. I personally would recommend languages like Mandarin, Spanish, French, Arabic, and Portuguese, because it expands the job market even wider for you.
But don’t take my word for it, consider this: what is your passion? Do you want to live in a specific country? Or are you generally open to where the wind could take you? Understanding and being clear on your why will help you determine which language is best for you.
Tells us about Black Girls Learn Languages and why you think more women linguists should join your community?
Shahidah: Black Girls Learn Languages is a multiplatform digital community for black women who are passionate about languages. It serves so many purposes. It serves as a community because language learning can feel isolating. Especially if you don’t see anyone else learning the language that looks like you. We even have subcommunities, like WhatsApp groups for Spanish, French, Japanese, even an Arabic Belly Dance subcommunity. These are the support systems that help keep us motivated, encouraged and inspired to pursue our passions.
It also commands acknowledgment of our demographic in the language learning community. The language learning community has a white male face, which is astounding to me, considering that Africa is the most linguistically diverse continent on this earth. Based on that alone, it would make sense for the face of the language learning community to be black.
Another thing that our community does, is it allows us to feel seen and included. We’ve had this conversation over and over again in our community, about feeling overlooked. We’ve talked about how many times we went to a language event and we were either the only black person there or, one of few black people there. I mean how included could we possibly feel, when there are hardly any black people being shown as presenters or attendees for the language events?
That’s why a group of us black female language bloggers collaborated and held our first Sisters Only Language Summit for black women. Our language community showed out in incredible numbers and we had overwhelmingly positive feedback that this event “was needed”. So, if you’re a black woman looking for a place to find resources to help you learn a language, or you need support, encouragement, motivation, then our community is for you.
What tools or techniques do you recommend for learning a new language?
Shahidah: It depends on your “why”. Everyone has a different reason for learning the language. For instance, if you want to know enough to get by for a week in Italy, then apps like Drops or Duolingo can be incredibly helpful.
But, if you want to be conversationally fluent or reach near-native fluency, then I suggest my signature language learning approach which is a two-step process: intuitive learning and language arts. In the intuitive learning process, you naturally acquire the language via comprehensible input (video, audio, reading, etc.). Once you get to a point where you can have basic conversations (speaking and listening), then you move on to language arts (grammar, communication, etc.).
Would you recommend moving to a new country without a job first? Or securing a job before moving to a new country?
Shahidah: It depends on what the immigration laws are as well as your educational background and professional experience. For example, currently for Germany, as a U.S. citizen you can visit without a visa and stay for up to 90 days as a tourist. If you have a STEM degree or shortage skill and think you can land a job within that time frame, go for it!
If you think you need longer than that, there may be other options. For example, Germany has a job-seeker visa that you can apply for, which allows you to legally reside there for six months to look for a job. One of the requirements for this visa is having a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree or certification that is equivalent to the degrees or certifications offered in Germany. I know people who have lived in Germany for years that started off on a job-seeker visa.
Look into all possibilities based on your country of origin (your passport) and where you want to go, before making your decision. Again, if you think you have a good chance, why not! You only live once.
How have you adapted to living abroad as a woman of color? Have there been any challenges or advantages?
Shahidah: Living abroad as a black person in a country that has less than 1% black population is definitely a challenge. Of course, the topic that always comes up is racism and discrimination. It exists everywhere. It’s just a horse of a different color here, because they don’t have the same history like we do in the USA (slavery and Jim Crow). A lot of the racism and discrimination here stems from a lack of exposure to black people (aka ignorance).
Often times, they are out of touch with what’s offensive and what’s not, because they have not socialized with black people. I could be the first black person they have ever spoken to in life! This is mostly the case in small towns. In metropolises like Berlin, Frankfurt Hamburg or Munich, that is not the case. Even still, it can be very frustrating to deal with.
Be that as it may, living abroad as a black American woman is a completely different experience than living abroad as a black woman that is not a U.S. citizen. There is a whole lot of privilege associated with that blue passport and that American accent. I have noticed how people switch up how they talk to me or address me as soon as they find out I’m from New York City. I’ve had people go from ignoring me and giving me the evil eye, to saying “OMG how can I help you enjoy your stay here?” Literally.
On a lighter note, the lack of makeup and hair products for black people is a struggle. And when you do find them, they are not at reasonable prices. I often have to go to department stores or find vendors online (Amazon, etc.) in order to get what I need.
You are inspiring so many people to explore life from a new perspective, especially through language and living abroad. What is your advice for someone who is looking to make the lingual leap?
Shahidah: Don’t let anyone tell you what language you should learn. Learn what is best for you. You can always find a way to monetize what you do. That’s the beauty of living in the 21st century. Likewise, do not let anyone deter you from where you want to live. If you want to move to Norway, move. If you want to live in Mexico, hasta la proxima! Live your life. It’s yours to live.