How to Become a Foreign Language Tour Guide

The best way to ensure that you’ll keep up a language is to make the language a part of your job. There’s endless permutations of how to do so, but being a foreign language tour guide is something I’ve done, I’ve enjoyed and that has allowed me to make decent money. Here are some thoughts on become a foreign language tour guide.

Tour Guiding at home vs. Tour Leading Abroad

First of all, when people think of foreign languages and tour guiding, some might immediately think about accompanying a group, usually of people from your home country, on travel overseas. In this post, I’m going to be talking about guides who lead groups of foreign visitors around the city that he or she lives in (or near) because that’s what I have experience doing. From a language-use perspective, I actually think this is better than going abroad with people who speak your language, because you’ll be interacting with people in their language (a foreign language for you) instead of using your native language to tell people about the place you’re visiting. I also don’t have experience accompanying American groups abroad, but maybe I’ll cover that in the future with a guest post.

I first started tour guiding when I lived in New York City. I got my first job working as a guide a month after moving to the city, and worked my way up to working with private clients. I worked with Spanish, German and Russian-speaking groups, and I also worked with English-speaking clients. I knew other foreign-language guides who worked exclusively with foreign-language groups, but it seemed like it takes more time to establish yourself in that market. That’s because although there’s a big demand for foreign-language guides in New York City, it takes longer to connect with all the right actors than it does for English-language guiding jobs.

Why I like guiding:

1. Guiding uses language skills.

2. It’s active and it’s outdoors. I get tired of sitting inside at a desk, which means I can get tired of doing translation work pretty quickly.

3. You get to meet people and interact with them. Another reason that I didn’t always love translating is that it’s not social at all.

4. Tour guiding is awesome for polyglots, because you can work in lots of different languages. Monday Russian, Tuesday German, Wednesday Spanish, Thursday who knows? That’s not possible in a lot of language jobs.

5. It’s low-stakes. That might sound inconsequential, but I would freak out thinking that I might make a mistake and send someone to jail (if you’re a court interpreter or doing court translations) or kill someone (medical interpreter). The worst that will happen if you mess up is someone’s vacation is slightly less awesome. I can live with that.

6. It pays decently. The going rate for foreign-language tours in New York (three years ago) was $50 per hour, which meant I could make decent money without working all the time.

Tour Guiding isn’t just fun and games, though. Here were some of the difficulties:

1. Although I like working with people, I’m not extraordinarily outgoing, and there were some times when I had trouble connecting with the people I was guiding. This is particularly a challenge when you’re working with a private client – a couple or family – and you really need to connect with them on a personal level. Some of the families I worked with were incredibly wealthy, and it was a challenge to find something that we shared and could connect over.

2. Some clients are difficult and it’s not the guide’s fault. You just have to get through the tour and somehow keep a smile on your face.

3. Some situations are difficult. Buses break down, traffic gets closed for presidential visits, it rains. It is challenging to prevent unexpected snafus from ruining the tour for both you and your clients.

4. You’re really stuck to a particular location, and if you move, you have to start all over again. You also have to live in a reasonably tourism-friendly place in order for guiding to be viable at all.

Here’s how to become a multi-lingual tour guide:

1. Live in a city people visit. Seriously. I’ve continued guiding since moving back to Portland, Oregon, but it’s not nearly as much of a draw as New York, and my jobs are very, very sparse. If I were to stay in a city like New York (or Paris, Beijing, London, San Francisco or other major city), I’d have way more jobs than I do.

2. Know your city. Guiding, in a foreign language or not, requires getting to know the city really well. This means everything from the roads and traffic regulations to history to the region’s geology.

3. Get licensed. Some cities (like New York) require a license to be a tour guide. It’s easy in some places, difficult in others. Portland doesn’t require anything – it’s still the wild west, I guess.

4. Practice public speaking. Guides often speak in front of 50+ people on a bus, and that is scary for some people – and often doubly scary if it’s in your second or third language. Practice and recognize that you’ll goof up sometimes.

5. Once you’re licensed and ready to go, find out which companies send groups to your city and contact them directly. Look for Destination Management Companies (called DMOs) in your area or region. These companies manage everything about a groups stay in a particular city or region, and they often are the people who hire guides directly. Finding foreign-language guides in most places isn’t that easy, so they will be very glad to hear from you.

6. Network with other guides. I’ve gotten a lot of jobs through connections to other guides, and I’ve also recommended other guides for jobs. Because it’s not easy to find foreign language guides, it’s not uncommon for a company to contact me, hire me for a job and then ask me if I know any other guides they could contact. So having a good relationship with other guides is essential to building business as a foreign-language guide.

Lastly, if you speak Swedish and want to give tours in Portland, Oregon, contact me! I have a client who is looking for Swedish guides! So don’t think you can’t possibly find gigs with a relatively obscure language in a relatively quiet tourism market. It might not be enough to pay all the bills, but even sporadic gigs will give you extra spending money and allow you to get paid to practice language skills.