5 Inspiring International Women Who are Bilingual

If you’ve spent any time on social media over the past twelve months, you’ll know that 2017 was a big year for women. It was a year fuelled by global activism for women’s equality: with the birth of movements like #MeToo, and #TimesUp, women everywhere have been making their voices heard like never before.

According to recent findings from the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Global Gender Gap Report, gender parity is over 200 years away. There’s never been a better time to work for change, which is why women everywhere will be promoting the theme of #PressforProgress in 2018.

In honor of International Women’s Day, we wanted to highlight five women who took the time to learn English – sometimes finding inventive ways to teach themselves – as part of their incredible stories of success. Often working against overwhelming odds, these extraordinary women seized every opportunity to learn the skills they wanted before taking their place as entrepreneurs, academics, campaigners and leaders.


1. Malala Yousafzai – Education activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner

International Women's Day: Malala Yousafzai
©Malala Yousafzai by Southbank Centre


Malala Yousafzai was always passionate about education. She eagerly learned English and Urdu at school in the Swat Valley of Pakistan, and dreamed of becoming a teacher, a doctor or a politician when she was older.

But in 2008 the Taliban occupied Swat and banned girls in from attending school. 11-year-old Yousafzai began blogging for the BBC, describing the pain of being stripped of her right to education. By 2011, she was publicly campaigning for girls’ education, speaking to journalists around the world in English to bring global attention to her fight.  

In 2012, Yousafzai was shot in the head by a Taliban gunman. Amid the outpour of global support after her attempted assassination, she recovered in Britain and continued her campaign. With her father’s support, she set up the Malala Fund, dedicated to helping girls access education. In 2014 she became the youngest person to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Yousafzai’s acceptance speech was in English, Urdu and Pashto.


2. Sandra Cauffman – NASA scientist

International Women's Day: Sandra Cauffman
©Celebrating Women’s History Month – Getting Excited About STEM (NHQ201703280011) by NASA HQ Photo


At the age of seven, Sandra Cauffman watched the Apollo landing on her neighbor’s TV and decided she wanted to reach the moon. She has since become the first Costa Rican woman to lead a Mars-related mission and witnessed rockets ascend into space carrying equipment she helped create.

Living in poverty in Costa Rice, Cauffman’s mother worked three jobs to provide for their family, and sometimes struggled to keep a roof over their heads, but she encouraged her daughter’s ambitions and always pushed her to focus on her studies.

Eventually, Cauffman’s mother married a US citizen, and the family resettled in Virginia. Cauffman didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t stop her. She worked hard to gain the fluent English skills that would allow her to pass her TOEFL©, study at an American university and pursue her dream of working in space travel.

Today, Cauffman is one of the most influential female scientists in the US and has been highlighted by UN Women as a positive example for women and girls.

Hand-picked related content: LEARN ENGLISH FOR YOUR CAREER

3. Immaculée Ilibagiza – Motivational speaker

International Women's Day: Immaculée Ilibagiza
©Immaculée Ilibagiza by Rwanda Embassy DC


In 1994, an estimated 800,000 people were killed during the Rwandan genocide. Over 91 terrifying days, eight Tutsi women hid in the small, secret bathroom of a Hutu minister, praying that the killers outside would never find them. One of these eight was Immaculée Ilibagiza.

Ilbagiza’s father sent her to seek refuge with the pastor when a Hutu mob attacked their home. Crammed into the tiny bathroom as the violence raged on, 22-year-old Ilibagiza felt inspired by God to learn English so that one day she could work for peace at the United Nations. And so, living under constant threat of death, she spent the following months teaching herself using an English Bible and dictionary she’d borrowed from the pastor.

When the war ended, the women emerged from their hiding spot to find their country in ruins. Just as she’d planned, Ilibagiza used her new English skills to work at the UN, first in Kigali and then in New York. Today, Ilibagiza has written several books about her experience, founded a charity supporting Rwandan orphans, and travels the world lecturing on faith, peace and forgiveness.


4. Roya Mahboob – CEO and cofounder of the Digital Literacy Fund in Afghanistan

International Women's Day: Roya Mahboob
©140.SWITCHPOINT.2017 by IntraHealth International


The first time Roya Mahboob used a computer, she was 16. The Taliban government had fallen, and Mahboob suddenly had the freedom to enter an Internet café. She had always been shy, but now she could talk to people all over the world, and by using apps like Yahoo Messenger to chat with English-speakers, she learned the language herself.

Mahboob enrolled in a United Nations technology course for women, before taking a degree in computer science at Herat University.  At the age of 23, Mahboob launched her own IT services firm, employing mostly female engineers, then began setting up IT classrooms in Afghan girls’ schools. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2013,

Today, Mahboob runs the Digital Citizen Fund, helping other women and girls build digital literacy.


5. Angela Merkel – Chancellor of Germany

International Women's Day: Angela Merkel
©Angela Merkel – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2011 by World Economic Forum


Growing up behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin, Angela Merkel had little access to English. Even though her mother was a teacher, Merkel’s English skills were almost entirely self-taught, spending her youth reading the UK communist newspaper, The Morning Star (the only English newspaper imported from the UK).

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Merkel entered politics. She quickly rose to become chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Party, before making history as Germany’s first female Chancellor. Today, Merkel is one of the most powerful leaders in the world.

Merkel uses her English when addressing the UK Parliament and to converse privately with fellow-leaders such as Barack Obama.


Are you interested in increasing your English skills and joining this amazing community of bilingual women? Who are the women that have inspired you the most? Share your thoughts with us on our Facebook page or in the comment section below.

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