College Foreign Language Requirement: What Is It and How Does It Work?

Ever wonder why there are foreign language requirements for college? Learn why you may need to study a foreign language and how to get a waiver.

portrait of Kim-Ling Sun
by Kim-Ling Sun

Published September 16, 2022

Edited by Tyler Epps, and Hannah Muniz
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College Foreign Language Requirement: What Is It and How Does It Work?
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To develop a campus of well-rounded students, many colleges require applicants to have completed certain general education classes in high school. Taking a foreign language is often one of these requirements, in addition to taking classes in core subjects like math and English.

But not everyone learns a language in high school. A 2018 Pew Research Center study found that only 20% of K-12 students in the U.S. take foreign language classes, compared to 92% of European students.

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What's more, many colleges require students to take one or more semesters of a foreign language as an undergraduate in order to graduate.

Learn more about how college foreign language requirements work, how the two types of requirements differ, and how to get a foreign language requirement waived.

What Is a Foreign Language Requirement?

There are two types of foreign language requirements for college.

The first type focuses on admission. For many colleges, you have to take a certain number of foreign language classes in high school just to be able to apply. Usually, colleges expect you to take at least two years of a single foreign language.

The second type of foreign language requirement is for graduation. Many majors and colleges require you to pass one or more semesters of a foreign language in college.

The credits you earn from those courses typically count toward your general education requirements. Without them, you won't be able to graduate.

According to the Modern Language Association, some of the most popular foreign languages U.S. college students study include:

Do All Colleges Require a Foreign Language?

Most competitive colleges have a foreign language prerequisite for first-year applicants. For example, the University of Texas at Austin requires all first-year applicants, regardless of major, to complete two credits of a foreign language.

The only exception to the foreign language admission requirement is if you have a waiver. Waivers are usually reserved for exceptional cases, such as when a high school does not offer a foreign language.

Some colleges strongly recommend (but don't require) you to take a foreign language in high school. This means that while the admissions committee would prefer to see foreign language classes on your transcript, they won't disqualify your application if you didn't take any.

In terms of college graduation requirements, many universities require you to complete one or more semesters of a foreign language as part of your gen ed requirements. Colleges believe studying a foreign language expands your worldview and can open doors to more careers.

Being fluent in another language can be especially beneficial in the tech, education, business, and law sectors, as well as in other fields that play a key role in the global economy.

Speak to your academic advisor to learn more about your college's or major's foreign language requirements.

How Many Years of Foreign Language Are Required for College?

Colleges want to prepare you for the global marketplace. As a result, many schools recommend or require that prospective students take at least two years of a foreign language in high school.

Note that these two years must typically be in the same language. So if you take one year of French but switch to Spanish the next year, you may need to take an additional year of Spanish (or French) to qualify for admission.

Foreign Language Requirements for Selected Colleges
School Foreign Language Undergraduate Admission Requirement
Arizona State University 2 years
Cornell University 3 years
University of Central Florida 2 years
University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign 2 years
The Ohio State University 2 years
University of Pennsylvania 2 years (if available at your high school)
Texas A&M University 2 years

Colleges that require a foreign language for graduation typically require 9-12 credits in the same language. Languages can be modern, such as Spanish and Japanese, or classical, such as Latin.

If you previously took a foreign language in high school or speak a language other than English fluently or natively, you may be able to place out of lower-level language courses by demonstrating proficiency in the language. You can do this through the IB program, by passing an AP language test, or by scoring highly on your college's language placement test.

At the University of Notre Dame's College of Arts and Letters and College of Science, 9-12 of the credits you take for graduation must be in a foreign language.

Similarly, Northwestern University's School of Communication requires undergraduates to complete the third quarter of a second-year language sequence, earning a grade of C or higher.

Each college has its own graduation requirements, so check with your academic advisor to determine whether your degree requires a foreign language.

Can You Get the Foreign Language Requirement Waived for Admission?

While many colleges have foreign language requirements for applicants, they understand that this requirement may pose challenges for some.

In that case, you can petition the college to waive the foreign language requirement for admission. Here's how.

Accommodations

Many colleges can waive the foreign language requirement as part of a student's academic accommodations.

If you have an individualized education program or 504 accommodations from high school, speak to your academic advisor to go over your documentation and determine whether you're eligible for a waiver for the foreign language requirement.

International Students

Students who attend high school in a country outside the U.S. may be eligible for a foreign language requirement waiver when applying to college.

If you took courses taught in a language other than English throughout high school, schedule a meeting with an academic counselor. They can help you figure out whether you meet the prerequisites to be able to waive the foreign language requirement for admission.

Degree-Holders

Some colleges may allow you to petition for a foreign language admission requirement waiver if you already have a degree, such as an associate degree. Check with your academic advisor to see if your degree waives the foreign language requirement.

There may be other waiver opportunities available at your institution so be sure to check with the admissions offices at the institutions you are applying to.

Should You Take Foreign Language Classes in High School?

In general, you should take foreign language courses if you plan to go to college.

Many colleges require two years of a single foreign language as a condition of admission. Not taking foreign language classes in high school may limit where you can attend college.

Just under half of all high school foreign language classes in the U.S. teach Spanish. Other commonly taught languages at U.S. high schools include French, Chinese, Latin, and German.

It doesn't matter which language you take — just that you study a single language consistently. Choose a language that interests you, regardless of how popular it is.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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