Should You Study a Foreign Language in College?

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Updated on July 25, 2022
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  • Learning a language in college can greatly improve your career opportunities.
  • Options for language learning include majoring, minoring, electives, or studying abroad.
  • Popular industries for language majors include foreign relations, tourism, and marketing.
  • Half of U.S. college students studying a foreign language are taking Spanish.

When traveling, it's handy to have questions like "Quand part le bus?" and "Où sont les toilettes?" in your back pocket. These questions — provided in French, but beneficial in any language — mean "When does the bus leave?" and "Where is the bathroom?"

Traveling is just one great reason to learn a language. Speaking a foreign language can help you in your career, not to mention keep your mind sharp. In a way, knowing more than one language is like having a secret superpower or hidden talent.

That said, truly learning a language — in other words, being able to carry on a full conversation and eventually reach fluency — is a big commitment that takes a lot of hard work and can feel difficult to fit into your schedule, especially if you're in college.

For foreign-language majors, these challenges aren't so much deterrents as they are motivating factors. But for students on the fence about whether to take foreign-language classes, there's a lot to mull over before making a decision.

Benefits of Learning a Foreign Language in College

An estimated 2 billion people speak English around the world. As a result, many native English speakers question the practicality of learning another language. Research shows that between 2013 and 2016, the number of students enrolled in foreign-language courses at U.S. colleges dropped by over 9%.

While it's true that you could probably live your whole life without needing to utter a single word in another language — particularly if English is your native tongue — for those who choose to study a second, third, or even fourth language, their motivation extends far beyond just "getting by" in a different country.

One major advantage of knowing a foreign language is that it can lend a boost to your career. A 2017 report from New American Economy found that more employers are actively looking to hire bilingual individuals, especially those who speak Chinese, Spanish, and/or Arabic.

Spanish in particular is a highly sought-after language skill. From 1980 to 2011, the number of Spanish speakers in the U.S. grew from 11 million to more than 37 million — that's an increase of 233%. Employers often search for candidates who can speak English as well as Spanish to serve both markets equally.

Studying a foreign language is also good for your brain: It engages your cognitive processes, thereby improving brain function. According to scientific research, people who learn a language boast a better memory and stronger concentration and multitasking skills.

Language learning can provide a sense of personal fulfillment as well. For many, studying other languages is a passion and challenge they genuinely enjoy.

Finally, knowing a second language can help you connect with other people. If you only speak English, you lose opportunities to learn different perspectives, get to know other cultures, and make friends from all over the world.

4 Ways You Can Study a Foreign Language in College

Colleges offer different pathways to help you master a foreign language. It's up to you to determine how many foreign-language credits you can commit to and whether a major, a minor, a few elective classes, or a study abroad program works best for you.

Declare a Language Major

Declaring a major in a foreign language designates that subject as your main area of study. When you graduate, you'll receive a BA in the language of your choice. Examples include a BA in Spanish, a BA in Japanese, and a BA in Hindi.

Many students pair a foreign-language major with another major to earn either a single degree with two majors or a dual degree. Different areas of study can add value to a foreign-language degree, such as international relations, teaching, business, or politics. Keep in mind that you might need to stay in school an extra semester or year to cover all the credits of a dual degree.

Minor in a Foreign Language

If you've already committed to a major and don't have enough credits to double major, consider minoring in a foreign language. This way you can reach an intermediate or conversational level, which should be enough to help you navigate your way around a different country. You can also put the language on your resume (though don't claim you're fluent if you truly aren't).

Take Some Foreign-Language Electives

Even if you don't have the time or credits to commit to a foreign-language major or minor, you can still take some foreign-language classes as electives. You likely won't reach anything close to fluency, but taking classes can set a good foundation for future language study.

Study Abroad in a Non-English-Speaking Country

Becoming fluent in a language often requires total immersion. One of the best ways to immerse yourself in a foreign language is to study abroad and, if possible, participate in a homestay. Living with a host family forces you to communicate in your target language. If you live in a residence hall with other English-speaking students, chances are you'll be frequently tempted to switch to English.

What Can You Do With a Foreign-Language Major?

Foreign-language skills can help you land many different types of jobs. For example, you could enter the Peace Corps or work as a translator, foreign-language teacher, or diplomat.

Other options include working in tourism and hospitality. Hotels often need employees who can easily switch between languages to assist patrons. You might also consider entry-level work on cruise ships or at resorts.

Popular Careers for Language Majors

  • Diplomat/foreign service officer
  • Flight attendant
  • Hotel manager
  • International marketing
  • International relations specialist
  • Journalist/foreign correspondent
  • Teacher/tutor
  • Tour guide
  • Translator/interpreter
  • Travel agent

Numerous careers can benefit from your knowledge of a second language. For instance, you could work as a foreign correspondent for a news outlet, launch your own global business, work in international aid development, or take a job with the federal government.

Large U.S. corporations often look for business professionals who speak fluent Spanish or Chinese. Any job that requires both a high level of communication and human interaction is well suited for bilingual individuals.

What Foreign Languages Do U.S. Students Study?

In 2016, the five most commonly studied foreign languages for American college students were Spanish, French, American Sign Language (ASL), German, and Japanese.

Spanish was far and away the most popular language, with 50% of students choosing it. That's no surprise considering the proximity of the U.S. to Mexico and the increasing number of Spanish speakers in the country.

These days, many colleges go beyond the typical Spanish and French offerings. For example, the University of Michigan teaches more than 50 languages, including Bengali, Quechua, and Tibetan. Middlebury College in Vermont is well known for its foreign-language majors and immersive summer language programs, available in major world languages like Arabic, Italian, and Chinese.

One language that's gained more attention in recent years is Korean. Though only a small fraction of language learners in the U.S. study Korean, the language doubled in popularity for college students between 2006 and 2016.

Other less common languages you can find at universities include Russian, ancient Greek, Portugese, and both classical and modern Hebrew. If you want something really out of the box, you might be able to find courses in Elvish and Orkish from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

Should You Take Foreign-Language Classes?

Learning a language can improve your career opportunities and enrich your personal life. But some college students might find their schedules too packed to effectively commit to studying a second language.

Ultimately, if you can find the time and motivation to dedicate to language learning, you should definitely consider pursuing it.

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