How much foreign language is enough?

"Dear Britt, when can I stop taking foreign language classes? Do colleges even care?"

Each spring, as students are actively registering for their next-semester classes, the same question comes up repeatedly, “When can I stop taking a foreign language?” As a lifelong learner of French, my personal answer is, “Never!” However, parents and students don’t want an answer from my personal perspective (which is that language study is imperative in an increasingly diverse and global workforce), but from my professional perspective. 

So, from my perspective as a certified education consultant, I would encourage families to consider Foreign Language part of their student’s Core Curriculum (four years of coursework in Math, Science, Social Studies, Language Arts, and Foreign Language) – all essential to gaining mastery across a wide intellectual spectrum. 

What are colleges looking for?

Foreign language has increasingly become a core prerequisite for most colleges and universities. Requirements and recommendations for the number of years varies. Highly selective schools like Williams, Harvard, and Amherst recommend four years. Generally, competitive liberal arts colleges will put a greater emphasis on having a solid (at least three years) commitment to a single language. For most state schools, including the University of Colorado and UT Austin, two years are required but three years are recommended. Brandon Lloyd, in his blog for the College Money Guys, recently quoted some notable college admissions officers regarding their take on the topic:

“The student studying for four years has a genuine interest in knowledge and education, not just in fulfilling minimum foreign language requirements.”

– Matthew Potts, Admissions Counselor, University of Notre Dame

“While most colleges do not require four years of a language or a science for admission, dropping a discipline can be detrimental to a student’s chances of being admitted. Admission Officers are looking for students who have challenged themselves in many areas. At the most competitive colleges in the country, Admission Officers are making distinctions between thousands of overly qualified applicants. In speaking with students about senior year course selection, we encourage students to think carefully before dropping a language.”

– Andrea Thomas, Assistant Dean of Admission, Hamilton College

“Three to four years of a language shows follow-through and a deeper level of interest.”

– Michael C. Behnke, Vice President for Enrollment, University of Chicago

Colleges are looking for students dedicated to learning, not just checking a box for graduation. Arizona State recently released their opinion on foreign language study. “Students should strongly consider continuing to take language courses throughout their junior and senior years of high school. Not only will they continue advancing their skills and increasing their knowledge of a language and culture, but they’ll also be showing colleges that they have the ability to stick to a subject, and even better, that they value the importance of a well-rounded education.”

As you’re creating your college lists, check out each school’s websites for language recommendations. Look carefully at the wording. Colleges that use terms like “strongly encouraged” expect you to take advantage of as many classes offered at your high school. Also, be aware of specific requirements by colleges within a large university. You may not need a foreign language for the business school, but you will need three or more years to be a viable applicant in arts and sciences.

The final word:

Beyond college admissions, learning a second language can help you communicate and engage with people from different backgrounds and cultures. With expanding opportunities to study or work abroad, students with a strong background in language may have a better appreciation for diversity and gain new perspectives that will serve them well in their campus life, in their careers, or in their communities. The bottom line: keep at it!

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