Applying to College? Make Sure You Have Options to Study Languages

Original appeared on the Huffington Post.

It’s that time of year when high school seniors across the country start thinking about where they will go to college. Many seek input from family and friends to complement their guidance counselors’ advice. Some turn to popular rankings like U.S. News & World Report, Kiplinger’s and Princeton Review as they visit campuses and begin the application process.

As an advocate for greater global awareness, I challenge students and their parents to look at things a little bit differently. Look for a curriculum that offers you an international perspective and an opportunity to study languages. Although college is about learning, it’s also about acquiring the necessary skills to land a job when you’ve graduated. World language skills have increasingly become a differentiator for hiring managers among graduates. Even if you’re not proficient, a solid working knowledge of another language indicates an openness to and appreciation for other cultures, a critical 21st century skill.

A recent study by the National Security Education Program via its “Language Flagship,” involving surveys and focus groups among more than 100 senior U.S. executives, concluded that increasing language and cultural skills is “critical” to American business, for everything from developing and keeping new deals, to overseas marketing, to winning the global war for talent. As one survey participant said, “the lack of language skills among U.S. business[people] is an enormous barrier to increasing U.S. participation in overseas markets.”

But it’s more than business leaders demanding an increase in language speakers to fill jobs. The U.S. Department of Defense’s own recruitment site notes “an urgent and growing need for Americans with foreign language skills,” especially in high-demand languages such as Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Kurdish, Pashto, Persian, Farsi, Tagalog, Russian, Somali, Turkish and Urdu/Punjabi. Congressional Subcommittees on Defense, Intelligence and National Security regularly hear reports on how our security and intelligence efforts are stymied by a lack of qualified language professionals among U.S. citizens.

Universities value language skills, too. In a report on National Defense Education, the American Association of Universities ranks foreign language education as highly as “STEM” (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning for both national security and economic strength. Most competitive colleges look quite favorably on applicants with four years of secondary school classwork in one language.

There are jobs for people who speak more than English, but not many Americans do. So here’s your chance, as a high school student ready to embark on your college career. Make languages an integral part of your academic experience regardless of your major. Whatever your language level is – experienced to novice — keep studying or start anew. If you have a strong command of French or Spanish from your studies thus far, keep it up, but also consider adding Arabic or Chinese. If you’ve studied one language but haven’t mastered it yet, don’t switch. The merits of sticking with one language all the way through are great, unless you think it’s not going to be particularly relevant. Many times switching can lead to no proficiency at all, and so work at mastering one. Above all, don’t give the languages you’ve learned up – keep at it even if it’s difficult to fit it into your schedule – it will pay off.

Consider choosing a college based partly on your language needs. No matter what career you’re considering, language proficiencies matter to employers. Make sure before you matriculate that the institution will meet your personal and career goals when it comes to language learning. To advise you on how to do this, I’ve included tips below that Marty Abbott, the executive director of the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL), gave me to include in my latest book, Go Global! Launching an International Career Here or Abroad.

  •  Check not only language offerings but levels as well. Many universities offer majors in some languages, but not others; languages like Chinese and Arabic may only be available at the introductory or intermediate levels.
  • Check language offerings for alignment with your career interests. If upper-level courses focus only on literature you may be limited in developing proficiency related to specific career interests; look for expanded language offerings that go beyond just literature.
  • Check the availability of options to study abroad and how credits are transferred from study abroad programs. A college or university that is preparing students to live and work in a global environment will encourage students to study and participate in international internships.
  • Check faculty backgrounds. Faculty members should reflect many backgrounds and academic areas of expertise, not just literature.
  • Ask about options for majoring in a language or double majoring in a language and another field. The institution should encourage students to continue to develop language proficiency through double majors/minors.
  • Ask about study abroad options and scholarships. There should be a dedicated international study office with staff knowledgeable about scholarships.
  • Ask about summer and academic year internships where you can use your language expertise. The institution should make an effort to place students in situations where they are able to use their language skills.
  • Ask about the number of adjunct instructors in the department and the role of teaching assistants. Be wary of a significant number of adjunct instructors or too many courses taught by teaching assistants.
  • Ask about faculty involvement with students outside of class and extra-curricular activities of the language department. There should be an active presence of the foreign language department on campus with guest lecture series, cultural activities and service learning projects in the community.
  • Ask about placement procedures and credit options for AP/IB and dual credit programs. You should be placed appropriately in a language class so you don’t waste time reviewing materials you have already mastered or sell yourself short by repeating coursework. The institution should also grant credits for college-level work completed in high school for Advanced Placement (AP), International Baccalaureate (IB) or dual credit programs.
  • Ask about language-specific houses or floors where the language is spoken by the students. Most language programs have a designated living space for majors and interested students where they are immersed in using the language.  This is an excellent opportunity to accelerate the language acquisition process and improve your communication skills.
  • Ask about resources for language students. Institutions should have robust resources available to students in the target language from library holdings to magazines and videos.
  • Ask to visit a language class and the language lab. Attending a class will give you important information about how language teaching is approached at the institution and how actively engaged the students are in the learning process. It will also let you speak with students involved in the language program.
  • Ask about graduate programs and career services for students who major in languages or have high level of proficiency. It’s important to find out the track record of the Career Center in placing students in positions or graduate programs where they can use language talents.
  • If you are interested in teaching at the K-12 level, ask if there is a program that prepares you for state certification to teach languages. Ask to speak to seniors in the program or recent graduates. This is important if you want a teaching career; you should also ask about the student teaching experience to ensure teacher candidates are placed with highly qualified K-12 teachers.

As ACTFL’s tagline suggests, “Discover Languages, Discover the World.” Good luck in your pursuits!