Ins and Outs of the Critical Language Scholarship Program

Americans aren’t exactly known for their foreign language prowess.

If you’re an American and have ever actually mastered a language you’ve studied, congratulations, you’re in an elite club.

For a variety of reasons, many Americans simply aren’t motivated to learn foreign languages.

Compared to Europeans, for example, they’re less likely to pick up a second, third or fourth language.

But Uncle Sam wants to change that.

Foreign languages aren’t going away, you see.

That’s why there’s a U.S. government scholarship program to send bright American students overseas to learn some of the most important languages for American relations abroad.

It’s called the Critical Language Scholarship Program, and it could be your ticket to a life-changing summer experience.

The Critical Language Scholarship Program and You: A Guide

What Are Critical Languages?

The languages deemed critical by the U.S. government change from time to time, but these are some points you’ll find they generally have in common:

  • Less commonly taught in U.S. schools.
  • Often outside the boundaries of Europe and the Americas.
  • Often related in some way to U.S. diplomatic missions abroad.

Here are the ones currently offered as part of the scholarship:

As you can see, none of these languages are necessarily easy to learn. If they were, they wouldn’t be so critical!

Again, the languages offered have been known to change from year to year. 2019, in fact, is the first year that Portuguese has been offered.

The Critical Language Scholarship Program: The Basics

What Do You Have to Do?

Each program is different for each student, every year. The U.S. government works with various host schools to place current U.S. college students in 8-10 week programs.

If you apply (see below) and are accepted, you’ll have a top-tier orientation. The orientation is extremely thorough, which is really very helpful for taking such a big leap into a new place. They’ll make sure you know what to expect.

Then you’re off, and you hit the books. Actual requirements for the classes vary from school to school, but in general you’ll be a full-time student with at least 20 hours of classes per week.

Even though you’ve only got 8-10 weeks, there’s still plenty of time for homestays and travel around the country. Participants invariably return knowing a great deal about not only the language itself, but also the experience of using it in all kinds of places.

Does the Language You Choose Matter?

Yes and no. For certain languages, there’s a prerequisite of either one or two years of university study.

Currently, two previous years of study are required for Chinese, Japanese and Russian. You’re expected to be an intermediate to advanced learner if you apply to study these languages.


To make sure that your language skills for any of these are up to the task, you can brush up with FluentU.

One year of language study is required for Arabic, Persian and Portuguese. All the other languages consider learners from beginner to advanced.

Also, you should be aware that sometimes you won’t actually be in the country you might associate with a particular language. In the past, Persian learners have been placed in Tajikistan, for example. This is just because of certain political issues that cause the government to pick a nearby country with a similar culture and language.

When it comes to actually getting admitted or not, there are no quotas set for the different languages. Some languages may have tons of students and others may have only a few dozen.

What Do You Get?

Virtually everything.

Your flights, your books, your classes, outside tutors, food and accommodation are all covered. If you need to renew a passport or undergo any medical exams, those are the only things you’ll have to open your wallet for.

But remember, you’re applying for a language study program, not a vacation spot.

Each city in the program is going to have a different curriculum, different excursions and different costs of living. Rest assured, you won’t have to worry about a thing once you get there.

How Competitive Is It?

Only about 500-600 students are usually accepted from a possible annual applicant pool of more than 5000. However, the admissions committee makes an effort not to play favorites. People from all types of backgrounds really do get in.

How to Get In

Write the Perfect Application Essays Using Your Experience and Your Goals

CLS wants to get students from all kinds of different backgrounds. Just because you’re a beginner at your language doesn’t mean you’ll be disqualified, unless you actually fail to meet the basic requirements for that language.

Now, if you’ve been failing all your language classes for eight years, that wouldn’t necessarily send a great signal to the recruiters.

Furthermore, if you’re the type to learn a couple of phrases in 20 languages just because you like the way they sound, that doesn’t show that you’ll be able to keep up  with a rigorous courseload either.

Basically, the ideal applicant is going to devote a good part of their energy solidly to the language and end up using it—in any field—to do something good for the world. That doesn’t necessarily mean working for the government itself. They just want you to have some kind of impact that strengthens U.S. soft power in some way.

And they want their applicants to represent the enormous diversity of the United States. There may even be a slightly better chance to get in if you haven’t ever done a language program abroad before. After all, most Americans haven’t.

This video gives you a quick overview of the essay requirements.

The main thing to remember, as you write your three application essays, is that you’re not applying for charity.

You’re convincing the U.S. government to invest in you and your skills.

So you don’t need to say anything about how much you would be honored to be chosen, or how important languages are in the world or how much intercultural communication can help build bridges.

Talk about your own goals and your own specific interests, and give a strong idea of why you want to learn this language.

Even if you’re just starting out with the language, talk about why it’s so important for you that you go abroad now, instead of continuing to learn the language over time and on your own.

In the same vein, why is an intensive immersion program right for you? Mention why that unique in-country experience is going to be the extra kick you need to develop this language into a real career asset.

Get Expert Guidance

It’s very possible that someone from your university has already gone through the CLS program.

Campus newsletters love to publish stories about their students who went abroad through CLS. If you get in touch with them through your alumni or study abroad offices, they’ll probably be happy to talk to you about their application and study experiences.

And get this—there’s a whole network of volunteer advisors easily searchable through the CLS website. Enter your university name here, and you’ll get all the contact information you need.

When you contact program alumni, remember that this is such a popular program that they might get regular questions during application season. Be polite and make your questions specific. For example, “Was there anything that really shocked you about the experience?” or “What was the biggest language-related challenge?”


The admissions process is lengthy, and to be honest, it can be pretty stressful to have to not only write powerful statements of purpose but also possibly undergo an over-the-phone language test.

But you see, they really just want to make sure they’re picking the right people.

And all you have to do is be honest about your passion.

Because if you’re chosen, you have an amazing chance to channel that passion into a set of skills that can help people all over the world and, eventually, even contribute to world peace.

It’s a big deal.

Good luck!

If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.

Sign up for free!

Enter your e-mail address to get your free PDF!

We hate SPAM and promise to keep your email address safe