What Language Should I Take in College?

Schools can offer everything from Albanian to Zulu, which may leave you asking, “So, what language should I take in college, then?”

Luckily, there are some languages that stand out as top options for today’s students: Spanish, Chinese, French, Arabic and German are all great choices for different reasons.

So, let’s take a closer look at those top five language options for college students, and then we’ll go over some things you should consider before you make your final choice.

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Best Languages to Learn in College

1. Spanish

Chances are strong that I don’t need to explain to you why you should learn Spanish. After all, it’s so widely spoken in the US that (if you live there) you’ve probably heard it in the last few weeks, if not the last few hours.

Ethnologue estimates that the number of people who speak Spanish as a first language is somewhere between one million and one billion, likely almost 500 million.

Over 90 million more speak it as a second language. In the US alone, there are an estimated 42.5 million native Spanish speakers and another 12.2 million people who are bilingual.

Because it’s so widely spoken in the US, Spanish is a great choice for any American student. From medicine to law to business, all fields need Spanish speakers.

Plus, Spanish is a convenient option for most students. It’s widely offered in colleges and universities. Because it’s so popular, there are often multiple class sessions, making it easier to fit into a busy schedule.

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2. Chinese

Wondering why you should learn Chinese? Well, there are nearly 1.3 billion reasons—that’s how many people speak Chinese, making it the most widely spoken language on Earth.

Granted, some of the dialects are not mutually intelligible, but Mandarin alone has an estimated 939 million native speakers. Even if you don’t count other dialects, Mandarin is still the most spoken first language, with roughly double the native speakers of the next most spoken language, Spanish.

And all of this means buying power. The Chinese economy is huge. In fact, it’s currently the world’s second-largest economy.

What does this mean for college students? First and foremost, it can mean job opportunities. Chinese language skills can open doors in the business world since international trade with China is booming.

Additionally, with a push to teach more US students Chinese, learning Chinese could open up opportunities for teaching the language in the US. And if you’re looking to work abroad, there are plenty of jobs teaching English in China, and knowing Chinese could be just the edge you need to snatch a coveted position.

3. French

There are so many reasons why you should learn French beyond the delicious baked goods.

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An estimated 321 million people speak French, all throughout the world. French is an official language in 29 countries, including Canada and multiple nations in Europe and Africa.

What’s more, even relatively small colleges and universities often offer French, making it a particularly accessible option for students.

French is widely used in diplomacy, so it’s useful for anyone looking to go into international relations or international development.

Additionally, France’s strong reputation in arts and culture make it a good choice for anyone looking for a career with an artistic angle, such as aspiring clothing designers, classical musicians, chefs and filmmakers.

4. Arabic

Arabic is an in-demand language that can open many doors. The American Councils for International Education lists some of the top reasons for studying Arabic here.

One obvious reason is the fact that it’s widely spoken. While dialects vary, Arabic is present across North Africa and the Middle East.

World language resource Ethnologue estimates that Arabic is the fourth most common first language in the world, with estimated native speakers totaling somewhere between 295 and 400 million.

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Further, Arabic is in hot demand with government jobs in security and defense. The National Security Education Program identifies it as a critical language, so you might even be able to snag a spot in the Critical Language Scholarship program.

5. German

It may not be as widely spoken as Chinese. It may not be as critical to national needs as Arabic. But there are still a lot of good reasons why you should learn German.

It’s estimated that there are nearly 96.8 million native speakers, most (but not all) in Germany. There’s also likely over 100 million people who speak German as a foreign language.

Plus, Germany’s economy is strong. The CIA World Factbook reports that it’s the fifth-largest economy in the world and the fourth top exporter (over one trillion dollars annually). Learning German could therefore be helpful to anyone looking for a career in international business.

Germany is also a science and engineering powerhouse. If you’re looking to dive into an innovative field, knowing German can help you connect to other thought leaders. Many famous philosophers were German, too, so students interested in further study in that field may benefit from reading works in the original language.

Plus, German is a good language for musicians. Many operas are written in German, and you’ve probably heard of a few composers from German-speaking countries: Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and Handel are household names almost worldwide.

What to Consider When Choosing a Language to Study

Thinking about why you’re studying a language will help you figure out which language to take in college. This is because your motivation can directly affect what language is best for you.

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Here are eight key questions to think about:

  • Are you taking a language because you’re required to? If so, you’ll probably want to select an easier language to learn. Spanish, for instance, is much easier for English speakers to learn than Japanese. This will also allow you to reach some level of proficiency without putting in as much time or effort.
  • Are you taking a language for your future career? Look into what languages are in demand in your field. For archaeology, Latin may be useful; for business, Chinese might be ideal. But even within industries, there’s some variation to consider to help you decide which language is best.
  • Are you taking a language for fun? If yes, then consider what cultures you’re interested in. If you’re passionate about the cuisine, the music, the art or you just have the travel bug, picking a culture you’re intrigued by will make learning the language that much more interesting.
  • How do you plan to use the language in the future? How often and in what contexts do you hope to utilize your knowledge? This can shape both what language you select and how long you should study it.
  • Will you want to study additional languages in the future? If so, you might select a language with close relatives in order to make learning easier. For instance, Romance languages like French, Italian and Spanish have enough in common that learning one will help you learn others.
  • How much work are you prepared to put in? More difficult languages usually require more work, so if you aren’t looking to put in much effort, you can rule more challenging languages out. That said, it’s also about how you study and how enjoyable the learning experience is for you.
  • How is the course delivered? At some universities, less common language options may be delivered online. If that’s the case for the language you’re interested in, you may actually be able to find more affordable online learning options elsewhere.
  • What message do you want your resume to send? Since language skills are valuable when job hunting, you might consider how your language skills will look in this context. For instance, less common languages might stand out, while more common languages are more widely applicable.

Remember that learning a language means learning a skill that can last a lifetime. If you stay in practice, the language you learn in college can significantly affect your life, including where you travel, how you interact with people and even what Netflix shows you binge.

Selecting the right language can increase your motivation and your capacity to learn the language. Choosing one you like and actually want to learn will make it easier to keep pushing forward. Therefore, you’re much more likely to reach full fluency at some point in your life.

What language you choose can affect your career path. For instance, if you choose Latin, chances are international business positions won’t be clamoring for your language skills. Choose Chinese, though, and you’re likely to get a lot further in the business world!

 

Hopefully now you have an answer to that daunting question: “What language should I take in college?” 

While it’s hard to go wrong with the five language options above, remember to consider carefully and choose the one that will be best for you.

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