How To Choose a Language to Study in High School

Susan Taylor is a free-lance writer with an interest in foreign languages. Today, she graces this blogspace with an article about an important question.

If you’ve ever sat in class and wondered when you would use what you were learning in real life, you’re not alone. It can sometimes be difficult to understand how certain subjects will translate into everyday living. Basic math? Yes. At some point you’ll shop and have to balance your budget. Trigonometry? Well, unless you plan to become an engineer or chemist, that particular skill will probably become a little rusty after high school.

But what about a foreign language? If you think you won’t need it because you never plan to live outside the United States, think again. More and more people all over the world, including in the U.S., are learning two and even three languages. As the world evolves to be truly multicultural, and multilingual, you need to be prepared. You also have to start thinking about college, and what you’d like to study once you get there. Take the right classes now, and you’ll be ahead of the game once you enter a university, and that includes foreign language classes. So how do you choose the right one? Here are some things to consider for popular languages taught in most high schools.

Spanish

Spanish is quickly becoming the key to success in the business world. According to the Association of Spanish Language Academies, ten percent of the global population will speak Spanish by 2050. The Association also speculates that the United States will become the largest Spanish-speaking country by that time. It’s not a far stretch considering that the U.S. currently boasts more Spanish-speaking residents than Spain.

Colleges are taking note, and encouraging students to pursue a course of study in Spanish because the Hispanic market in the United States is “now ranked as the third largest Latin American economy behind Brazil and Mexico.” If you want to get ahead in business, regardless of what kind of career you plan on pursuing, Spanish will give you a boost in the right direction.

French

The ultimate Romance language, French is known as the language of love. The Romance languages are a branch of languages derived from Vulgar Latin, which was the official language of ancient Rome. Romance languages include French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, as well as at least 20 more languages spoken around the world. Learning French can be fun, and will come in handy if you ever travel to France, Belgium, Canada, or a handful of other countries where French is commonly spoken.

It can also help bolster your understanding of Spanish, as their structures are very similar. On its own, though, it may not be the most helpful language to learn speaking from a business standpoint, unless you plan to work for a French company, or a company that has offices in a French-speaking country.

Latin

You may think Latin has no use whatsoever, and would be a waste of precious classroom time. True, few people out there are able—or willing—to hold a conversation in Latin. But Latin can be an important building block, depending on your aspirations. Because Latin is the foundation for Romance languages, taking it first can help you quickly build your vocabulary in any of those other languages.

If you have an interest in medicine, and think you may pursue a career in any related discipline, knowing Latin will help you learn and understand medical terminology much more quickly and thoroughly. To pursue medicine, it would also be helpful to learn Greek as many medical terms are also derived from that language.

Any Other Language

Most high schools offer Spanish, French, and Latin—and that’s it. If you’re fortunate enough to attend a school that has a broader language program, consider taking advantage of it. Learning Spanish is still your best bet when it comes to planning for the future. But taking one year of German, Russian, or Japanese won’t derail your college admission, or your retention of whatever other language you may take. In fact, it may help.

It may not seem likely, but although Germanic and Slavic languages are grouped differently from Romance languages, they still share some grammatical structure, as well as many cognates (words that sound alike in more than one language). In addition, taking a class in German, Russian, or whatever other language your school offers, may give you the opportunity to participate in an exchange program. A few weeks or months in Russia, Germany, Japan, or any country whose language you’re learning, is an experience like no other, and one you don’t want to pass up.

Before you sign up for just any language in high school, give it some thought. Consider what college you want to go to, and what their entrance requirements are. Also think about the career you want to pursue, and how a second language could help you. Taking those things into account will give your language class choice more meaning than just filling up an hour of your school day.

If you would like to get in touch with Ms. Taylor, she can be reached at the following email address: susanrctaylor at gmail.com

3 Responses

  1. Ryan,

    Thanks for posting Susan’s article here and starting this conversation. I agree with her that the first order of business is to start ANY foreign language and to get outside the country for an extended period.

    I also agree with her that Spanish has the #1 second-language utility in the U.S. but was surprised to hear her single out French (and to some extent, Latin) and then add passing reference to German, Russian, or Japanese. Granted, these three living languages are listed in the top dozen world languages (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_languages_by_number_of_native_speakers), but in terms of utility, I’d have recommended Chinese (#1) or Arabic (#5). These two have the additional benefit of training a learner in a different orthography–and a new way of thinking. Chinese, in particular, teaches a learner to think/write in pictograms instead of (sound-linked) alphabet characters. If we wanted a learner to stick with a roman-based orthography, I would have selected Portuguese (#7).

    For students (and their parents) with a utilitarian approach to language learning, there’s lots of business opportunity in China and Brazil. If they want to work for the U.S. government, there’s employment to be gained by studying Arabic.

    Um abraço,
    Alan

  2. Hallo! Excellent article. In addition, I would like to add this: if anyone is interested in a graduate degree (MA or PhD) in the humanities in the United States, keep in mind a reading knowledge of two or three languages besides English is often required to progress in the best programs. (The most common languages asked for are German, French, Latin, Classical Greek, Italian, et al. These relate to descriptions of requirements for art history, Classics, English, et al.)

    I have watched people twist and turn trying to gain enough knowledge in a short time to be able to read a scholarly article with a dictionary. Some have to take a French or German test two of three times to pass. And imagine doing this while trying to complete graduate level courses!

    My point: start learning way before that point and it will be easier. For many of us (but by no means all of us) time and regular study and practice is the best way to learn a language.

  3. I think the author would be surprised by how useful German proficiency would be for those interested in engineering and programming. I routintely encounter German, especially German comments and abbreviations.

    If your school does not offer German, your community most likely does. There are German Saturday Schools in all the major and mid sized U.S. cities.

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