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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
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A Guide to Taking a Foreign Language in High School

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For many high school students, a foreign language is a key component of their course load. Whether this is due to a personal interest in linguistics, a high school graduation requirement, or a prerequisite for college admission, taking a foreign language in high school can be an extremely beneficial experience—if you can first decide which language to take! We at CollegeVine have looked at the many considerations that go into deciding which foreign language course to take in order to help you make the language selection process a little easier. Read on for guidance on whether or not studying a foreign language is right for you—and if it is, which one to learn.


What are the benefits of a foreign language?


Technological advancements increasing multiculturalism have contributed to a more interconnected world, and as a result, foreign language skills are more valuable than ever and perhaps even necessary assets for anyone seeking employment.


For instance, if you are planning on going into business, Chinese fluency can help you distinguish yourself from other job applicants. For those interested in international relations, the United Nations encourages potential job applicants to know at least one of the six official UN languages in addition to English or French.


Besides clear employment advantages, being fluent in a foreign language is extremely valuable in day-to-day life. As advances in technology and travel have led to a more interconnected world, it is more likely than ever before that you will interact with individuals who do not speak your native tongue. By studying even a single foreign language, you increase the number of people with which you can build valuable professional and personal relationships.


Of course, foreign language abilities are highly regarded by adcoms in the college admissions process as well. Because it is so difficult to attain fluency in a new language, if you can do this, it signals to adcoms that you are a dedicated, hard-working, and driven student who is willing to take on challenges.


Additionally, when adcoms are admitting a new class of students, they look to accept students who will contribute positively to the school’s existing culture and environment. Your proficiency in one or more foreign languages can show adcoms that you seek to understand cultures other than your own, have a strong sense of intellectual curiosity, and are interested in widening your academic and cultural horizons—all attributes that make for a valuable member of a college’s community.


In fact, colleges value foreign languages so much that many top schools either highly recommend or even require that its applicants study one in high school. For example, Harvard strongly suggests that freshman applicants have four years of a single foreign language under their belt, and Stanford recommends three or more years. The University of California schools require that all applicants have studied a language other than English for at least two years. However, keep in mind that these suggestions can be flexible. For instance, if your high school does not offer any foreign language classes, you won’t be penalized for not taking one. 


Which language do I take?

Now that you know just how important studying a foreign language can be, you may be wondering how to decide which language to study. For many students, this largely depends on what their high school offers. Different schools have different resources, and thus foreign language departments vary significantly between schools.


As you are surveying your high school’s foreign language offerings, you should think about what benefits you wish to gain from your study of a language. Perhaps you wish to maximize your ability to communicate with a significant portion of the population; in this scenario, it may be prudent to take a language like Spanish, which is widely spoken throughout the nation.


If you’re interested in medicine or law, you should consider taking a language like Latin, from which many medical and legal terms are derived. If you want to differentiate yourself from other students, you may consider taking a less popular language like Portuguese or Italian if it is offered.


Ultimately, the best way to decide which language is best for you is to consider your intellectual and occupational interests, school offerings, personal priorities, and future goals.


I’m a native speaker of a language other than English. Should I study my own language?

If you’re lucky enough to already be multilingual, you are in a great position when it comes to college applications because you can reap many of the benefits of language fluency that we have already discussed.


Though it may seem tempting to study the language in which you are already fluent in high school – after all, you’re virtually guaranteed to make good grades in that class – we strongly caution against taking a language you have already mastered. The more languages you know, the better, both in terms of intellectual development in college admissions.


This is largely because if adcoms are able to deduce that you decided to take language courses in a language you already knew, it will reflect an unwillingness to challenge yourself. Adcoms seek out students who maximize their intellectual capacity, and choosing to take a language you already know well can communicate the opposite, thus potentially hurting your chances of admission.


How can I demonstrate initiative in studying foreign languages?

There are myriad ways to demonstrate your interest in foreign languages and multiculturalism outside of the classroom, too. One option is to start a club dedicated to a certain language and/or culture if such an organization does not exist at your school. Similarly, hosting or helping run cultural events or participating in cultural outreach programs are great ways of demonstrating that your commitment to languages and multiculturalism goes beyond simply taking classes.


Another way to take initiative is by participating in a foreign exchange program. Whether you decide to host a student from another country or to go abroad yourself, foreign exchange programs are a fantastic way to expand your worldview while simultaneously practicing your language skills. Not only can these programs help you obtain fluency, but they also provide a method through which to gain unique perspectives –these experiences can perhaps even provide content for a personal essay later on!


The numerous benefits associated with multilingualism, along with the significant value colleges place on language study, makes taking a foreign language an extremely worthwhile pursuit.


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Lydia Tahraoui
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Lydia is a Social Studies concentrator at Harvard University who is deeply committed to helping guide students through the college admissions process. In addition to writing for the CollegeVine blog, Lydia enjoys analyzing Middle Eastern and North African politics and keeping up with all things pop culture.