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Can I Self Study a Language in High School?

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For the most part, the classes you take, the grades you achieve, and the standardized test scores you earn represent your academic pursuits in high school. Your non-academic work, like student leadership, visual arts, or sports participation, is then represented by the extracurricular activities in which you participate. These two categories of accomplishments will fit neatly onto a college application, in two different sections.


Sometimes, though, the line separating the two is not so cut and dry. Many students pursue academics outside of the traditional classroom, and in these cases, the line between extracurricular and academic can get a little blurry. Sometimes, academic work extends beyond the walls of a traditional classroom.


This shouldn’t be a deterrent, though. Extracurricular activities don’t have to be hobbies, school clubs, or sports. They can be anything that you pursue regularly, outside of the classroom, over an extended period. For some students, this definitely includes academic work.


One popular area of academic studies outside of the classroom is the self-studying of a foreign language. If you’re interested in self-studying a language in high school, this pursuit could become a valuable and serious extracurricular activity, and there are many avenues for pursuing it. In this post, we will outline a few common reasons for self-studying a language, several effective ways of doing so, and how you can quantify your self-studying on your college application. Keep reading to learn more about self-studying a language in high school.


Why Should I Self-Study a Foreign Language in High School?

There are many reasons that a student might choose to self-study a language in high school. One of the most common is when a student wants to pursue a language that is not offered as a class at his or her particular high school. In this case, perhaps you want to connect with your family’s Italian heritage, or you are convinced that your future as an international businessperson may benefit from your knowledge of Chinese. Whatever the case may be, you have developed an interest in a language that is not formally offered at your school, so you might choose to pursue it independently.


There are other reasons for self-studying a language, too. Sometimes you cannot take your desired language offering due to a school scheduling conflict. Perhaps you want to take both Spanish and German, but the classes meet at the same time. Or, maybe you have placed out of your high school classes, having completed AP French as a sophomore, but you still want to take your knowledge to the next level. These are all completely valid reasons to pursue a self-study in a foreign language, and if you find yourself in one of these scenarios, self-studying a foreign language might be a great solution.


Am I a Good Candidate for Self-Studying a Foreign Language?

Wanting to learn a foreign language on its own is not enough to make you a good candidate for self-studying. Any student who pursues an independent study needs to consider the choice carefully. For some, it can be a great fit.


First, ask yourself if you have the time and motivation to seriously pursue this for an extended period of time. Usually, you will need to self-study for at least one academic year if you want to achieve solid results and establish the activity as serious enough to bear mentioning on your college application. At a minimum, you should be devoting about two hours per week to the self-study. Is this something that you’re prepared and able to do?


Also consider your personal learning style. Do you learn best in a group? Do you have trouble starting work without the motivation of classmates? Do you best internalize knowledge through speaking and interacting with others? If the answer to these questions is a resounding yes, you should think carefully about self-studying. While it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be unsuccessful, it may mean that you need to make some adjustments to the learning process to best accommodate your learning needs.


Finally, think about the resources and associated costs. You will likely need to purchase a textbook or at least a foreign language dictionary. You may also need to purchase access to online learning materials or tutorials. If you end up taking a standardized text in the subject matter, you’ll need to pay registration costs. Do you have the funds necessary to cover these expenses?


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How Can I Self-Study a Language?

There are many possible avenues for self-studying a foreign language. Most students find that combining a number of different approaches is most effective. After all, when you learn a language in a classroom, the teacher employs all sorts of teaching techniques. You should strive to do the same in your self-studying.


The most obvious and common method for self-studying is through textbooks and workbooks. These types of books will have plenty of vocabulary and grammar exercises to keep you busy, and they are generally readily available. Some even come with paired audio components to complement your learning experience.


Alternatively, audio content can also be used without paired written material. This is especially beneficial for students who are self-studying primarily in order to speak the language, with less emphasis on written communications. You can find lots of downloadable audio content for free and lots more for purchase.


You can also often find podcasts that are available in the language you want to learn. Some of these podcasts might be instructional in nature, while others may be geared more towards entertainment. If you have already attained some conversational skills, you will probably find that you are able to follow a simple podcast and will improve your own vocabulary, dialect, and accent by doing so.


You may also choose to pursue more traditional learning environments. Sometimes you can enroll in an online course to supplement your self-studying. You might also join a language club at your local library or community college.


Finally, if you have the means and the opportunity, many students find that the best language-learning experiences actually come from full immersion in the foreign language. If you can find a way to travel or study abroad, you will be forced to use the language on a regular basis and thereby improve at a dramatic pace.


Alternatively, you can also immerse yourself sporadically by interacting with members of your community who speak the language fluently. You might, for example, spend one Saturday each month at a community center where the predominant population speaks Portuguese or arrange a weekly dinner or board game night with a local family who speaks Korean. These authentic experiences are invaluable when learning a new language.


How Can I Quantify My Achievement if I Self-Study a Foreign Language?

One element that can be a little tricky when self-studying a foreign language in high school is how you quantify your achievements. Without a formal grade on your transcript, it’s can be difficult to show that you’ve mastered any material at all. Even if you track the amount of time that you’ve put into learning the language, that doesn’t mean much if you can’t somehow show how much progress you’ve made. Luckily, there are a few ways to showcase your new language skills.


One great option that easily translates on a college application is self-studying for an Advanced Placement test or SAT subject test. There are AP tests available in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish. There are SAT subject tests available in Spanish, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Modern Hebrew, Latin, Japanese, and Korean. If you plan to take one of these tests, keep in mind that they generally are administered once in the spring (and another time once in the fall, for SAT Subject Tests in foreign languages). For APs, you will need to speak with an AP administrator at your school sometime in February to arrange your registration. For SAT subject tests, you need to register about six weeks in advance.


Another way to quantify your newfound knowledge is by taking a national language exam. There are national language exams available in French, German, Latin, Italian, Japanese and Spanish. The registration and administration processes for these exams vary, since each is administered by an individual organization. You will need to visit the individual websites to learn more about each, but all offer various levels of achievement that would serve as concrete evidence of your success in self-studying a foreign language.


You could also consider the possibility of taking a basic placement exam either through your high school or at a local community college. This option is a little less formal than the others, but if the college or your school is willing to allow you to take the test, you will get a realistic idea of how much you have learned, and you will be able to articulate it clearly and honestly on your college applications.


Finally, the ultimate culmination of self-studying a foreign language is using it on a daily basis. If you have the opportunity to live or work in an area where this language is common, you should jump on it. Doing so is not only an amazing experience, but also a testament to your dedication and success in learning the foreign language.


Self-studying a foreign language in high school requires a lot of hard work, self-motivation, and extended commitment. It is definitely not for everyone. But for students who have a real passion for foreign language and who feel driven towards teaching themselves a foreign language, self-studying can be the perfect outlet for broadening your experience, gaining knowledge, and testing your dedication. And of course, it is a great addition on any college application.


By sticking with your hard work and finding a way to quantify it that easily translates on your college application, you can set yourself apart, driving home your commitment to both extracurricular and academic pursuits.


For more guidance about extracurriculars, college applications, and how to choose activities that best suit you, download our free guide for 9th graders and our free guide for 10th graders. Our guides go in-depth about subjects ranging from academicschoosing coursesstandardized testsextracurricular activitiesand much more!


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Kate Sundquist
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Kate Koch-Sundquist is a graduate of Pomona College where she studied sociology, psychology, and writing before going on to receive an M.Ed. from Lesley University. After a few forays into living abroad and afloat (sometimes at the same time), she now makes her home north of Boston where she works as a content writer and, with her husband, raises two young sons who both inspire her and challenge her on a daily basis.