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How Far Should I Pursue a Foreign Language in High School?
Taking a foreign language in high school is so routine that it almost seems like part of the teenage rite of passage. Love it or hate it, at most schools there’s no way around it.
For some students, the study of a foreign language becomes a true passion, leading to bilingual communication skills and potential career opportunities. For other students, the language requirement might become a point of frustration or resentment, resulting in only basic conversation skills and no intention of pursuing the language past the bare minimum.
Regardless of whether you love foreign languages or simply see them as a task that must be completed, you may wonder what level of study is right for you. Most top colleges look for a varied and broad base of coursework in high school. Does this mean that meeting basic foreign language requirements can be accomplished in sophomore year and then you’re free to pursue other areas of study, or does it mean you should be taking AP French Literature by the time you’re a junior?
How far you pursue your foreign language studies will depend on a number of different factors, so there’s no simple one-size-fits-all answer. To learn more about deciding how far you should pursue a foreign language, keep reading.
Know What Is Required at Your School
Before you can make an educated choice about what level of foreign language study is right for you, you’ll need to know what your school requires. At most high schools, you’ll have to meet at least a basic foreign language requirement, so even if you have no interest in learning another language, you’ll have to take one. If you don’t, you won’t be able to graduate.
Keep in mind that the requirements set by your school are the bare minimum required, and are by no means an indication of the minimum that will be deemed acceptable by a college admissions committee. Many colleges require four years of language study of applicants, so checking college admissions requirements is also advised.
Know What Is Available At Your School
Beyond knowing what’s required at your school or of colleges you may attend, you should also know what foreign language options are available through your high school. Some schools simply have four levels of each language offered, so that you can progress along a prescribed track each year. Other schools offer multiple tracks, including honors or AP classes, foreign language clubs, and even study abroad opportunities. These advanced tracks may not be available for every language offered, though, so you’ll need to scope out the choices before you choose a language to study.
Further, if the language you want to pursue isn’t available or isn’t offered at a high enough level, you can pursue foreign languages as a self-study. To learn more about this option, see our post
Once you know the options available and the requirements at your school, you’re able to weigh the personal factors that will ultimately help you to make a decision. Before you decide how far you’ll pursue a foreign language in high school, you should ask yourself four questions.
1. How Selective Are the Colleges You Intend to Apply to?
If you plan to apply to top colleges, you will need to take your school’s most challenging track of coursework to be a competitive applicant. Generally, this includes upper-level language classes, including AP or honors courses if available.
There may or may not be other class choices available that fall under the umbrella of the most challenging track at your school. Sometimes, you might be able to choose a challenging STEM-specific track or other specialized track that still qualifies as most challenging, without including advanced study of foreign languages. Check what’s available at your high school to be certain.
Also keep in mind that if competitive colleges are in your sights, you may need or want to submit subject area SATs or AP exam scores. These are available in many different foreign languages, and they can definitely bolster your application if you do well on them. Consider pursuing a foreign language to a high level if you want to take these tests for college applications.
2. Will Foreign Languages Be Important to Your Intended Career Path?
There are many fields in which foreign languages are a direct advantage, and some are more obvious than others. If you intend to major in a foreign language, taking that language intensively in high school is a smart decision, but even non-majors should consider the potential impact of foreign language skills in their intended path of study.
Foreign language majors can go on to become foreign language teachers, professors, or translators. You could even go to grad school for business or education. If you take an associated dual major, you could be well-qualified for work for international businesses, import or export companies, study abroad programs, international banks, or international travel companies.
Foreign languages are useful in other professions too. Civil servants, customs and immigration officials, travel writers or agents, diplomats or other government officials, and even those who work for nonprofits may all sometimes encounter foreign language speakers in their professional roles. While a second language may not be a job requirement, these skills will certainly set you apart in a competitive job market in these fields.
Thinking about the future ramifications of foreign language skills on your potential career prospects can help you to define not only how far you will pursue a foreign language, but also which foreign language you will pursue.
3. Could Foreign Language Skills Be a Necessary Communication Tool in Your Future?
Perhaps you want to be an artist or a chef. Maybe you want to do tech work. There are many careers in which foreign language skills aren’t necessarily an obvious advantage, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t provide significant opportunities.
At some point in your life, you may want to study, live, or work abroad. While it might not be a career-based decision, immersing oneself in other cultures is an important and perspective-broadening experience for anyone. If you think that you might want to pursue this option, speaking a foreign language will certainly make your transition much easier.
You may also want to consider if your community or a community that you’re interested in working with or living in has a significant number of non-English speakers. In this case, while speaking another language isn’t a necessity, it’s still an advantageous communication skill in your daily life.
You never know when foreign language skills will come in handy. Of course, if you are traveling abroad, you can expect that certain language skills will be useful, but there are many other circumstances in which you might encounter non-English speakers too. If you have a basic idea of where you see yourself over the next five or so years, or you can picture yourself pursuing one of the opportunities outlined above, you might get a better idea of how important foreign language skills will be for you.
4. Are Foreign Languages Something You Enjoy and Excel At?
Sometimes, even if you aren’t planning to apply to the most selective colleges or you don’t intend to pursue a career or lifestyle in which foreign languages are beneficial, you will still choose to take these classes simply because you enjoy doing so. Learning another language can be a fun experience and it does open the door for opportunities, whether planned or not.
In addition, foreign languages might be an area in which you naturally excel. If this is the case for you, it may mean that continuing to take foreign languages translates (no pun intended!) to a higher GPA or strong SAT subject tests or AP exam scores. These will be valuable in your college admissions process even if you don’t apply to competitive colleges.
Ultimately, there is no easy equation to answer the question of how far you should pursue a foreign language in high school. The answer really relies on a number of individual factors that you will have to weigh when making the choice that is best for you.
To learn more about pursuing a foreign language in high school or beyond, consider the benefits of the CollegeVine Near Peer Mentorship Program, which provides access to practical advice on topics from college admissions to career aspirations, all from successful college students.
For more information about studying foreign languages, check out these CollegeVine posts:
For more about specific AP language classes, see these CollegeVine Guides: