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Duke University
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Varun Srinivasan
4 IB Guides

Ultimate Guide to IB Foreign Languages

What’s Covered:


The International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme or IBDP for short, is a popular high school curriculum, on a similar status level as the APs. They are, however, taught internationally and are considered to be a widely accepted form of high school education when it comes to college and university admissions.


Amongst the multitude of subjects the IBDP offers, one important group of subjects are foreign languages. This blog is about the numerous options provided, or at least the most popular ones, and how taking a foreign language during IB can be beneficial in your applications to college/university. 


Overview of the IB Program and Subject Groups


All IB students must pick at least 6 subjects, from a collection of subjects within groupings. 


The groups are as follows:


  • Studies in language and literature
  • Language acquisition
  • Individuals and societies
  • Science
  • Mathematics
  • The Arts


Each class is going to fall into one of these categories, and each class also comes in two variations: HL and SL. Essentially, HL refers to Higher Level classes that are more difficult variations of the SL (Standard Level) classes of the same subject. There are numerous differences aside from difficulty as well, but the amount of coursework required to study tends to be the largest.


Under certain situations, you can replace an arts class with an extra science or individuals and societies class. This is usually done to specialize/curate subject selections so that you can prepare for a major you plan on taking in college. 


IB Foreign Language Courses


There are three foreign languages that are taught in schools:


  • French
  • Spanish
  • Mandarin


Keep in mind that if you want to learn a language that isn’t offered in your school but is accepted by IBO, you can take it alone (self-taught) or at a different class, and collect supervised hours and other ways to measure your “grade”. This can vary every year so please check in with your DP coordinator for the most recent information.  


How IB Foreign Languages are Structured


The official name of a foreign language class for IB would be something like “IB Language B: French HL.” The courses come in two variations, standard and higher levels, but the class is primarily aimed at students who have preexisting knowledge of the language from their first two years of high school (9th and 10th grades). Some schools, however, do offer an even easier version of languages called ab-initio, but it depends on your school, so check with your DP coordinator for more information.


The class itself requires that you understand spoken, written and conversational applications of the language, to an almost professional degree of proficiency. 


The syllabus in a foreign language class is usually broken down into 5 main components:


  1. Identities: This section is about learning to express your character and personality to people, and makes you think about language and the impact it may have on cultural identity.

  2. Experiences: How can we use language to describe our past, and does language have any ties with cultural experiences that have changed the way in which we view the world?

  3. Ingenuity: This part makes you focus on the impact of technological advances and how your daily life has been improved via these mediums. It can be difficult to talk about this in the language at hand if you aren’t used to specific jargon, so practicing this earlier is a must.

  4. Social Organizations and Impact: Think about how language has made an impact on your day to day life and interactions with general society. Are there limitations with how you interact with people? Perhaps you find some situations, like school, harder to speak or communicate in compared to others.

  5. Environment: What are some environmental issues that you can talk about that you think are affecting the world at a large scale?

The above five sections are essentially the topics that you will be expected to be able to write or converse about with fluency. Sometimes the conversation can get specific; for example, a conversation could be about technology. At times like this, it is important to be equipped with enough general vocabulary that allows you to form decent conversation in specific and niche areas.


How to Pick a Foreign Language Class


It’s always best to pick a language that you have some prior experience in, if available. If you took French during your first two years of high school, the transition to IB French would be not only manageable, but advantageous to earning more points overall in IB. That being said, you don’t have to feel limited in selection by this thought process as well! If you truly feel interested in learning a new language, there isn’t a better curriculum to learn it through than IB! 


If you find yourself struggling to learn new languages, check with your school for ab-initio versions of languages. Ab-initio is essentially an easier version of SL classes, with less coursework and much more lenient grading expectations. These classes are just challenging enough to be engaging, and you can get to learn the basics of the language!


Considering that whatever option you pick should be your choice for two-years (unless you drop or swap a class), just pick a class that you could genuinely have fun learning in!


How Do the IB Foreign Language Classes Affect My Chances of Admission?


It doesn’t necessarily matter which specific foreign language you take, but taking a foreign language in general can be important depending on which university you are applying to. Some universities do require foreign language credits for admissions, and many prefer it. These credits are earned by taking exams that are verified by the institutions for legitimate credits that can be used for admissions, and the IB foreign language exams are some of these exams.


There are many factors that matter when it comes to college admissions and it can be painfully difficult to keep a track of all of them, let alone see how those factors stack up for college admissions chances. Thankfully, CollegeVine’s admissions calculator, a nifty tool that uses GPA, extracurriculars, and more, can provide you with your unique chances of entry into an institute of your choosing!

Short Bio
Varun is a recent graduate from Arizona State University, Tempe, with a degree in Computer Science. He aims to share his knowledge of computer science, the IB Diploma Program, and all things college-related with high school students. In his free time, he can be found performing DJ sets or cooking!