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Best Languages to
Learn in College How Becoming Bi- or Multilingual Benefits Students

In addition to the many personal and cognitive benefits earned from learning another language, those who are able to communicate with world leaders, multinational corporations and economic trendsetters are in high demand from companies looking to make international inroads in business. But according to data released by the Modern Language Association, enrollment in language courses in college dropped significantly between 2009 and 2013, with only seven percent of college students studying a foreign language. Find out why college students should learn a new language, which languages to learn and expert advice on how to easily master a foreign tongue.

Meet the Experts

Caryn Antonini Founder and CEO, Early Lingo, Inc.
Vasiliki Baskos Founder, Learn Greek Online

WRITTEN BY:

Top Languages to Learn in College

Learning a language outside your native tongue offers many mental and emotional benefits, allowing you to express yourself to others in meaningful ways. In addition to the many personal perks provided by becoming bilingual (or even multilingual!), mastering some languages may lead to more career opportunities and potentially even higher pay.

What is the FSI’s Category of Languages?

Operating under the U.S. Department of State umbrella, the Foreign Service institute categorizes different languages based on how difficult it is to learn them as an English speaker. The groupings also state the average amount of time needed to become proficient in each. They include:

  • Category I Languages:

    24-30 weeks (600-750 class hours)

  • Category II Languages:

    ~36 weeks (900 class hours)

  • Category III Languages:

    ~44 weeks (1100 class hours)

  • Category IV Languages:

    ~88 weeks (2200 class hours)

# of speakers worldwide: 422 million

Difficulty: Category IV

Why you should learn it: Of the 21 million American college students, less than one percent study Arabic even though it’s the primary language of nearly two dozen countries. In addition to having an easy grammatical structure and alphabet, Arabic continues to rise in popularity and usefulness and today it’s one of the top five languages in the world. As Arab businesses and imports continue to enter the world stage, being able to converse about economic and geopolitical issues could be in high demand.

# of speakers worldwide: 285 million

Difficulty: Category I

Why you should learn it: Due to early colonizing efforts by the French government hundreds of years ago, the French language is still spoken on five continents. As the only language outside English that’s taught in every country, French is highly accessible and used in a variety of industries and business arenas. Individuals aspiring to global careers in places ranging from Morocco to Switzerland and Belgium to Canada all need a firm footing in French to be competitive, as do those considering work in international art, architecture, cooking, dance or fashion.

# of speakers worldwide: 132 million

Difficulty: Category II

Why you should learn it: Unlike Russian, Arabic or Mandarin languages, German shares the same alphabet and has many words that sound similar to a native English speaker, making it easier to learn. German is valuable to students interested in pursuing higher academia – particularly in the sciences – as German ranks as the second most commonly used language in scientific journals. Germany can also be found on the world economic stage and operates the largest economy within the European Union.

# of speakers worldwide: 873 million

Difficulty: Category IV

Why you should learn it: In addition to opening doors for conversing with almost a billion people throughout the world, learning Mandarin makes excellent business sense. The Chinese economy is booming, with the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) growing by nearly seven percent in 2017. With America as one of the country’s main export destinations, the ability to converse with Chinese professionals is in high demand at multinational companies.

# of speakers worldwide: 513 million

Difficulty: Category I

Why you should learn it: Aside from the numerous European and South/Central American countries that speak Spanish, our neighbors on the southern border of America provide an excellent reason to learn Spanish. This is particularly true for doctors, lawyers, social workers, teachers and other professionals who regularly serve diverse clientele. Learning Spanish can also be beneficial for individuals looking to work in one of the many Spanish-speaking countries or for those looking to work with international companies.

How to Learn a Language

Many different avenues exist for learning a new language, in college and otherwise. While some students quickly take to the style of teaching offered in a traditional college-level foreign language course, others are best served by learn-at-your-own pace apps or one-to-one tutoring.

Modern Greek language teacher and online language tutor Vasiliki Baskos lists some pros and cons for each of the most common methods of language acquisition so students can make an informed decision about which path is right for them.

College Course

According to a study by the Modern Language Association, more than 1.5 million college students enroll in a language class each semester. Of the languages taught, Spanish far outpaces all others, with approximately 50 percent of learners enrolled in at least one language class. French ranks second with 12 percent, followed by German (5.5 percent), Italian (4.6 percent) and Japanese (4.3 percent) rounding out the top five.

As part of liberal arts core education requirements, many students take two semesters of a foreign language. Advanced coursework is also available for individuals majoring in language studies.

    Pros
  • These types of courses are easily accessible for college students and fit into their traditional course load

  • Many colleges require students to complete at least one year of a foreign language, meaning students won’t have to worry about graduating on time by adding language classes

  • Instructors leading the lessons tend to be highly qualified, either because they are a native speaker or because they studied the language at the collegiate level

  • Learners meet other students with the same level of interest and skills in the language

    Cons
  • College language courses can be very expensive, depending on whether the school is public or private and if the student received any scholarships or grants to help offset costs

  • Students must follow the progress of the class/the lessons are not individualized

Students looking to amplify their language learning often elect to complete a semester or year abroad and engage in immersive study. By living and studying in a place where the language is spoken, students have the opportunity to continue taking classes while also meeting and conversing with native speakers. Many of the classes taught on study abroad trips focus on specific learning aspects, such as Italian opera, German scientists or the Chinese economy.

    Pros
  • Allows students to fully immerse themselves in the culture and history of the language on a daily basis rather than taking a class two or three times per week

  • Extremely effective because students can practice conversing with native speakers 24/7

  • Rather than learning abstractly, students can travel to local grocery stores, shops, museums and other attractions to see the language in use on a first-hand basis

    Cons
  • Students who don’t excel when put on the spot to use their newly developed language skills may feel pressure to succeed

  • If the student is paying for both the course and the housing, the cost could be really high

  • Requires learners to travel abroad, meaning they’ll have to get a passport, any required immunizations and possibly a visitor’s visa

A great option for students who don’t have available credits to take a college course and don’t have the funds for a study abroad trip, foreign language apps put the power of language learning right at your fingertips. These apps help students learn the grammatical basics of the language while also introducing them to common vocabulary words through interactive games, quizzes, and other participatory functions. Examples include Duolingo, HelloTalk, Babbel, Mindsnacks and Tinycards.

    Pros
  • Lessons on these apps are broken down into short sessions (10-15 minutes) so students can learn a new word or grammatical rule even while commuting or waiting in line.

  • Designers use the latest technology to make them very attractive, using lots of flash cards and quizzes that take the form of a game to make them more entertaining

  • Some apps allow users to connect and interact with native speakers of that language, making it possible for them to have real-time discussions.

  • They can be used anywhere, with no need for travel

    Cons
  • Most lessons tend to be on the basic side and focus on building vocabulary skills

  • Students seeking advanced coursework to deepen their language skills typically find that they still need an instructor of some kind

Often seen as the precursor and more in-depth relative of language learning apps, at-home language programs provide intensive study for users looking to move beyond simple grammar and vocabulary. These programs use images, media, voice and other tools to teach students new languages without overly relying on translations – thereby forging deeper connections between English and the language the student seeks to learn. Rosetta Stone is the most popular at-home language program, but other examples include Pimsleur, Rocket Languages, Living Language and Fluenz.

    Pros
  • Offers a learn-at-your-own-pace setup for students who can’t commit to participating in a class setting

  • Allows students to review the same material multiple times if it has been a while since they used the program

  • Helps students learn correct pronunciation via speech recognition programs

  • Keeps track of learning progression to help students stay motivated and focused

    Cons
  • Because a real person isn’t on the other side of the screen, students can’t ask for clarification or help if they don’t understand something

  • More expensive than low-cost apps or free language groups

A common option for individuals who aren’t in college but still want the person-to-person experience of a class, private lessons are becoming increasingly popular via online delivery. Rather than trying to find a native speaker of Mandarin in your hometown, many companies now exist to connect students with speakers from around the world. Learners who crave a more personalized learning experience than what is offered by an app or at-home program often choose this path. Examples include Italki, Verbling and Verbal Planet.

    Pros
  • Students can find native teachers living in a country where the language is spoken with no distance barriers

  • Lessons are personalized to fit individualized learning styles

  • Because all lessons take place online, students can converse with their instructor from anywhere in the world

  • It usually costs less than traditional in-person lessons

    Cons
  • Finding a teacher on the other side of the world may take some time and energy

  • Web conferencing requires a fast and secure internet connection and sometimes it may fail

The Benefits for College Students

College offers a complimentary backdrop of acquiring new linguistic skills as students’ are already engaged in a learning mindset and have more time and space to devote to language mastery than once they graduate and have additional responsibilities.

Here are just a few of the innumerable benefits of becoming fluent in another language for college students.

Increases cognitive function

“Students who learn another language experience increased creativity, better critical thinking skills and overall better executive functioning skills,” says Founder and CEO of Early Lingo, Caryn Antonini. “Long-term health benefits include increased connectivity in the brain that protects against Alzheimer’s and offers faster recovery after a stroke.”

Offers more interpersonal relationships

“Bilinguals can expect to have more interpersonal relationships, as speaking other languages opens the doors to other people and cultures whether at home or abroad,” notes Antonini. “Bilinguals also experience a deeper connection with ‘foreigners’ as they can communicate on another level.”

Increases academic performance

“Studies have shown that students who speak more than one language have better success on standardized tests as their brains are used to switching back and forth between differently held parts of their brains,” says Antonini.

Expands job prospects

“More and more companies today seek job applicants who can speak more than one language as most businesses interact with other countries and cultures to some extent,” explains Antonini. Students who master a language commonly used on the international business stage can expect to be in high demand.

Offers access to research grants

Students who plan to work in academia long-term benefit from knowing more than one language, as many research grants and fellowship opportunities seek academics who can address critical language shortages or participate in overseas projects that aren’t conducted in English. The Critical Language Scholarship Program is administered by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and provides intensive language and cultural immersion in an overseas setting for college students. The aim of this program is to enhance national security and economic prosperity.

Provides a greater understanding of culture

Visiting a foreign, non-English speaking country becomes a completely different experience when viewing the history and culture through the native tongue. Individuals get a greater sense of the unique qualities of a specific place and communicate more freely with locals while traveling.

Creates a more open-minded perspective

Individuals who master a foreign tongue don’t just learn the language during their studies; they learn about the nuances of how words are used and what they mean within the context of that country.

Allows learners to read original texts

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in the original Russian, Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables in the original French or Plato’s Republic in the original Greek? Learning these languages and reading the texts as the authors wrote them often provides additional clues as to their meaning and the greater context of when they were penned.

Builds self-confidence

Mastering a new language is no easy task, but those who succeed feel pride in their accomplishments and a greater sense of confidence that they can put their minds to other difficult tasks and find success. This greater sense of assuredness is beneficial on a personal level, but also has ripple effects when applying for jobs, asking for promotions or taking on other tasks requiring confidence.

Pushes you out of your comfort zone

Many aspects of learning a new language can be done in a solitary fashion, but those who truly master a second language must engage with native learners to be successful. Finding someone to converse with in a second language pushes you out of your comfort zone and opens the door to making new friends.

Tips for Mastering a New Language

Learning a new language is difficult and just showing up to class often isn’t enough to learn a language well enough to use it. To truly master a language and maintain their skills, students can follow some of the tips offered below from our experts.

  • Practice often

    “Being consistent is one of the best pieces of advice I can give students trying to learn a new language,” says Caryn Antonini. The old adage of “use it or lose it” is true in the case of language acquisition, and students who engage in reading, speaking and writing their secondary language often have the best changes of retaining their knowledge.

  • Go to the source

    “Traveling to the foreign country, speaking and interacting with the natives, along with the help of a qualified teacher is the best way to learn the language,” notes Vasiliki Baskos. Just as language immersion and study abroad programs are frequently hailed as the best way to initially learn a new language, regularly putting yourself in a place where English isn’t the predominant language spoken helps students keep skills sharp.

  • Don’t be afraid to try

    “Don’t worry about making mistakes,” urges Antonini. “Just keep talking and talking and the rest will follow.” It can feel demoralizing to continue speaking a foreign language to native speakers when you know you’re making mistakes, but remember that you took part in this same process when learning English. It’s natural to make mistakes, but those mistakes can only be fixed by learning how to correct them.

  • Engage your interests

    “Try reading foreign language magazines that are close to your interests as this can be very effective,” says Baskos. In addition to keeping your interest, publications covering topics you’re familiar with and passionate about is often easier as you’re more likely to recognize key words and phrases to help you move through the text.

  • Practice with native speakers

    “One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to practice with native speakers,” encourages Antonini. It may seem daunting at first, but native speakers are typically more than willing to help learners master their language – especially if they are also trying to learn English.

  • Immerse yourself

    Even if it’s not possible to travel to the countries where the language you’re trying to learn is spoken, there are other ways to feel immersed. “Surround yourself as much as possible with the sounds of the language,” suggests Antonini. “This could mean watching television programs or movies, listening to music or watching the news presented in the language you’re trying to acquire.”

  • Join a language group

    “Joining a language group helps students meet other learners and native speakers and gives them a natural meeting place where they can use their speaking and listening skills on a regular basis,” says Antonini. These groups are often informal and free or low-cost, offering a great alternative for students who can’t pay for college classes, study abroad trips or costly tutors. Try searching on websites like MeetUp.com or check your local library.

  • Download a dictionary app

    Try to find a free or low-cost app that offers the foreign language translation of English words. If you find that you can’t remember the non-English equivalent of a word you want to use, look it up and mark it so that you can go back and study it later.

  • Think in the foreign language

    Even if you don’t have an opportunity to speak with other learners or native speakers on a regular basis, that doesn’t stop you from talking to yourself. It may sound silly at first, but try to think in the new language. Rather than saying to yourself, “I need to go to the grocery store today to pick up milk, eggs and butter,” try to say it to yourself in the language you’re learning.

  • Focus on concentrated learning

    According to foreign language expert Mark Manson, learners derive far more benefits from intensively studying a language for multiple hours in a single session every day for a couple weeks than from taking an hour-long class multiple times per week for months. Because language acquisition requires repetition and consistent investment, students who fully devote themselves for a short amount of time learn more than those who study part-time over the span of years.

Resources

  • 10 Tips on How to Learn Languages by Yourself

    This fascinating how-to video discusses tips for learning a new language while working and in school.

  • Creative Language Learning Podcast

    Great for learners on the go, the hosts of this podcast interview various language-learning experts who share their tips for becoming bi- or multilingual.

  • Forvo

    This online tool provides great help for learners who aren’t sure how to pronounce a new word or name they’ve just learned. Students can enter the word into the search tool and listen to the correct pronunciation.

  • How to Learn Any Language in Six Months

    Chris Lonsdale discusses the importance of language acquisition in the business world and provides tips on learning a new language quickly in this TedxLingnan University talk.

  • Myngle

    Similar to other online language training coaches, Myngle is unique in that it provides language training in specialist fields. Individuals working in business, science or academia pair with native speakers who help them master discipline-specific vocabulary.

  • Lang-8

    While many websites focus on learning and speaking a new language, Lang-8 is specifically focused on writing. Learners enter a sentence in their new language and receive feedback from native speakers on grammar and syntax.

  • Lingualy

    This online resource helps build language learners’ confidence by providing reading materials appropriate to their level of learning. Students can flag words they don’t know and the app explains and adds them to a word library for later review.

  • Skritter

    Specifically designed for individuals learning Cantonese, Japanese and Mandarin, Skritter helps students understand the stroke order of characters within kanji and hanzi handwriting.

  • TedTalk: Hacking Language Learning

    In this TedxWarsaw talk, Benny Lewis discusses the ease of learning languages. Now working on his twelfth language, Lewis runs the world’s most popular language-learning blog.

  • College Tutoring and Language Learning Centers

    Many colleges provide free tutoring services and language support resources for students looking to develop their linguistic skills outside of class. DePaul Universityprovides just one example of what to look for.