Choosing a Second Language

For many undergraduates, the prospect of a few painful semesters of a second language is a dreaded part of graduation requirements. It’s a fundamental part of a Bachelor of Arts degree—a certain level of competency in a second language.

Looking heroic while speaking Spanish with Pedro de Valdivia in Chile. 

Looking heroic while speaking Spanish with Pedro de Valdivia in Chile. 

There are a seemingly infinite number of studies and reports out there on the value of a second language—everything from increased business opportunities to an enhanced ability to empathize or to think creatively. Mastery of a second language is supposed to increase potential lifetime earnings, and possibly stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

For a lucky few people, learning languages comes easily. Others are brought up multilingual (or live in a multilingual country), and enter college already comfortably chatting away in two or three different languages. However, for most of us language learning poses a serious challenge and can often top the list of “most dreaded classes.”

So if a second language is part of your college future, how do you choose which language to study?

If you choose to learn a second language—because you want to graduate or because you decide it will be good for you—you then need to pick a language to study. There are a myriad of reasons to choose any particular language at any given time, from ease of study (not a particularly good reason, but probably a popular one), to balancing interest and potential future benefit.

Practical considerations

Some languages will take you further in the world, practically/logistically speaking. Depending on your practical needs, you might choose a language with the greatest business potential, or within a region you’re interested in traveling. You might maximize your ability to connect with a cause or an international non-profit by targeting a particular language.

Even basic communication skills can take you a long way in building good will and understanding.

Practical reasons to pick a language will look different depending on who you are and what your goals are. What seems reasonable to one person might not make sense for others. There are some languages that make good generalist sense (spoken by large numbers of people and/or in strategically important areas of the world), like Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, and French. There are other languages that might be of more practical use for specific niche reasons—for example, if you were interested in becoming a specialist in a certain region or profession that called for language skills.

Some ways to choose a language based on practical considerations:

  1. Focus on big business areas now and in the projected future. BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are getting a lot of attention for being upcoming business and global power centers. Choosing one of those areas is a great way to make informed and strategic language decisions.
  2. Consider regions you are particularly interested in for travel, living, future study, or business. When you imagine a great future life, is there a part of the world that calls to you?
  3. Is there a center of innovation or leadership in your area of interest or specialization outside of the English-speaking world (or with historical roots outside of the English-speaking world)? For example, if you are interested in human rights or work with the UN, learning French will help you enormously.
  4. Is there an underserved language community in your future field? If you are pursuing a technical profession, could this be augmented by language skills to interact with an immigrant community, or which you could position yourself to be sent overseas to connect with?
  5. Do job searches. In particular, do two types of job searches: one for entry-level jobs you might be interested in right out of college. Do they list a second language as a requirement or a bonus? Then do job searches for something you might be interested in at the height of your career—a dream job (if you can’t find job listings by searching online, look instead for biographic information on the people currently holding these jobs). Look for language requirements there, and see what these people are speaking.

If you’re reading this blog in your first language, then you’re lucky enough to have grown up speaking English, which is one of the most widely-used and strategic languages out there. There’s a strategic advantage to just speaking this language well. However, if you can pair this with competent conversation and written skills in another high-use or otherwise practical language, you could set yourself up for interesting opportunities and a leg-up on competition, regardless of your chosen field.

If you are just setting off on your language study, it might be worth asking around a bit for advice on what to study. Ask your academic advisor, do some research online, and if you have a mentor or network of people you trust in industries or fields you’re interested in, ask for advice. It might be that there are trends in your chosen profession that will point you toward one language over another, or some emerging area you hadn’t thought of yet.

A second language might be a requirement, but you might also be able to use it in your favor, whether this will open up doors for travel or for professional development. Do a bit of research and find out how best to use those mandatory two years of classes.

Passion

It might be that, instead of practicality, you choose a second language for reasons of passion. Maybe you have family roots in a region, or are drawn to a particular culture. Maybe you heard a language spoken as a child and it holds a sense of nostalgia, or maybe a chance encounter with a language knocked you so off balance that you want to pour yourself into learning and speaking it.

Whatever the reason, people sometimes fall in love with a language. If this is the case, then by all means pursue that language. It might be that it isn’t the most practical (although I encourage you to do the same strategic research as I advocated before—you might be surprised by how it can help you along). It also might be that you can leverage a passion for a non-“useful” language into a career path by really getting to know the language and culture, and by therefore building links for business, research, or other professional tracks.

If passion is your reason for studying a language, you don’t need my help to figure it out. Just head out and study to your heart’s content.


I want to say briefly that my Spanish studies were a combination of the two. I did not enjoy most of my pre-college Spanish classes, nor did I immediately embrace my college language course. But I started to travel after my freshman year, and since then I haven’t looked back. I love Spanish for the rhythm and the flow, and the way I feel when I speak it. I love realizing I’ve just expressed myself well in a foreign language. I love being able to catch an inside joke or a bilingual exchange. And I love the places I’ve been able to go and the people I’ve met through speaking Spanish. It has added enormous depth to my life—practically, professionally, and personally. 

Good luck with your studies! 

If you enjoyed this post, also check out "Learning a Language: My Journey in Spanish" and "Cultural Preparation for Study Abroad."