Gaikokugo ga suki desu ka? That’s Japanese for “Do you like foreign languages?” If your answer is a resounding yes, then a foreign language major might be for you.
In 2013, I graduated from USC with a bachelor’s degree in Japanese. Though I sometimes doubted whether I should major in Japanese, I ultimately knew it was the right choice because being able to understand and use Japanese was a skill I wanted to have for the rest of my life. Moreover, I didn't just enjoy learning Japanese but also loved getting to know Japanese culture.
These are the reasons I chose to major in Japanese. That said, a language major isn’t for everyone. So should you major in a foreign language? What are the reasons you should? And what are the reasons you shouldn't?
In this guide, I give you four reasons to major in a foreign language and three reasons not to. I also go over what questions to ask yourself before deciding whether to pursue a language major.
But first, what exactly is a foreign language major?
What Is a Foreign Language Major?
Before I go into the reasons you should and should not major in a foreign language, let me explain what I mean by majoring in a foreign language.
Many US colleges offer undergraduate majors that focus on a specific language and the main region/culture it's spoken in. In other words, you’re not simply majoring in a language but rather a language and where it’s most commonly used. So if your major is French, you’ll likely learn about France. Similarly, If you’re studying Mandarin Chinese, you’ll likely learn about Chinese culture.
Colleges offering foreign language majors typically house them in humanities departments or at colleges of letters, arts, and sciences (or something equivalent).
Although most foreign language majors combine language and cultural studies, many are named after the language only. For example, if you’re studying Spanish (in addition to Latin American or Spanish culture), your major is most likely called Spanish instead of something like Spanish culture or Spanish language and culture.
However, some schools use slightly broader names for their foreign language majors. My alma mater, USC, for example, offers an East Asian Languages and Cultures (EALC) major, which lets you study Japanese, Chinese, or Korean (as well as the language's respective area). As a result, students mainly studying Japanese might say they’re majoring in Japanese when in actuality they’re majoring in EALC with an emphasis in Japanese (as in my case).
Some schools also offer foreign language majors that let you study more than one language at a time. One example is the University of Michigan's Romance Languages and Literatures major. For this program, students can study two Romance languages (out of Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and French) at the same time.
Finally, some majors have college language requirements but are not specifically focused on the language (or area) itself. Examples include comparative literature majors and linguistics majors. For the former, you must typically learn at least one foreign language so that you can compare texts in their original languages. For the latter, you must know a foreign language so that you can effectively analyze its linguistic properties. Though these two majors clearly involve language study, they're not the same as language majors in that they don't focus on area/cultural studies as well.
Overall, it’s arguably more accurate to call language majors "foreign culture majors" or "foreign language and culture majors," since these majors almost always combine the study of language and culture.
Learning culture is just as important as learning language.
My Story: I Majored in Japanese
Now that you understand what a foreign language major is, let’s get down to business: who am I, and why am I writing this article?
As I briefly mentioned at the beginning, I majored in a foreign language (and in English—what can I say? I love languages!). My language of choice was Japanese. Why did I choose this language? Well, I’d been studying it since junior high school, absolutely loved learning it (even though it was really, really hard at times—and still is), and envisioned myself eventually using Japanese in my career.
Because I knew I wanted to major in Japanese before I even started college, I looked specifically for colleges that offered a major in Japanese.
Eventually, I enrolled at USC where I declared a major in East Asian Languages and Cultures with an emphasis in Japanese. For this major, I had to take mostly Japanese-language classes as well as classes on topics relating to Japanese and East Asian studies, such as literature, art, and history.
Since graduating from USC, I’ve worked as an English teacher for the JET Program (a government-sponsored program that pays you to teach English in Japan) and am now enrolled in a Japanese Studies Master of Arts program at the University of Michigan.
Here are the primary reasons you can trust my advice in this article:
- I have firsthand experience with learning and majoring in a language: I know what kinds of classes you’ll likely need to take and understand how tough it can be to keep up your language skills (especially over those long summer breaks!).
- I have worked in a job that uses my target language: Obviously, what kinds of job options you'll have after majoring in a foreign language will depend on several factors, but know that I, too, have gone through the process and will try my best to lend you a (relevant) hand.
- I majored in what I loved: Ultimately, I chose to major in Japanese because it was something I found interesting, useful for my career goals, and downright fun.
Now that we've covered all the basics, let’s take a look at the main reasons you should (and should not) major in a foreign language.
4 Reasons to Major in a Foreign Language
We’ll start with the positive points. What are the benefits of majoring in a foreign language, and what are the main reasons you should consider doing it?
#1: You’re Passionate About the Language and Want to Use It in Your Career
This is rule #1 in my book. You should only be majoring in a foreign language if you’re absolutely passionate about it. The reason passion is so important is that learning a foreign language is really hard work and takes years of practice to become fluent.
Majoring in a language is also a smart idea if you plan to use the language in your career. If you want to be a translator/interpreter, for instance, majoring in the language you want to translate is a 100% practical decision and will give you the background necessary for doing well in your job.
But a foreign language major won't make you a lot of money, right? Not necessarily. Although liberal arts degrees have a reportedly harder time landing well-paying jobs, recent reports show that many liberal arts majors earn about as much as, if not more than, STEM majors do.
#2: You’ll Learn a Practical and Lifelong Skill
Although many people don’t think a foreign language major is practical, knowing another language is an excellent lifelong skill to have and can come in handy in a variety of situations, particularly if you want to travel abroad or work in a global industry.
You've probably heard that there are tons of mental benefits of being bilingual, such as improved memory and better multi-tasking skills. But there are also broader benefits of knowing a foreign language that apply to your career and lifestyle.
Here's what an article posted on Trinity Washington University’s website has to say about knowing multiple languages:
"The ability to communicate in multiple languages is becoming more and more important in the increasingly integrated global business community.* Communicating directly with new clients and companies in their native language is one of the first steps to founding a lasting, stable international business relationship."
Clearly, majoring in a foreign language not only teaches you how to speak a language but also how to communicate effectively with people (and potentially business partners!) from different cultures and language backgrounds. This is an excellent attribute to have in the workplace and might even result in higher pay in the long run.
It’s also a great skill to have when applying for jobs since your ability to speak another language will help you stand out from other applicants.
An article on Penn State's website agrees, claiming that multilingualism increases your desirability in the job market:
"In our globalized world, it has become even more essential in the job market to know another language. Companies and businesses have a natural desire to expand their existing networks. Having fluency in another language gives an edge on any resume by showing employers potential to converse with an entirely different group of people."*
As you can see, there are some great occupational benefits to majoring in a foreign language and being familiar with another culture!
#3: You Want to Work in a Foreign Country
If one of your goals is to work and live in another country—in particular, an area where your target language is spoken—a major in that language is a logical choice. Such a major proves that you are familiar with both the language and culture.
For some jobs based in your target country, knowing the local language might be expected. Even if it’s not required, though, your knowing the local language could give a boost to your resume, as it implies you’ll require less help adjusting to your new environment.
#4: You Like the Idea of Double Majoring
Majoring in a foreign language can be useful for your career goals if you plan to double major. This way, you’ll have a different skill or field you can apply your language knowledge to.
You’ll be most appealing as a job candidate if you pair a foreign language major with a major in an entirely different field, such as business, international relations, political science, economics, STEM, or education. This kind of double major will give you a vast range of skills you can apply to a variety of careers and fields, from business to PR to teaching.
Hoping to earn a lot of money? Then pair your language major with a STEM major. According to a report by The Conversation, this combination offers the biggest potential for high earnings. (Note, however, that a dual STEM degree typically brings in the most cash.) There are even programs that encourage students to double major in STEM and a foreign language.
If you’re like me and can’t get enough of the humanities, it's OK to double major in a language and another liberal arts major. Just know that your potential for high wages will be lower than if you combined your language major with a major in a technical- or business-oriented field. This doesn’t mean that you will for sure earn a small salary—just that your job options might be more limited.
3 Reasons Not to Major in a Foreign Language
Now that we’ve gone over the good side, it's time to head on over to the dark side. What are some reasons you shouldn’t major in a foreign language? I introduce my top three below.
#1: You’re Not Passionate About the Language You’re Learning
This is a pretty obvious reason, but if you're not passionate about the language you’re learning and don’t intend to use it after college, don’t major in it. Learning a language is tough—sometimes it feels impossible. So if you’re majoring in one, you need to have the patience and diligence to study it for the long term.
A language major means you'll be learning the language the rest of your life. This is what you must do to keep up your communicative skills and be able to use the language consistently in both your career and social life. If you’re not ready for this lifelong process or aren’t sure whether this is something you can commit to, don’t major in a foreign language.
Don't know what you want? Take a class or two in your desired language of study and then decide whether this is something you can see yourself studying (and enjoying!) for a long, long time.
If you enjoy learning a foreign language but are more interested in other fields, consider minoring in the language. This way, you’ll still be able to use the language fairly effectively but more so as a supplementary skill—meaning that it won’t be the main skill set you graduate with but will still be an important one.
#2: You're Expecting to Be Fluent by the Time You Graduate
Unfortunately, even if you study a foreign language for four years straight in college, this doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll graduate with full fluency in it.
The reality is that many foreign language majors won't actually attain fluency by the end of college. It’s not that these students are bad at the language or that their schools are bad at teaching it—it’s simply that students typically need more time and language practice than what college offers.
So if you're not ready to dedicate your personal life as well as your academic life to this language, it's probably not in your best interest to major in it.
While it's possible to attain some level of fluency by the time you graduate, what skill level you're at will ultimately depend on many factors, including how well you did in your language classes, whether you studied abroad (trust me, it helps!), and how often you used (and continue to use) the language outside of class.
Part of fluency also depends on the language you're studying and what your native tongue is. Data released by the Foreign Service Institute of the US Department of State shows that it takes native English speakers far less time to reach proficiency in Spanish, French, or Italian than it does to reach proficiency in Japanese, Chinese, Korean, or Arabic.
In my case, I spent the equivalent of four years studying Japanese in college. I even studied abroad in Tokyo for a semester. But would I say I was fluent by the time I graduated? Far from it.
Though I loved the Japanese language and certainly felt I was at an advanced level, I still struggled to speak and understand it. Some of this was due to laziness—I didn’t make much of an effort to integrate Japanese into my daily life, which I strongly regret—and some of this was due to a lack of confidence in my abilities (I always got shy whenever I tried to speak Japanese with people).
However, once I moved to Japan after college and began living in a small town where virtually no one spoke English, my Japanese rapidly improved.
Basically, what I’m trying to get at is that you shouldn’t expect to be a totally fluent speaker in a language simply because you majored in it. In reality, you’re likely going to need to spend time outside of and after school practicing the language and really making it part of your life until you can honestly say you've reached a comfortable level of fluency. In short, a foreign language major takes a lot of additional effort to make it worth it.
#3: There’s a Higher Chance of Unemployment and Low Pay
I’ve already touched on this a little above, but it can be difficult for language majors to find a well-paying job (especially if you majored in only a language and didn't double major).
Let’s start by looking at unemployment rates. According to Forbes, non-technical majors have higher unemployment rates than STEM, business, and health care majors do. Moreover, recent graduates with liberal arts degrees face an unemployment rate of 9.2%.
But what about salary? A 2015 study conducted by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that the median salary for those who majored in a foreign language was about $52,000.
While this salary might not sound too bad to you, by comparing it with the median salaries of other common majors, you'll see that salaries for foreign language majors don't rank that high:
- General engineering: $81,000
- Economics: $76,000
- Architecture: $67,000
- Nursing: $66,000
- Public policy: $65,000
- Biology: $56,000
- Journalism: $56,000
- History: $54,000
- Foreign languages: $52,000
- Commercial art and graphic design: $51,000
- Psychology: $49,000
- Secondary teacher education: $48,000
Overall, majoring in a foreign language is a somewhat risky business. Not only might you have more trouble finding a job, but you’re also likely to have a lower starting salary.
Should You Major in a Foreign Language? 3 Questions to Ask Yourself
So far we’ve looked at some of the reasons you should and should not major in a foreign language. In the end, though, should you do it? Here are three questions to ask yourself before making your final decision.
#1: What Kind of Career Do You Want (or Think You Want)?
Although you don’t technically have to use your major in your career, it’s a good idea to try to find a way to apply the skills you acquired in college (in this case, mastery of a foreign language) to your professional life.
But what kinds of jobs will a language major prepare you for?
Two of the most popular fields for language majors are translation and interpretation. However, there's both good and bad with this.
The bad news is that these two jobs typically don't pay a ton. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the median annual wage for translators and interpreters in May 2016 was $46,120.
Wages can vary a lot, though. While the lowest 10% of translators made less than $25,370 in 2016, the highest 10% made more than $83,010. That’s a difference of almost $58,000! This variation in pay depends on a number of factors, including whether you’re a self-employed or in-house worker, where you live, and what languages you know.
So what’s the good news? Translation/interpretation jobs are on the rise. According to the BLS, the projected growth rate for interpreters and translators from 2016 to 2026 is 18%—that’s 11% faster than the growth rate for all jobs in the US!
But what if you’re not interested in becoming a translator or interpreter? That’s fine! Not everyone who studies a language wants to sit around all day translating business manuals or interpreting at conferences.
Here are some examples of other jobs can you do with a foreign language major:
- International relations specialist
- Foreign service officer
- Public relations
#2: How Fluent Do You Want to Become?
If you’re expecting absolute fluency in your target language by the end of undergrad, know that this might not happen. (Again, this really depends on multiple factors, including what language you're learning, whether you study a lot on your own time, etc.)
Although you can learn a lot with four years of college-level language instruction, it’s generally not enough to make you truly fluent in a language.
This is why I suggest looking at your bachelor’s degree as a starting point. I know, this probably sounds horrible—you spend four years learning a language and I'm calling that a starting point. But the reality is that language learning is a lifelong process. And if you expect to use your language in your future career, you’ll need to spend time after college studying and practicing it as well.
Here are six ways you can further improve your language skills after college (note that you can do most of these tips during college, too!).
Tip 1: Visit and/or Live in a Country That Uses Your Target Language
Although easier said than done, immersion is one of the best ways to get a language down fast. If you're in college, study abroad. Already graduated? Try to apply for jobs in your target country.
One "easy" way to gain access to a country is to teach English. If you’re studying Japanese as I did, you could apply for the JET Program. If you’re studying Korean or Spanish, you could apply for the EPIK program in Korea or the Auxiliar de Conversación Program in Spain.
Tip 2: Study on Your Own Time
This tip is crucial (and really hard to do when you’re no longer in school!). Finding time to study on your own is what will ultimately help you keep up your language skills and stay sharp.
I suggest buying some textbooks and keeping the ones you used in college so you can review what you've learned. Your goal here is to continuously work on improving your vocabulary and grammar knowledge.
Tip 3: Join a Local Language Group
When I felt that my spoken Japanese was getting worse, I decided to look for a language group in my area using the website Meetup. Through the Japanese-language group I found, I was able to converse in Japanese with both native Japanese speakers and other language learners.
The group wasn’t just great for practice but was also extremely fun! I recommend using Meetup if you ever want to look for (or make) a language group.
Tip 4: Hire a Tutor or Online Language Partner
If you want to practice speaking and listening but can’t find anyone to do this with in person, try looking for a language partner or tutor online. Tons of companies offer language lessons over Skype and other video chat programs. Some of the best include Verbal Planet, italki, and Live Lingua.
Tip 5: Attend a Language School
If you're hoping to improve your language skills and prefer doing so in an academic environment, consider applying to a language school. While tuition can be high, the experience and vast set of skills you acquire often make it worth the price. For example, many people I know attended a Middlebury Language School over the summer—and all of them loved it!
Tip 6: Go to Graduate School
If you not only want to become fluent in a language but also want to be able to use it effectively in both professional and academic settings, grad school might be a good option for you.
However, as you probably know, graduate programs (particularly master's programs) in the US can get pretty expensive, so I recommend applying for as many fellowships as possible. One of the best-funded scholarships for language learners is the Foreign Languages and Area Studies (FLAS) program, which typically covers full tuition and offers a yearly stipend of $15,000 for grad students ($5,000 for undergrads).
#3: What Language Are You Interested In?
It’s important to understand that if you plan to use your foreign language major in a career, then your job/salary prospective will depend, in part, on which language you choose to study.
For those of you thinking about becoming translators/interpreters, here’s what the BLS has to say about the types of languages that will be most in demand:
"Demand will likely remain strong for translators of frequently translated languages, such as French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish. Demand also should be strong for translators of Arabic and other Middle Eastern languages; for the principal Asian languages including Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Korean; and for the indigenous languages from Mexico and Central America such as Mixtec, Zapotec, and Mayan languages."*
*All bold emphasis mine
If you want to work for the US government, your best bet will be to major in a critical language. But what is a critical language exactly?
According to the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA), critical languages are languages that are "less commonly taught in US schools, but are essential to America’s positive engagement with the world."
At present, there are 14 critical languages:
Note that this doesn’t mean you won’t be able to find a job if you studied a language not on this list, such as Spanish, French, or Portuguese. Rather, all this indicates is that if you’re planning to work for the US government in particular, you might have a slightly harder time getting a job, as there is a smaller need for your language than there is for the ones listed above.
Conclusion: When to Pursue a Foreign Language Major
Overall, there are both advantages and disadvantages to majoring in a foreign language. I chose to major in Japanese because I knew it was the right path for me—and one I really, really wanted to take, despite the challenges I'd inevitably face.
If you're thinking of pursuing a language major, make sure you're doing so for the right reasons. Once again, here are the four best reasons to major in a foreign language:
- You’re head over heels in love with the language and want to make a career out of it
- You’ll learn skills you can apply to a variety of careers and situations
- You’ll be more likely to secure a job abroad should you want to work outside the US
- You’re interested in double majoring, which will give a professional boost to your foreign language major by equipping you with more skills you can use in the future
That said, majoring in a foreign language isn't for everyone. Here are the top reasons you should not major in a foreign language:
- You’re not passionate about the language you’re studying
- You're expecting to be totally fluent by the time you graduate (while not impossible, this usually requires you to spend a lot of extra time studying and practicing your language)
- You’ll face a higher risk of unemployment and a lower starting salary
If you're still on the fence about pursuing a language major, ask yourself the following questions to help you determine whether this major is the right decision for you:
- What kind of career do you want?
- How fluent do you want to become?
- What language do you want to study?
In the end, whether you decide to major in a foreign language is your choice and yours alone. Just make sure you have a good reason to do so and have considered all possible pros and cons before committing to a language major!
Not sure what to major in? Get expert advice in our guide to choosing a college major, and learn the five main factors to consider before you declare a major.
Foreign language majors can be lots of fun—but they're not typically the most lucrative. Our guide tells you which college majors are likely to bring in the most cash, and offers tips on whether you should pursue one.
What are the worst majors for college students? If, after graduation, you want to have an easier time finding a job with a high salary, consider avoiding these 26 majors.
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Hannah received her MA in Japanese Studies from the University of Michigan and holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California. From 2013 to 2015, she taught English in Japan via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.