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by Daire Coco | March 10, 2009


Most high school students in the U.S. are required to take two to four years of a foreign language, but the majority never get beyond the basics. After all, why bother learning French - or any other language for that matter - when English is generally regarded as the international language of business, science and technology? Well, in an increasingly interconnected world, knowing another language is a valuable asset in a growing number of careers. An article in the job market section of The New York Times in October 2002 highlights this point: "In the global economy, American companies increasingly are realizing the benefits of a multilingual work force." The article goes on to state that "speaking a second language is a talent that matters in almost any field," especially in cities with large immigrant populations, like New York City.

So, now that you know the importance of your foreign language class, which one (or ones) should you be learning? If you already know what kind of career you want to pursue, talk to people in that field to find out which languages are useful. If you are planning to enter the world of international business, for example, you might want to consider Japanese, German, Chinese, or other languages that are often associated with global commerce. If you are interested in working for the government, on the other hand, you could strongly benefit from knowing Arabic or obscure languages that few Americans know. Spanish, however, remains the most popular foreign language among American high school students. Given the rapidly growing Hispanic population in the U.S., Spanish is a smart choice for students looking at a wide range of career options. It's also a safe bet for those who have yet to decide on a future career.

Taking several years of a foreign language class is a good start, but if it's a competitive edge you want, you need to be proficient. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to spend a year abroad as an exchange student. This will not only help you gain a good command of another language, but it will also expose you to the everyday life, culture and traditions of people in another country. If you like the idea of studying overseas, but you can't commit to a full year, you should look into semester, summer and other short-term programs. A great resource on all sorts of foreign language programs is, which has a section devoted entirely to high school students. At last count, the site had more than 600 listings in 65 countries. Jennifer Lewis, the site's product manager, says "Students look to the programs as a career builder to help them participate in a global marketplace."

Students can also improve their language skills and cultural awareness through immersion programs at colleges and private language schools closer to home. One such program can be found at the Concordia Language Villages in Moorhead, Minn., ( which offers one-, two- and four-week courses for students from 7 to 18 years old. The school teaches 13 languages and features five Epcot-like villages that replicate life in Germany, Spain, France, Finland and Norway. Alex Loehrer, the school's assistant director for public relations, says the program aims to show villagers (as the participants are called) what it's like to travel to another country. Accordingly so, villagers must pass through "customs" upon arrival to make sure they aren't carrying any "contraband," such as American music or literature. The students are then issued village passports and must trade in their dollars for the local currencies in their respective villages. In addition, villagers must speak the language they are learning during transactions at the bank, village store and post office. Students also get class instruction with native teachers or language experts, take part in games and sports, and learn about the culture, history and food tied to the language they are studying. Depending on the level, the four-week courses can earn students one year of high school credit or four hours of college credit.

But before you sign up for any language school, be sure to talk to your academic advisor. It's important to research as many programs you can to find the one that's best suited for you. Take into consideration the costs (including out-of-pocket living expenses) and whether the programs can earn you high school or college credit. And if you're heading overseas, remember to read up on the country you plan to travel to so you don't have any surprises when you get there. Oh, and, as they say in France, bon voyage!


Filed Under: Education|Grad School

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