Almost every major has some kind of foreign language requirement. And whenever you’re talking about jobs, people always talk about how learning a second language is a good idea. I get a lot of questions on Quora about what language someone should learn based on their job or university. Not to mention that a lot of university students worry about their resumes (myself included)!
It definitely is a good idea to learn a second language, and your job opportunities can seriously open up if you know one well. The key word here is well. This can mean a variety of things, depending on your job and major. From conversational fluency for business to native level fluency, what employers want varies quite a bit. So, I’m here to tell you what language to learn based on your major, and how well you’ll need to know it!
Now, you should spend your time wisely when you learn another language. Learning for personal interest is OK, but I realize that everyone has the time or opportunity to do so. Depending on what field you’re going into, the language you will want to learn will vary considerably. Before I jump in, keep some of the following factors in mind when choosing a language: where you live, where you work, and how much you need to know that language. With that, let’s get right to it!
Generally speaking, the predominant languages of the engineering professions are English and German. Germany has very good engineering programs at its top universities, as well as a lot of research in the engineering field. I can’t say much else, because this comes from what I’ve learned from my dad, who’s an Electrical Engineering PhD, as well as what I’ve heard from engineering students. If you’re an engineering major, you probably don’t need a second language to graduate, but I’d recommend doing so anyway.
Unfortunately, the distinct lack of human interaction necessary to do work in this major makes it difficult to choose a language for professional purposes. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. Compared to a lot of other professions, human language skills aren’t quite as crucial to getting the job done in computer science. The essential foundation of computer science in English already requires comp sci majors to know English anyway. However, you might end up working with some foreign companies, especially in technology firms that have international presences. You might want to pick up Mandarin, Korean, or Japanese, since China, Korea, and Japan have strong tech industries. How well you need to know it will vary considerably, but unfortunately, I can’t really speak to how much you’ll use it.
Political Science/International Relations/etc.
This one, along with most humanities, is heavily dependent on your regional concentration. The typical poli sci or IR major has to pick a region of specialization, and many programs require a language to graduate. If you’re going to be working with Chinese politics a lot, you may want to consider learning Mandarin or Cantonese. Similarly, if you’re going to be studying the relations of Middle Eastern nations, it will be a good idea to pick up at least two varieties of Arabic, in addition to Modern Standard. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Arabic continuum, here’s an Itchy Feet Comic for you:
The bottom line is that you should learn the language (or languages) spoken predominantly in the area that you’ll be working. Jobs will require varying levels of fluency. For example, you should aim for the B2 (operational fluency) ballpark on the CEFR scale for a job that is more about your analytical skills and political knowledge. In these jobs, it’s simply that your proficiency is a plus and will help you do your job better. On the other hand, your job may explicitly require you to talk with people, such as working in an embassy or acting as an interpreter/translator, which will need a C1 (very proficient) if not C2 (near-native level). It will vary by the job description. Do your research on the area that you choose, and get started!
Literature, Anthropology, Education, and other Humanities
Many humanities majors, such as literature studies, will require a near-native level of fluency of a particular language due to regional specializations. French literature or French linguistics majors need to live and breath French to do their jobs. If you’re an anthropologist who works in South America, having a knowledge of indigenous languages will help you out immensely. Indigenous languages are admittedly trickier to learn due to lack of resources to learn them. If you’re planning to be an ESL teacher, you should definitely pick up significant immigrant languages such as Mandarin or Spanish. It will depend heavily upon where you work and how big the immigrant population is. Be prepared to learn those languages at least to B2 if not C1 proficiency.
Perhaps the most frequent consumers of language course packages for professional development are various business majors. Business majors should consider coverage and general area of employment. If you work in Southeast Asia or with companies from that region, it will be a good idea to pick up Vietnamese or Thai. Business language courses will do you best, and will get you to at least B2, where you can go about most business with little difficulty. Spanish is one of the more popular languages for domestic business in the US, but Mandarin Chinese is also very useful for international business.
What I mean by “research-oriented” includes majors or tracks such as pre-medicine or chemistry; basically the hard sciences. It’s highly unlikely that a pre-med student with a major in a biological science will need to learn another language. Most academia in these fields is published in English or in another language, and then widely translated anyway. However, if you’re a doctor, you’ll want to know the language of non-English speaking patients that frequent your clinic. Learn to at least B1 or B2 fluency, though C1 would probably be better. If you work in an area with predominantly Chinese people, Mandarin or Cantonese will be useful for you. It doesn’t matter even if they do speak English; patients are often more comfortable if their physician is willing and able to speak in their language.
Though I hate to admit it, there are many majors where learning a second language is simply not necessary. These majors include culinary arts, sports medicine, music, or dramatic arts. It won’t be bad for your career, but it certainly won’t get you to high places. To some people, that means it’s not worth it. Personally, I think you should always learn at least one other language for personal enrichment and expanding your worldview.
I hope this helps a lot of people with picking a language to fill out their foreign language requirement! Good luck with your studies and don’t forget to share this post if you liked it!