The Forum | General Education

Intern Blog: Dead Languages: Is Higher Education Ignoring Foreign Language Requirements?

August 14, 2017

Fewer and fewer colleges are requiring a full liberal arts core curriculum as part of their general education requirements. Still, many students are required to take writing, literature, and history classes along with math and science courses. But one subject that gets short shrift is foreign language. Foreign language classes, although required in public schools in many states, have become a lost element in post-secondary education. Yet, of the over 1,100 colleges and universities studied by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni’s What Will They Learn? report, only 136 have a foreign language requirement. Make no mistake: The benefits of foreign language competency—cultural understanding and competitive advantages in the job market—are too valuable to be excluded.

Studying a foreign language has intrinsic benefits for cognitive ability and academic achievement in other subjects.

According to the American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages, students who study foreign languages earn higher scores on academic assessments, have increased linguistic awareness, and show stronger hypothesizing skills.

Students may also develop additional academic interests that focus their required coursework. My motivation to select a minor in Spanish originated partly from a curiosity about other cultures that I developed through international studies classes. In turn, throughout my Spanish minor, many of the language classes inspired me to sharpen my academic interests beyond just a list of options in the course catalog. For example, after taking a class on the literature of Central and South America, I was inspired to learn more about their art and history. After taking a Spanish history class during my time abroad, I was inspired to learn more about Spanish politics and government. From cognitive differences to intellectual differences, language acquisition is an asset to the mind.

Foreign language competency has important career and economic benefits.

Many students in liberal arts programs are increasingly concerned about their seeming lack of “hard skills” and a dearth of job opportunities after graduation—compared to degree holders in finance or engineering. As an international studies major, I certainly shared this concern. However, foreign language competency exponentially increases students’ employment opportunities. In their report Not Lost in Translation, the immigration advocacy group New American Economy records that in the last five years, the number of job postings seeking candidates with foreign language skills almost tripled. According to a survey from the Northern Illinois University Center for Governmental Studies, two-thirds of employers will be looking to hire bilingual staff in the next three years.

Not only do foreign language skills increase employment opportunities, but individuals with one or more foreign languages also earn more on average than their monolingual colleagues. In my personal experience, proficiency in Spanish opened doors to thousands of additional job opportunities in Spain and South American countries. This benefit is even more lucrative for students who decide to enroll in lesser-known languages like Arabic or Russian. Conversely, monolingual students are limited to jobs in the U.S. or English speaking countries. As the world becomes increasingly globalized, students of foreign language will continue to find themselves in large demand by employers both at home and abroad.

Language skills also have wide-ranging benefits because of the cultural immersion process.

Beyond employment and economic opportunities, foreign language classes equip students with a broader view of the world and a deeper understanding of cultural differences. Students in a foreign language sequence not only learn the language’s vocabulary and grammar, but also the culture, literature, and history of the nations where it is spoken. As I progressed through my Spanish minor, the history, art, and literature of Spain and South America were part of my foreign language training. I gained immense appreciation for the cultures of these nations, as well as relations between the U.S. and South America. Volunteer and study abroad experiences exposed me to many native speakers with whom I otherwise never would have interacted. These experiences helped me develop an appreciation for different cultures and gave me real-life opportunities to test and improve my speaking skills. It is imperative that both schools and students alike recognize the importance that the cultural element of foreign language training has for the development and education of our citizens.

It’s hard to believe that many colleges and universities are dropping foreign language study from their graduation requirements. What should be a vital aspect of a liberal arts education is being forgotten precisely when it is most needed. That’s a real challenge. Global interactions are increasing in both academia and the workforce and American students will be better equipped for success if they have working knowledge of a second language. With a foreign language requirement on their transcript, our students will be more marketable employees, more perceptive citizens, and more capable students.

Every summer, ACTA is privileged to have several interns work in our office. This is the sixth in a series of intern blogs written by communications intern, Devon Landis. Devon is a recent graduate of the University of South Carolina where she majored in international relations and minored in Spanish and public relations.


Launched in 1995, we are the only organization that works with alumni, donors, trustees, and education leaders across the United States to support liberal arts education, uphold high academic standards, safeguard the free exchange of ideas on campus, and ensure that the next generation receives an intellectually rich, high-quality college education at an affordable price.

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