This past weekend, I had the great pleasure to co-host Parent University with test prep guru, Shane Bybee. The question of “how many years of foreign language must a student really take?” came up, as it always does. In fact, this is one of the most frequently asked questions among high school students (and, sadly, one of the most often incorrectly answered). The answer really depends on your goal. To meet basic high school graduation in most states, students are required to take two years of the same foreign language. More selective universities and distinguished graduation plans, like that in my home state of Texas, require three years. However, the most highly selective schools in the country really want four years of the same spoken foreign language, ideally, culminating in the AP. That means languages like Spanish, French, Hebrew, Mandarin, Latin, German, etc.; unfortunately, ASL and Computer Science don’t meet this requirement at many schools.
No other guidance seems to evoke more grunts and eye rolls among my teenage clients than this sage piece of advice. And, I understand why. It is nearly impossible to learn a language in the way our school system structures it. Forty to sixty minutes a day is not a sufficient amount of time to immerse oneself in another language, to overcome the understandable discomfort and embarrassment, to gain practice, and to fully embrace the opportunity of being proficient in a different dialogue. For schools that are on semester-based classes or block schedules, this feat is close to impossible without supplementary instruction.
Milyon Trulove, Vice President And Dean Of Admission & Financial Aid at Reed College, a selective liberal arts college in Portland, Oregon, and alma mater to Steve Jobs, provided his reasoning of why four years of foreign language is so important to highly selective schools when I recently met with him. He argues:
- The fourth year of foreign language covers more than language; it covers culture and world view.
- The workplace is becoming increasingly global. So, whether you pursue a future in medicine, business, engineering, fashion, or teaching, being able to communicate with and work with diverse teams is critical.
- Many colleges have a 2-year language requirement. If a student drops their foreign language in high school, admissions assumes their college curriculum is not a great fit for that student.
Is it possible to be admitted without the 4th year? Absolutely. However, if you are targeting Ivy League or highly selective schools, the fourth year will make you a more compelling candidate and a high AP score may help you place out of the college language requirement (as it did for me). If you have any question about how many languages you need, don’t rely on your friends, chat boards or, in many cases, your high school counselor. Instead, call the admissions offices of your target schools and ask them what they are looking for in successful candidates. Based on the answer, you can match your course planning choices with your ultimate educational goals.