Do You Need a Foreign Language for College? Your Guide

Picture of several words stacked on top of each other. Each word is a different colour and says "welcome" in different foreign languages, including English, German, French, Portuguese, Spanish, and more.
August 8, 2022
Do Colleges Require Foreign Language Skills?How a Foreign Language Can Boost Your College ApplicationBest Foreign Languages to Learn for CollegeCollege Foreign Language Requirements: How Much Knowledge Do You Need?FAQs: Foreign Languages for College

”Mary

Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 5/26/22

If you want to learn more about college foreign language requirements or the best language to learn in college, read on to have all your questions definitively answered.

Every year, high school students flock to the internet to learn about foreign language requirements for college admissions. Do you need a foreign language to get into college? How should students frame their foreign language units on their college essays? How much foreign language knowledge should students acquire in high school? What is the best foreign language to learn nowadays?

This guide will discuss college foreign language requirements, the best languages for college, and provide you with several tips and answers to diversify your application.   

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Do Colleges Require Foreign Language Skills?

Many top colleges require a minimum number of foreign language units on candidates’ high school transcripts. Although universities tend to fall on a spectrum from strict to lenient when it comes to this particular condition, not all make it clear whether foreign language units are required or expected. 

Guidelines from The University of Notre Dame, for example, are unequivocal: it requires two units of Foreign Language. Other colleges, like Harvard and Princeton, have higher expectations (ideally four units) without having a formal minimum requirement.

If you haven’t taken any foreign language units yet as a junior student or younger, there is no need to panic. 

Some top universities, such as Yale University, do not have a foreign language requirement and are therefore open to understanding the rationale behind your course choices. “Are you choosing a particular course because you are truly excited about it and the challenge it presents or are you also motivated by a desire to avoid a different academic subject?”

Applicants without sufficient foreign language units on their transcripts should be ready to explain the different motivations that brought them to select different courses. Remember, whether you need a foreign language or not for college depends on the school.

How a Foreign Language Can Boost Your College Application

Your foreign language units can be a great starting point for your college admissions essay. For example, why did you pick French over Japanese? Consider how your course choices were influenced by your passions or experiences. 

Social and historical contexts can help students build a bridge between their foreign language skills and extracurricular activities. UC Berkeley notably specifies that “most marginalized immigrants in the US are from Latin America and speak Spanish, among other languages.”  

Learning Spanish could therefore be helpful in understanding the social adversities Hispanic communities face. Applicants are encouraged to tie their sense of activism and community service with foreign language interests. 

Your foreign language skills are also a great way to convince universities that you will contribute to the school across departments and national borders. 

For example, through its specific foreign language requirement, Duke University aims “to make sure that all students have exposure in some form to Duke’s non‐English language courses.” Students proficient in a second language can pledge their readiness to enroll in courses that are not exclusively taught in English.

Likewise, universities are increasingly globalized; most top colleges have academic centers and exchange partnerships in other countries. An applicant who learned Italian in high school, for example, could draw the attention of universities that have ties with Italy. Notably, there is a Dartmouth Rome Center, a BU Venice Center, and an NYU Florence abroad site. 

Below is a table of some American colleges with established sites abroad: 

Table listing several American colleges and their affiliate sites abroad

Best Foreign Languages to Learn for College

Universities understand that students are restricted to the languages available at their high schools. There are specific reasons for choosing some languages over others, depending on the universities and career paths you intend to pursue. Here are six languages we recommend high school students pick up before college.  

Mandarin

With 1.3 billion native speakers, Mandarin has the most native speakers globally. Learning it could boost your chances of acceptance at a top college, particularly if you are majoring in business. 

For example, Business Chinese is a popular Harvard course available only to students with an advanced grasp of the language. Moreover, Forbes recently highlighted those international companies looking to tap into the Chinese market now require a strong understanding of the country’s language, culture, and politics. 

If you’re interested in business or other careers requiring global understanding and effective communication skills and knowledge, Mandarin may be a great choice for you. 

Spanish

With 460 million native speakers, Spanish has the second largest population of native speakers globally. After Mexico, most native speakers live in the United States. These figures make Spanish an attractive option for high school students. 

Business-minded students, especially those with interests in media and entertainment, could find value in learning Spanish before college. UCLA, for example, reminds its students that LA is an important center for cultural production in the Portuguese & Spanish languages.

Forbes highlighted how brands could serve the growing Spanish-speaking population in the US. The best strategy: learn the language. Students interested in media, entertainment, or business would benefit from learning Spanish. 

French

French is a popular language for students and universities alike. Most prestigious colleges have major francophone departments; French is the second largest foreign program at Stanford, whereas Columbia prides itself on having “one of the oldest and most distinguished French departments in the United States.” 

STEM students who dream about working with Switzerland’s CERN and its famous Large Hadron Collider should especially consider learning French before college. Boston University has a partnership with CERN involving an Undergraduate Physics Seminar and an intensive French language course. 

Mentioning international collaborations like these in your college-specific essay may boost your admissions chances, particularly if you have foreign language units on your transcript. 

German

STEM students should also consider studying the German language. Those vying for a place at MIT should read their statement about the value of learning German: 

“With Germany among leading nations in the automobile, engineering, chemical, and renewable energy industries, learning German creates professional and personal pathways special for students to explore in the US – where companies like Daimler, Siemens, and Bayer are leaders – and in the German-speaking world.” 

Because of these famous German companies, science hubs like MIT may be more likely to accept students who speak German. 

Arabic

Students looking to impress admissions officers should consider learning Arabic. Like Mandarin, Arabic has a different alphabet, making it more difficult to learn than French, Spanish, or German. Education Week recently reported that Arabic learning in US high schools has risen by 75% over the past eight years. 

Arabic instruction has a long tradition among prestigious American universities: the oldest Arabic and Islamic studies program in the U.S. belongs to Yale, dating back to 1841. Yale outlines the career benefits of learning Arabic: 

“One of the many features of learning Arabic is that it opens up many employment possibilities in a number of different industries such as oil, travel, finance, international policy, business, and translation to name a few. Arabic speakers have been in very high demand by many governments around the world including the USA.”

Latin

Latin may be considered a dead language, but it is still used in the legal and medical fields. Pre-law and pre-med students can boost their college applications if there are at least one or two Latin units on their transcripts. 

According to the National Jurist, law school applicants who scored highest on the LSAT had taken some Latin. Entry rates into medical school are typically higher for students who studied some Classics during their academic path. 

If you’re a sophomore in high school and are sure that pre-law or pre-med is your route to college, taking Latin next year can be a helpful language option.

However, not all high schools may offer these languages through their traditional curriculum. If you’re interested in taking one of these languages, you can do so when you enroll in college. So, which language should you take in college? It’s completely up to you! If you’re curious and passionate about learning a new language, you should definitely try it out. 

College Foreign Language Requirements: How Much Knowledge Do You Need?

Top colleges prefer students to take all foreign language units in the same language. The reason? It shows commitment, passion, and proficiency. A student who has studied three languages in three years is unlikely to be proficient in any of them, although admissions officers may appreciate their curious nature. 

High school students eager to reach the 4 unit mark may enter a dilemma: should they continue in the same language or switch to one they find more interesting? 

The answer depends on your preferred college’s requirements. Below are some examples of how much foreign language knowledge students need for admission at some top colleges:

Table outlining NYU's Boston College's, Brown Universitiy's, Cornell University's, and UCLAS's admissions requirements for proficiency for foreign language

Students aiming for colleges like UCLA or BU have more freedom to choose how many units they want to do. NYU or Cornell hopefuls are encouraged to push their language learning a step further.

FAQs: Foreign Language for College

If you still have questions about language requirements or whether learning a foreign language is required in college, read on!

1. Do You Have to Take a Language In College?

In short, it depends on the college and your major. You may or may not have to take a language in college. If you’re unsure, you should check core curriculum requirements at the schools and programs you want to apply to. 

2. Can You Apply to College Without a Foreign Language?

Most top colleges require a foreign language, but there are many colleges that don’t have foreign language requirements. Some schools may recommend you take another language in high school but don’t make it mandatory. You should check program requirements to see what colleges expect of you.

3. What Are Some Colleges That Don’t Require a Foreign Language?

Here is a list of some schools that don’t require a foreign language for admission: 

However, some of these schools may strongly recommend you take two to four units of foreign language to boost your college profile. 

4. How Many Years of a Foreign Language Do I Need? 

Most colleges require between two and four units of foreign language from students. However, some schools may only have recommendations, or no requirement at all.

5. What’s the Easiest Foreign Language to Learn for College? 

To be clear, all languages require time and effort to learn and gain proficiency; however, languages with the same alphabet are typically easier for native English speakers. If you happen to be bilingual and know another alphabet, you may find many languages easier to learn. 

6. Does a Self-Taught Language Count Toward Foreign Language Requirements? 

Teaching yourself a language cannot alone substitute foreign language units in high school. You can opt to sit an exam at a local language center to receive an attestation for your proficiency level. A certificate granted from a recognized institution carries more weight on your application than a mere mention of your self-teaching. 

7. Is American Sign Language Considered a Foreign Language?

Absolutely, and many universities are happy to consider it in lieu of foreign languages. These include universities such as NYU, Brown, and Georgetown– be sure to check the requirements of your preferred college. 

8. I Am Bilingual: Will Colleges Still Require Foreign Language Units? 

Universities welcome bilingual students and are usually flexible with their specific needs. Some universities may waive college-taught foreign language requirements when students can demonstrate proficiency in another language. 

That said, bilingual students are encouraged to do an exam at their local language center and receive an attestation for their proficiency level.

Final Thoughts 

Now that you know that you do need a foreign language for most colleges, you can modify your curriculum to fit these requirements. Students aiming for the most prestigious universities in the world are expected to learn a foreign language in high school. 

Most top colleges will require students to demonstrate proficiency in a second language by graduation. Some universities, like Northwestern, encourage students to fulfill their foreign language requirements before classes even start. 

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