The Foreign Language Dilemma

Upon reaching college, everyone was faced with a very real conundrum: what language should I take to fulfill the foreign language requirement?

Not everyone was that good at language, yet we all recognized the ability of a language skill to advance our careers in the global marketplace. Obviously, some languages could prove more lucrative than others. So which would be the smartest to pick?

Some contemplated the sleek, uber-professional edge offered by Japanese. Others, the exoticism afforded by Swahili. Some of the more artistic among us took the natural fallbacks of French or Italian. Of the careerists, the dilemma was between Chinese, Arabic, and Hindi. Basically the idea was to pick a widely spoken language, master it, and always be employed.

So which of these strategies is the smartest?

I remember sitting in Chinese about halfway through first semester, right before an exam. Our professor had not yet arrived. One of the struggling students said, “I know what everyone’s thinking right now. ‘Why, oh why, did I not take Spanish.’” I can’t say I empathized with him, but the quote was nonetheless hilarious.

My brother, who does not share my zeal for languages, once called me with a similar question. He had an opportunity to learn Arabic, and figured that if he could master that at any level, it would secure his future. This would be smart, except for the fact that my brother has taken Spanish 1 three times. If I remember correctly, the rationale behind the third time was that he wanted to make sure he really had it strong in his head before he continued on to Spanish 2. Dear brother of mine: what that should really be telling you is that you have no business taking Arabic. I don’t mean to be cruel—it’s just a matter of being honest with oneself.

The point? Know what you’re getting into before you take a foreign language. Know your aptitude for language learning. There’s no shame in not taking a hard one–just the same as there’s no shame in me not taking statistics. My brain doesn’t work that way, and I know that, and I avoid it. Do the same when picking a language to compliment your career. In so doing, you will save yourself a world of pain.

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