Help Your Child Pick Which Foreign Language To Learn

Even though thinking about college may seem far away, certain majors require students to have extensive knowledge of foreign languages. Starting this pursuit during high school can make things considerably easier in the future.


There was a time and place when, in order to be considered educated, one had to have studied Latin, Greek, English, and French.

Today, students have more options and flexibility; but with greater choice comes greater uncertainty — your child may want or need guidance in selecting which language(s) to study.

Where to Begin

Before you and your child begin this discussion, check which languages are available at his or her school, and what requirements the school has about language instruction. Knowing the landscape will help your conversation be more fruitful.

The languages most likely to be available are Spanish, French, and German. The next most common options include Latin, Chinese (most likely Mandarin), Japanese, Arabic, Italian, and American Sign Language. Keep in mind, too, that every school is different.

You may find when guiding your child that the best technique is to listen and ask questions. Make relatively few pronouncements and judgments. Your child will feel more invested in her studies if she has an internal rationale for choosing a particular language.

Asking the following questions will help both of you understand your child’s interests and objectives:

How would this language complement your academic goals?

Even though thinking about college may seem far away, certain majors require students to have extensive knowledge of foreign languages. Starting this pursuit during high school can make things considerably easier in the future.

If your child thinks he or she may be interested in a major like comparative literature or linguistics, or a regional study such as Latin American or Middle Eastern studies, then it’s a good idea to look up what kind of requirements prospective colleges have for those concentrations and take that information into consideration.

How would this language fit in with your career goals?

Sometimes, a foreign language can be incredibly helpful in certain fields. Spanish is particularly useful in the Americas, whereas German, Mandarin, and Japanese are among the most useful for international commerce. Many international organizations use French as their official language, so this may be a good option if your child is interested in working abroad, or at a company with global reach.

Keep in mind, though, that trends can shift. For instance, Japanese was considered the most important language for businesspeople to learn during the 1980s, but it lost ground in the 1990s. By the time your child is an adult, the most useful language to know for business purposes could be something that is unanticipated today.

A similar dynamic exists for those pursuing a career in the armed forces — the present emphases are on Russian, Mandarin, Korean, and languages spoken in the Middle East, such as Arabic, Farsi, Dari, and Urdu. These trends, however may shift over time.

What aspects of the culture associated with this language do you find appealing?

Career goals notwithstanding, your child may be interested in travel. Every language, of course, can help unlock its own cultural treasures. If your child is unsure about which language(s) to pursue, consider asking where he or she might like to travel someday.

Discuss your child’s interest in any particular kind of art, film, literature, or cuisine — it might tie into one of the available options. If your child is particularly interested in the formation of language itself, suggest a classical language, such as Latin or Ancient Greek. Or he or she may be interested in pursuing a study that ties into your family’s own cultural heritage.

Which language programs at school come highly recommended?

Discuss the quality of your child’s school’s language programs. Good teachers can make any subject come alive, and poor ones can make anything dreary. A positive review from other parents or older students is a reasonable tie-breaking factor if your child is torn between options.

How much work are you interested in putting into learning this language?

Also encourage your child to consider the ease of learning the language itself — and ask your child if this is an important factor. If it is, explain that a language that uses the Roman alphabet is likely to be more accessible than one for which students need to learn an entirely new alphabet. If your child is considering a less-commonly taught language, like Vietnamese or Ancient Greek, discuss the extra effort that might be required to find additional outlets and resources outside of the language classroom.

Ultimately, this is a choice students will make for themselves, but thoughtful questions and discussion are a great way to guide young learners on their journeys.

¡Buena suerte! Bonne chance! Buona fortuna!