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Should You Major in a Foreign Language?

Sometimes stereotyped as a ‘useless’ humanities degree, language degrees typically aren’t the center of the spotlight compared to other ‘useful’ degrees such as medicine, business, accounting, and etc. If you took up foreign languages as a degree or currently a student in one, you’re probably wondering exactly what to do after college after hearing these stereotypes.

This article will help you understand that the benefits in learning a foreign language degree and at the very least, speaking a foreign language, go both ways. Not only will you be able to fulfill a lifelong dream of speaking a foreign language, you’ll be glad to know that many of them such as Chinese (Mandarin) and Spanish are highly in-demand by global industries around the world!

Chinese (Mandarin) and Spanish are highly in-demand by global industries around the world!

Common Career Pathways For Foreign Language Majors

Foreign languages aren’t the usual degree choice for many graduating high school students and the numbers speak for itself. The US-based Modern Language Association reported that between 2013 and 2016, the overall number of students enrolling in foreign language programs have dropped by 9.2%.

However, MLA also reported that they’ve seen a stable trend and even an increase in enrollment for specific languages such as Arabic, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Portuguese, French, and Germany to name a few. Although the overall numbers are decreasing, there is still hope as long as more and more students would come to know the practical benefits in majoring in a foreign language.

You can think of a language degree as similar to a communication degree. Depending on your chosen concentration, both areas emphasize in connecting with people while the latter leaning more towards the media industry. Language degrees specialize more in actual foreign language proficiency along with cultural and social studies subjects.

With that in mind, you can find overlapping jobs that suit both foreign language majors and communication majors. Of course, this also depends on the industry and the specific occupation at hand. You might even be surprised that there are overlapping jobs more suited for foreign language majors than communication majors on an account of the former’s specific skills.

A. Language Services Industry

Being a translator or interpreter is the usual career path in the language services industry. By establishing yourself as a freelancer and working with a professional translation agency, you’ll be providing professional translation services or professional interpretation services. Here’s a quick read that highlights the huge growth of the translation and interpretation industry to help you decide whether or not being a translator or interpreter is a good career path for you.

You should also know beforehand your chosen language pair i.e. English to Spanish and Spanish to English. You can learn to become a Spanish translator or interpreter during your time as a student. You’ll then have the skills to provide professional Spanish translation for a variety of texts and documents or as a professional Spanish interpreter providing either on-site or remote professional interpretation services.

A key commonality with both career tracks is that you’re expected to hold advanced language skills than mere conversational competency. In addition to knowing the prescriptive rules and the language’s lexicon, you should also have sufficient knowledge in critical areas such as culture and social context areas since quality human language services heavily involves those areas.

B. Global Businesses

Under this category, the list of international business jobs to suit your background, skills, and experience are nearly endless. You just have to find the right industry that will suit your background and career interests be it at major retailers, tech companies, banks and other financial institutions, and even software and gaming companies.

With such a globalized economy, language specialists are some of the major human assets in rendering global industries stay internationally competitive, to keep in touch with their vast global connections, and to find new global opportunities made possible by language specialists.

C. Governments, Intergovernmental (IGO) and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO)

These entities are also the usual destinations for people with advanced language skills and cultural knowledge. You can definitely look for international relations jobs that suit your line of expertise and language skills. For IGOs and NGOs, you also have the chance to support various global advocacies while at the same time, employing your chosen language specialization.

D. Tourism & Service

In major global cities, the tourist and service sector definitely needs people with foreign language abilities to accommodate the plethora of tourists coming in from around the world. Depending on your experience, you might even be given lucrative positions that typically require advanced language skills and deep cultural knowledge.

E. Academia

Another common route for foreign language majors is of course, to be a language instructor. You can find employment in schools of all levels from the elementary level, secondary high school level, to the tertiary level (colleges, universities, postgraduate instruction).

The postgraduate level is where many language service professionals look to specialize their translation or interpretation skills per their desired industry i.e. medical, legal, literary, etc. If you really want a niche academic specialization, then you can perhaps try specializing in classical languages such as Latin to provide literary and academic Latin translation.

F. Literary Scene

If you really want a niche area to possibly apply your language skills, then you can definitely hop onto the literary scene. Wondering if your language skills are advanced enough to write creatively with it? Who says you have to write in your foreign language? When it comes to writing, personal experiences are prime material for inspiration – your language skills included.

A very relatable example is J.K Rowling, the author of the internationally acclaimed and timeless Harry Potter novel series. She graduated with a B.A. in French and Classics from the University of Exeter. Her exposure to classical languages and classical history provided her with rich material to cultivate the lore of the Harry Potter franchise.

Catering to In-Demand Languages Other Than English

Since the later half of the 20th century until today, English is the lingua franca of global diplomacy and business. But that doesn’t mean that other global languages don’t hold any weight as a professional asset. In fact, you can find even more attractive career options if you specialize in major global languages that aren’t English.

Globally in-demand business and diplomatic languages other than English are primarily Chinese (Mandarin), German, Arabic, Japanese, and Spanish to name a notable few. This is due to the economic, cultural, and social reach of their national governments, along with the industries that their countries and regions house.

In fact, studying Chinese is now becoming a lucrative career pathway. Many worldwide industries are looking to establish a presence in the Chinese market and likewise, Chinese industries are also looking to branch out worldwide. Thus, specializing in English to Chinese and English to Chinese translation and interpretation services likely means a flood of career opportunities for you.

A key note about specializing in Spanish is that although you might have taken numerous Spanish classes in high school and/or in college, you will have to specialize according to your desired region, namely Latin America, the Caribbean, or in Spain. Not only is their prescriptive rules and lexicon different but also their cultural and social context.

So if you want to be a sought-after Spanish translator, marketing yourself as generically specializing in English to Spanish and Spanish to English language translation or interpretation might not be the best way to do it. Instead, it really helps to specialize in a specific region or two as many clients are looking for Spanish translators with specific local and regional knowledge.

Always Set on Improving Your Language Skills: Final Takeaway

You can now rest easy after knowing that there is a bigger and wider horizon for you as a foreign language major or as a student. Other than your language skills and cultural knowledge, many employers are very keen on hiring bilingual/multilingual individuals.

Apart from their expected hard skills i.e. language skills, language-oriented people have essential soft skills highly suited for the workplace. Cultural knowledge and empathy is one major soft skill but others include improved multitasking skills, better teamwork skills and management, better creativity, and even increased intelligence.

As a foreign language major, you have more assets and skills to show off in your resume and cover letter than you and many people haven’t thought of. Like any other degrees, you just need to know where to look and how you should market yourself as an asset to your future employers.

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