Why Study Languages?

The joke runs something like this:

What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American.

Of course, there are millions of bilingual Americans, many of whom learned their second languages as adults. But there is some truth behind the joke: because of our relative geographic isolation, our "melting pot" ideology, and the growing preeminence of English as a commonly understood language throughout the world, many English-speaking Americans simply don't see any benefit to learning another language. This page is dedicated to changing this simplistic and short-sighted approach to language learning.

As undergraduate study in the U.S. becomes increasingly specialized and career-specific, the first question that undergraduates often ask about foreign language learning is "Can I get a job if I major or minor in a foreign language?" The answer is:

Yes, of course. First of all, in almost any job, even in the United States, you will benefit from knowing another language. More and more of the U.S. population speaks languages other than English, and jobs in social services, business, communications, and the government increasingly require people with language skills. Language skills set you apart from other workers, making you a better candidate for promotion and work on new projects.

Beyond that, there are many jobs that absolutely require that you speak a second language. These include working in the Foreign Service, serving a translator and/or interpreter for the Government or the private sector, working at international institutions such as the UN or UNICEF, teaching foreign languages, literatures, and cultures in schools or universities in the US or abroad, and working for multinational corporations. Below you will find a list of the kinds of jobs people who major or minor in a second language have chosen:


  • Social services: social worker, probation officer, criminology and law enforcement, school counselor, drug abuse counselor, occupational health care, income maintenance counselor
  • Business and finance: accountant, administration, human resources director, economist, stockbroker, import-export agent
  • Communications: reporter, translator, publisher, editor, interpreter, tour guide, public relations, film producer or director, sports agent
  • Science and Technology: engineer, chemist, physicist, anthropologist, archaeologist, geologist, biologist, oceanographer
  • Education: library science, elementary, secondary, and college level teaching in the US and abroad
  • Government: translator, interpreter, law enforcement, diplomatic foreign service, customs official, legal advisor

Other jobs include: Advertising Copywriter, Book reviewer, Columnist/ Commentator, Passenger Service Staff, Public Relations Representative, Radio Announcer, Production Manager, Technical Writer, Bilingual Educator, Peace Corps Volunteer, Researcher, World Bank, FBI Agent, State Department or Foreign Service, and Exchange Program Coordinator.

(Taken and modified from the Modern Language department at the University of Northern Iowa.)

Of course, there are lots of reason to learn foreign languages and cultures beyond just getting a job. Learning another language will also help you:

  1. become a better citizen of the world;
  2. understand the cultural implications of world news and events;
  3. understand your own culture as relative rather than the natural state of things;
  4. understand more deeply the "politics" of language both here and abroad;
  5. meet people you otherwise would not have met;
  6. travel to places you otherwise would not have gone;
  7. study or live in a country whose culture is very different from your own;
  8. better understand the complexities of your native language;
  9. increase your capacity to analyze and remember things; and
  10. become a more interesting and engaging person to talk to.




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