19 March 2010

What Foreigh Language Should I take in High School?

Every high school in America teaches foreign language classes to students. Most require at least 2 years to a single language to graduate, some even three. The reasoning behind this is that colleges usually require at least 2 years of language for admission. A fourth year of a language is usually optional and depends on how much a student likes it. My recommendation is to take 3 years of a language no matter what.

So then the question arises for high school students: What language should I take? Most schools offer Spanish, French, and Latin. Many more offer classes such as German, Japanese, Russian, or Mandarin. Below I will list the pros and cons of each of the major foreign languages to help students make a better decision.


Almost everyone takes Spanish and for good reason. It is considered the easiest of the romance languages to learn and is practical in America today. Especially for students living in the southwest, Spanish can be very useful. There are times when I wish I signed up for Spanish as opposed to French. The drawback of Spanish is that outside of Latin America and Spain, there really is nowhere else to speak it. For many students, this does not matter, but if you want to actually use your foreign language skills in Europe, Spanish is not a very good choice. For Americans it is great, but Europe, even Africa is full of French and English. Spanish is practical in the U.S.


French is the second most common language in high schools. In recent years its popularity has dropped significantly, around 18% because people are finding less use for it. I personally think that French is very useful and took 4 years of French classes in high school. Countries besides France that speak French are: Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Canada, Algeria, Tunisia, and many others. Additionally, many great literary works were written originally in French, so if you want to read the original version of Candide, Les Miserables, The Stranger, The Little Prince, or many other novels, French is the way to go. If none of these things interest you, then Spanish is probably the safer way to go, as it is considered an easier language to learn.


I think that Latin is completely useless in this day and age. No one speaks Latin in the world anymore and its other uses are extremely limited. The only advantage of learning Latin that I can think of is that it helps with SAT vocabulary.  Many English words come from Latin, so if a student knows the Latin roots of a word, then he will most likely be able to pick the right choice on the SAT. I would not waste time learning a dead language just to score a few more points on the SAT, but then again I am a practical person. If those few points matter more than learning an actual language, then Latin is the way to go.


Other popular high school languages include Japanese, Russian, German, and Mandarin. Out of these four other language, Mandarin in probably the most useful. For this reason the number of high schools offering Mandarin classes has more than doubled in the last few years. With all of the business in America going to China, it is helpful to understand its native language. Although English is still the business language of the world, China is one of, if not the biggest trading partner America has. Being able to understand Chinese could be of great benefit in the future.

Japanese is interesting to learn because the language is nothing at all like what Americans are used to hearing. Although application is limited, many electronics are made in Japan, so it could be useful. German is just cool to know. Many people look at Germany as a paradigm of Europe, and honestly, the language sounds pretty bad ass. Russian is great to know if you ever plan on traveling/living/working in Eastern Europe. Although the countries in Eastern Europe have their own official languages, everyone understands Russian. This one language will cover about a dozen countries, all within the distance of a single train ride.

There are many different languages that a high school student can take. Spanish, French and Latin are the most common because they are probably the most practical and useful. Spanish is hands down the easiest and best to know in America. French is better to know in Europe. And Latin is really only useful for the SAT. Students should always take a foreign language in high school, because colleges require it, and just to be exposed to a different culture. If you are anything at all like me, I also like to be able to read the instructions to new electronics in French. It makes me feel special.


Ghen said...

Latin does indeed have one use in which you may have passed over.

In learning many other languages of European origin Latin can be considered a root language. 2-3 years of experience in Latin is a very good starting point if a student is planning on learning multiple languages, as it will speed the understanding of each subsequent one.

Additionally, if a student is looking to enter a heavily scientific field, both Latin and Greek tend to be used for an extreme amount of the naming conventions. Having a background in those languages makes learning these terms more than just rote memorization.

However these are obviously specialized cases. If the student has neither of these ambitions Latin should be considered useless.

basilace said...

I see your point about Latin, but as you said, it is a very specific case. Even then, someone who chooses to enter one of these science fields will probably pick up the necessary Latin just from practice; they most likely will not need to know how to speak it. So this Latin is limited for science.

As for other languages, although Latin is the root language, knowing a different language that derives from it can be just as useful in learning more. There are many similarities between English and French for example, just as there are between French and Spanish. Knowing one of these languages makes it easier to learn the others. Learning Latin is just as effective as learning one of the other Latin based languages.

Anonymous said...

latin is far more useful than french or spanish because it relates to many more languages you whelps.

Anonymous said...

I also would have to disagree that Latin's only use is SAT vocabulary prep. While Latin is no longer in practical use today, it provides direct access to some of the most important works of literature. It also is a root language of 5 major languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian), is a sister language of Greek, and strongly influenced English during the Norman invasion of England. Even if a student never plans to learn a romance language, Latin provides a systematic approach to grammar that not only supports further foreign language study but also fosters a deeper understanding of English grammar and logical thinking skills in general. While most students never become a scientist or doctor, they most likely will benefit from understanding a least a few Latin phrases if they ever take a biology class or a history class. Not to mention that there is something inherently interesting about taking a language that for hundreds of years was considered the language of scholars; Latin is the mark of the educated.

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Sean Happenny said...

I know this is a few years after the original posting, but I just want to put it out there that Latin helps A TON with understanding English grammar. I only took Latin for two years and after the first semester I already had a much deeper understanding of English grammar. It helped a lot on my grammar tests in language.
Also, knowing Latin enables you to read many ancient texts, like Cicero's orations or Virgil's poetry.
But yeah, if you're looking for a language that's useful in the sense of being able to converse with others, Latin is not a good choice.

Xuan Ngo said...

I took 6 years of Spanish-- 2 in middle school and 4 in high school. Popular belief then and now is that it would would be useful living in the U.S. Over the past 16 years, I've used Spanish about a half dozen times-- typically to order a hamburger from a fast food worker who wasn't fluent in English, and once to ask night stock clerk at Walmart where the water was. So although there are many spanish speakers in the U.S., there are always english-speaking people around.

On the other hand, no one has ever been impressed with the fact that Spanish fluency is clearly stated on my resume. No Employer has ever been impressed enough to even mention it during a job interview. At the work place, if ever there a job or assignment that requires a bilingual spanish-speaking candidate, the only people taken seriously are those whose native language is Spanish (e.g., Mexican-Americans who are fluent in both languages).

My brother took 6 years of French. Although he hasn't been forced to order a hamburger in French, he has received many accolades for being one of the few, VERY FEW French speakers in any organization he's been associated with. Frankly, I'd trade the practicality of ordering a hamburger to the "prestige" associated with French fluency any day.

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