Look Before You Leap: A Short Guide to Choosing a Foreign Language

Anupa Kotipoyina
Sophomore, History major

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Enrollment in foreign language courses continues to increase as more students recognize the intellectual, cultural, practical, and personal rewards of learning a new language. Though I think deciding to undertake this variety of challenge is a no-brainer, deciding which one to learn can
certainly be daunting. After all, UF offers classes in seventeen different languages and the right pick isn’t apparent for everyone.
Here are some questions to ask yourself if you think you want to learn another language, but aren’t quite sure which one(s):

How fluent do I hope to be and how much time do I want to invest?
It takes time and effort to learn to speak any new language, but some pose particularly difficult challenges to native English speakers. Languages that are not based on the Latin script, like Chinese or Arabic, will naturally have a significant learning curve. If you are already wondering how you will handle the course load for your major, it may not be wise to choose language classes that are notoriously difficult and time consuming. Also, think about how important fluency is to you–will you be frustrated if it takes years before you can read the classic literature of the language? Or do you just want to be able to hold a conversation with a native speaker? Be honest with yourself about your expectations and if you can really meet them with the language you have in mind.

What are my hobbies and geographic interests?
Consider if there is anywhere that you are particularly interested in or hope to visit, as a new language can be a gateway into a new culture. Spanish may benefit the student who dreams of trying the best surfing that Central American beaches have to offer and German will suit someone who is fascinated by EU politics. Many students incorporate study abroad programs in their international travel. Where do you see yourself actually exploring? Try and distinguish between real and superficial interests. Most people would love to have French pastries while gazing at the Eiffel Tower, but not everyone would actually enjoy the French language. Language can help you better understand a culture you have already been exposed to as well. Language is too often one of the first aspects of heritage lost among children of immigrants, and if keeping a strong connection to your culture is important, honing in on language skills will definitely be worth the time invested.

What are my professional goals?
Look past your undergraduate years and think about the skills you may need in your future career. Spanish would likely come in handy if you want to be a physician or school teacher in the southern US, but would be much less relevant for a job in Wall Street. History majors considering graduate studies should logically study the languages of the area they want to specialize in. Future engineers may want to pay attention to which countries companies that they’re interested tend to do business with. Indeed, knowing a language that few people know or that is in demand can be a significant competitive edge. In the end, however, just having an impressive line on your résumé is usually not motivation enough to learn an entirely new set of vocabulary and grammar patterns.

And if you can’t manage to untangle the personal and practical considerations of picking a language, you can always just play it by ear and simply choose which one(s) you enjoy hearing the most!

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