Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | November 27, 2013

What can you do with a degree in [fill in your favorite language]?

What can you do with a degree in [fill in your favorite language]?

Jon Aske, World Languages and Cultures

Jon AskeI overheard a student asking our department secretary a very important question the other day. The question went something like this: I am thinking of majoring in French and I was wondering what kinds of jobs I could get with such a degree. I was glad the question was not directed at me, for I didn’t have the time to give her a satisfying answer. The reason for this is that the answer is not simple. Still, I felt I wanted to answer that question and I would like to do that here and now.

That student’s question got me thinking about the fact that I never really knew what kinds of jobs one could do with a degree in linguistics, which was one of my majors in college. Perhaps I didn’t pay much attention to that question because I knew that my other major, Computer Science, was the practical one, the one that would probably allow me to get a real job in the real world (little did I know!). But I also think that there was, and there is, this feeling in some academic disciplines that it is not cool to discuss the “practicality question.” Isn’t studying linguistics—or French, or Spanish—rewarding enough? Do you have to have a practical reason too? Unfortunately I think that this happens often enough and it shouldn’t happen. Actually, professors and departments should be willing and able to discuss this question from day one. The other side of the coin, which is also problematic and probably happens often enough, is that many people probably do not consider certain majors just because they cannot see how they could be practical in the real world.

Many majors have a career path or limited set of paths attached to them. Nursing majors will someday become nurses and social work majors will become social workers. Criminal Justice majors will end up doing one of a limited number of things, such as become a police officer, or a parole officer (or going to law school, perhaps).  Even for biology majors it is probably relatively easy to answer the question of what they can do with that major. But when it comes to majors in the humanities, the answer is not so simple. What can one do with a degree in English? What kinds of jobs do English majors go into (besides teaching)? The same thing is true for philosophy, linguistics and, of course, languages.

There are some obvious things that you can do with a degree in a language like French or Spanish, which are: translator/interpreter and language teacher. Other less obvious career paths are Foreign Service work and travel and tourism jobs. However that is probably not what most people with a degree in languages end up doing and to give a list of the jobs that people with language degrees do would fill many pages indeed (if you Google this question that’s what you’re likely to find, without any further explanation).

The reason for that is that majors in the humanities do not often lead to specific jobs. And that’s not bad. It’s actually a good thing. A major in the humanities is associated with an open-ended skill set which involves interpersonal communication, written communication, intercultural abilities, people skills, problem solving and critical thinking, mental flexibility and adaptability, among other things, all of which are in great demand in the real world. All kinds of businesses hire people with degrees in the humanities with the expectation that they will train you to do a specific job as long as you rank high in all those other general areas I just mentioned. In a way a humanities degree gives you much more flexibility than other types of degrees because there are so many things that you can do with them. On the other hand, it is important to realize that you cannot just go and show your humanities degree and expect to be given a job, for sooner or later you have to actually prove that you rank high in all those crucial skills: that you are a good communicator, that you have an open and flexible mind, that you think critically and are good at problem solving, and so on. You actually have to have those skills and the piece of paper that says you majored in one of those fields is no substitute for the real thing.

That said, I always advise majors who are not on a teaching path to seriously consider having a second major in addition to their Spanish major. I advise them to do a second major instead of just a minor along with their Spanish major. After all it’s just about 21 more credits (seven courses) and they hedge their bets in the flexibility area for when they’re looking for jobs. Common compatible second majors for a language major would be geography and tourism, communications, and business, to name a few.

Another thing you have to keep in mind is that you cannot expect to learn a language (and gain all the benefits of being bilingual) by merely taking the twelve language classes in their major. According to the State Department under 575-600 classroom hours is enough to achieve (limited) fluency—low advanced level—in Spanish (it’s 2,200 hours for Chinese!). This is more than the number of instruction hours in those 12 courses, since 50 min. x 3 times a week x 14 weeks x 12 courses = 420 hours. In practice, however, often the necessary intensive study is lacking in university language courses, some of which may be lecture based and include little opportunity for real practice in the language. Also lacking are often real-life immersion and language contact experiences outside the classroom, something that students have to seek on their own and don’t always do, or even sufficient study outside the classroom, which is also crucial (ideally 2-3 hours should be spent outside the classroom for every hour spent in the classroom, something that doesn’t always happen). Thus the end result is that it is not uncommon for students to graduate with a major in a language without having achieved real fluency.

Learning a language well, so that you can converse and write it fluently, takes many thousands of hours, including immersion in the language and culture, typically only achievable through living abroad. It is this kind of intense experience with the language that will bring you close to having those skills I was talking about that businesses desire. That kind of intense immersion is also a must if you’re going to be a translator or a language teacher. Unless you do that, you will find yourself unprepared for the expectations of (good) jobs in the real world when you graduate. The degree (or “piece of paper”) is a requirement, but it is not enough, for you will need to be able to back it up with actions. That’s why you should take very seriously every opportunity to learn and grow while in college. That, and not the piece of paper, is what an education is all about.

Many students who major in a language go straight to graduate school. There are many masters and doctoral programs for which a language major is a good start. Even if you are not planning to go straight to graduate school you should realize that your studying and learning days are not over after you graduate from college. Whatever you do, to succeed in life and in the new economy you have to be a life-long learner.

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