Many high schools in the United States require students to study a foreign language. Every student can gain something valuable from learning a foreign language in high school, and many of the benefits last a lifetime.
In this post, we’ll explore the reasons why learning a foreign language in high school is important, how traveling during high school to another country that speaks a different language can be a way to learn that language, and the advantages of being bilingual. Lastly, we’ll share tips and tools for learning a second language you can use in high school and beyond.
Table of Contents
- Benefits of Learning a New Language in High School
- Why Is Learning a Second Language Important?
- How Long Should You Study a Language?
- Do Colleges Really Want You to Have Four Years of a Foreign Language?
- How Many Hours a Day Should You Spend Learning a New Language?
- Should You Continue to Study a Language in College?
- How Long Does It Take to Become Fluent in Another Language?
- What Is the Best Age to Learn a New Language?
- Is It Difficult to Learn a New Language as You Get Older?
- What Languages Are Spoken Around the World?
- Tips for Learning a New Language
- Tools Students Can Use to Learn a New Language
Benefits of Learning a New Language in High School
There are dozens of benefits to learning a second language in high school, many of which can help you succeed in college and your career. There are also different ways to go about learning a language during your high school years. While you can choose to take a few years of in-classroom instruction, another option is to also seek a travel program with a language component and spend some time abroad immersing yourself in the day-to-day conversational experience.
When you learn a new language, you enhance all aspects of life. You’ll also enjoy being a world traveler much more when you can chat with locals—especially if you can complement your in-class learning with participation in a language immersion student travel program with Rustic Pathways.
Expanding your mind with a new language and practicing that new language with classmates at home or abroad offers major benefits:
1. Helps You Connect With People Around the World
When you learn another language, you can communicate with others more fully. You can meet new people and make friends, and you might even build lifelong friendships. Once you connect with others, you open the door to learning about cultural practices. This will help you develop a deep appreciation and respect for different cultures and beliefs. Overall, learning and experiencing a new language and culture helps you develop more global awareness and enables you to think critically about what’s going on in the world.
2. Helps You Get Into College
Learning a foreign language is part of a well-rounded education. College admissions counselors want to see that you challenged yourself in high school and excelled in difficult courses. When you learn a second language, you demonstrate your dedication to overcoming obstacles. Colleges will be able to envision you as a committed, successful student in their school.
Knowing a second language also helps you stand out from the pile of applications. With so many other applicants to compete against, you have to make a great impression fast. According to a former admissions counselor at Brown University, counselors only have, on average, 12 minutes to read each application. You can make your application unique and memorable with foreign language accomplishments.
Lastly, colleges want students who are more than just smart. They want to accept students who are curious and empathetic, and who will make good classmates, leaders, and teammates. When you learn a foreign language, you prove you care about other cultures, and you love to learn.
3. Helps You Get a Job
Learning a new language in high school prepares you for studying the language further in college. When it’s time to look for a job after you graduate from college, you can impress employers with your solid foreign language skills—and if you traveled specifically to learn a language, those travels speak to your ability to celebrate and embrace the culture too. Companies want to expand their businesses and hire bilingual or multilingual individuals who will help them grow.
For example, according to a New American Economy report, proficiency in another language will be one of the most critical skills a job seeker can have by 2020. The demand for bilingual workers has more than doubled in 2015 compared to 2010. In general, foreign language skills lead to better job opportunities and higher wages. Knowing another language also gives you an advantage for opportunities down the road such as studying or working abroad.
4. Helps Your Brain
How does learning a foreign language help your brain? Well, language is complex. When you learn a new language, you give your brain a good workout and expand your cognitive capabilities. For example, learning another language improves the following skills:
- Critical thinking
- Decision making
According to a University of Edinburgh study, learning another language boosts mental alertness in a short period, regardless of age. This enables students to concentrate better on all subjects.
Another study shows learning a second language improves memory. A study conducted in Luxembourg found that speaking more than two languages may lower the risk of developing memory problems. People who spoke more than two languages were four times less likely to have cognitive impairment than bilingual individuals.
All of the above skills are good examples of soft skills that employers look for in college graduates. The sooner you develop these skills, the better.
5. Makes You Smarter
Learning a second language actually makes your brain bigger! According to a study from 2014, the cerebral cortex gets thicker when people learn a language later in life. The cerebral cortex is the outside portion of the brain which carries out the highest level of mental functioning.
Another study from Georgetown University found that bilingual individuals may have more gray matter in the region of the brain responsible for doing tasks that demand attention, inhibition, and short-term memory. This can come in handy when you’re tackling challenging school courses. You’ll also be able to learn additional languages more easily.
Lastly, learning another language improves test scores. One study found that students who took just one year of a foreign language had slightly better Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores than other students. Students who took two years of a foreign language scored even higher. Scores climbed with each additional year of language study. So, does learning a new language make you smarter? Studies say, “Yes!”
6. Improves Confidence and Self-Esteem
How do you feel when you speak words from another language? Do you light up with joy and feel a sense of accomplishment?
Learning and practicing a new language shows you are capable of overcoming your fears and doubts, and that you learn from mistakes. It’s a rewarding experience that builds confidence and self-esteem. If you can learn a new language, you can accomplish other goals.
Why Is Learning a Second Language Important?
By now you already have a good idea of how a second language can benefit your brain, build friendships, and open doors to new opportunities. Here are key points to remember to keep you motivated:
- Learning a second language gives you a competitive edge and helps you get into your chosen college, internship, or job.
- Future employers are looking for language skills.
- You’ll become a better global citizen and more aware of other cultures when you learn a new language.
- Learning another language increases empathy and compassion for others.
- You’ll make your brain stronger as you learn and grow.
- You’ll appreciate cultural diversity more when you connect with others through language.
With increasing globalization, we can’t afford to just think of ourselves and our local community. Everything is connected, and our lives are impacted daily by countries around the world. When you learn another language, and seek opportunities to learn a language while traveling, you can participate more responsibly in the world and make better choices that have a global impact.
How Long Should You Study a Language?
A lot of students wonder how long it takes to learn a new language. Although it would be incredible to wake up one day completely fluent in another language, it takes time and effort to become bilingual.
Just like learning how to play a musical instrument, practice makes perfect. As you’ll see, you can make big improvements even just by practicing a few minutes a day. In this section, we’ll answer questions about the language-learning process.
1. Do Colleges Really Want You to Have Four Years of a Foreign Language?
In general, most colleges recommend at least two years of foreign language study. However, requirements may vary between schools. Highly competitive schools like Stanford University urges applicants to take three years or more of a foreign language in high school. Princeton University expects students to complete four years of one foreign language before applying. Either way, two years is a minimum for many schools. You can strengthen your college application by studying more than two years of a foreign language no matter where you apply.
2. How Many Hours a Day Should You Spend Learning a New Language?
You can make great progress by dedicating only one hour a day to learning a foreign language. To get started, you can learn the basics through self-teaching software programs. Also, aim to add language to your life every day in ways that interest you. For example, if you enjoy cooking, try cooking using a foreign language cookbook. If you love to watch TV shows, explore show options in the language of your choice. Try to spend half of that time speaking with someone who knows the language you’re learning. Do language activities together, discuss the culture, and practice speaking the language.
In general, it’s better to practice for a shorter amount of time regularly than a longer period inconsistently. Consistency helps your brain make connections between new knowledge and things you already know.
3. Should You Continue to Study a Language in College?
It’s up to you, your interests, and your goals whether you should continue to study a language in college. Learning a new language is a challenge and takes years of hard work if you wish to become fluent. If you plan to use a new language in your career and participate in a travel program with a language component during your high school years, you’ll likely want to keep studying the language in college if possible.
Studying a language in college is worth considering even if you don’t plan to use it in your career. You’ll gain all the benefits we covered if you continue learning a new language, and you’ll get to build upon the knowledge you gained in high school. Learning a new language is worthwhile, no matter what your goals are. According to Auburn University, college graduates often say foreign language courses are some of the most valuable college courses.
4. How Long Does It Take to Become Fluent in Another Language?
This is a tough question to answer. Many different factors, such as age, access to resources, and motivation levels affect how long it takes to pick up a new language. Plus, everyone learns at different speeds, and some learning methods work better than others. For example, you can learn a language much faster if you immerse yourself in the language than if you only study from a book.
Cambridge University Press provides an example of how long it may take for an adult to learn a language. According to this example, it would take a beginner 730 to 1,050 guided learning hours to reach a proficient level. So, if an adult spent five hours a week studying under the guidance of a well-trained teacher, they could be fluent in about three years.
5. What Is the Best Age to Learn a New Language?
Generally, the earlier a person can begin learning a second language, the better. According to a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), a person needs to start learning a language by the age of 10 if they want to sound like a native speaker. After age 10 and up until age 18, people can still learn a language fast, but may not develop the proficiency of native speakers. Participating in a travel program with a language component of 20 to 40 hours during your high school years is an opportunity to immerse yourself in a new language during an important learning time.
6. Is It Difficult to Learn a New Language as You Get Older?
Researchers aren’t sure why it’s harder to learn a language the older you get, but they believe it may be due to cultural factors and changes in brain plasticity. Regardless, anyone can learn a language at any age.
One study published in 2010 found that adults may actually be better at learning a new language than children. According to the study, adult learners showed an advantage in learning certain aspects and in long-term retention over younger age groups. So, whether you are a child, teen, or adult, you can still learn a new language with time and effort.
What Languages Are Spoken Around the World?
According to Ethnologue, which lists every recognized language in the world, there are exactly 7,111 languages today. Even though thousands of languages exist, some languages are spoken more than others. Babbel, a language learning app, compiled a list of the top ten most spoken languages in the world. Popular languages include:
1. Which Foreign Language Is the Best to Learn?
With thousands of foreign languages to choose from, how do you know which one to pick? First, note that colleges don’t pay much attention to what language you studied. A college admissions counselor just wants to know that you worked hard learning a language and excelled in the course. With that said, here are questions to ask yourself when determining the best foreign language to take in high school and beyond:
- What language best suits your career goals?
- What do you wish to do with the language you learn?
- What language feels most meaningful and interesting to you?
You might also consider learning a language that’s in demand to open up more career opportunities. The most in-demand languages that U.S. employers look for include:
No matter what, it’s essential to choose a language you’ll enjoy and feel motivated to learn.
2. Which Foreign Language Is the Easiest to Learn for Native English Speakers?
If you’re wondering what language is easiest to learn in high school, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) has the answer. The FSI classifies languages by difficulty level. Category I languages are the easiest for English speakers. According to the FSI, English speakers can learn a Category I language in only half a year through intense study. These languages include Dutch, Swedish, French, Spanish, and Italian.
Tips for Learning a New Language
Learning a new language can be both fun and productive. Here are tips and tricks you can use to enhance a language class or learn more in your free time:
- Immerse yourself: Foreign language teachers agree—nothing teaches a language better than immersion. If possible, consider traveling abroad and immersing yourself in the language you wish to learn—going to a country or visiting several countries that speak the language you wish to learn is how you can learn a language while traveling. You’ll accelerate the learning process when you surround yourself with the language and practice speaking with locals every day.
- Be consistent: The key to learning a new language is to study consistently and regularly. Set aside time every day to practice. If you lose motivation, try not to get discouraged. Get back on track and stick to a learning routine.
- Study the content you enjoy: Listen to music, watch movies, read the news—anything you enjoy in the language you’re learning. Surround yourself with the language and have fun in the process.
Here are a few more language-learning tips to keep in mind:
- Realize it’s OK to mistakes, and that’s how you’ll learn.
- Don’t be afraid to converse with native speakers, even as a beginner.
- Start by learning 100 most common words.
- Focus on phrases you’ll frequently use.
- Play a fun language learning card game or use an app to keep motivation levels high.
- Whip up a meal using a cookbook in the language.
You can make a lot of progress if you practice speaking the language, so aim to make that part of your routine however you can.
Tools Students Can Use to Learn a New Language
Tools can help you learn a new language and enjoy the journey. There are plenty of free resources online you can start using right away. Here are some free language tools to consider:
- Duolingo: Duolingo is a fun free app that feels more like playing a game.
- Open Culture: You can visit Open Culture to download free language courses.
- Livemocha: At Livemocha, you’ll find free lessons and a chance to talk with native speakers.
- Babbel: Babbel offers free beginner courses to teach how to reach, write, and speak the basics of a new language.
- Busuu: You can use Busuu to learn a new language from other members.
- YouTube: You can use YouTube to watch educational videos, take a language course, watch films or shows in a foreign language, or follow vloggers who speak a different language.
- Anki: Anki is a free flashcard app that can help you memorize words.
Here are language learning tools that cost money but may be worth every cent:
- Learn a new language through Rosetta Stone, an immersive language learning software.
- Take a language course through a community college.
- Buy books, movies, or music in the language you wish to study.
- Travel abroad to gain real-world experience practicing the language.
Travel and Learn With Rustic Pathways
If you’re interested in learning a new language while traveling, consider traveling abroad during your high school years. When you travel to another country, you’ll have a life-changing learning experience you’ll never forget. You’ll have opportunities to speak with locals and surround yourself with the language. From street signs to menu items, you’ll see new words everywhere. This level of immersion will help you rapidly learn a new language and prepare for continued study in high school, college, and beyond.
At Rustic Pathways, we offer programs for students interested in learning a new language. For example, through our Spanish Language Immersion program, student travelers get to stay with a welcoming host family in Costa Rica. They get to learn from native speakers in a small group and practice speaking the language with fellow students and their host family. They also get to enjoy adventure outside of the classroom, such as gliding on a zip line through the jungle, for a culturally immersive experience.
Students who travel with Rustic Pathways get the chance to meet locals wherever adventure calls them. We offer over 100 programs in 18 different countries. All of our programs are guided by trained, experienced Program Leaders, and our team of medical professionals is always on hand to ensure students are safe, healthy, and happy. To learn more about our exciting, transformative programs, request a free catalog or contact our team. Are you ready to enroll? You can save your spot on your chosen program page, or complete our online enrollment form.
Jack has spent his professional career as a writer and editor. Before joining Rustic, he worked as a journalist in Kansas and Colorado, taught English in Swaziland, and transitioned to marketing roles in the Boston and New York startup worlds. Jack is excited to channel his love of storytelling and his appreciation for education as Rustic’s Content Production Manager. When not working, Jack is either watching baseball or planning his next adventure. Jack and his wife, Blythe, live in Brooklyn.