What Language Should I Study?

by Judge Josh on October 17, 2014

Dear Judge Josh,

I started following your site last year after I applied to college and I’d just like to say you’re doing a great thing here. On that note, I need your help!

Thanks, Sara!

I am a first year student who just came out of a meeting with a professor with a lot of things to think about. But I guess that’s not the right place to start. This is a question pertaining to foreign language study/eventual study abroad and some advice I got recently really has challenged what I wanted to. In all your wisdom, I was hoping you could give me your thoughts on the issue.

Sure thing – shoot!

So the story goes I studied French in high school because I always was enthralled with the idea of studying French (I can’t quite explain why) and I never thought about going beyond that language in college. So when I got here (Smith College), I placed into High Intermediate French and was rearing to go…except I learned one of the colleges in our consortium has a Swedish/Scandinavian Studies and so I emailed the head of that department and found I could start studying Swedish, a language and culture I have a deep connection to. Suddenly, French class three times a week and all the work involved felt tedious and completely for naught since I was no longer planning to take more advanced literature and conversation classes in French. So I dropped it under the presumption of jumping into Swedish next fall.

Cool.  It’s always neat to learn about something to which you have a deep connection.  It makes learning that much easier (and more fun too).

Here is where the professor’s advice comes in — as a future History major (Smith students do not enter with a declared major and are encouraged to wait until we are sophomore to choose), he was asking me about language study and studying abroad…what my plans are (all History majors are advised to study a foreign language to be proficient readers). I told him about my plans for studying Swedish and going abroad with it my junior year , and he advised against those plans because of the relevance of the language in both overall life/academic and study abroad. He told me that choosing a language is college is a lot more important than people play it out to be, and that it’s actually one of the most important decisions I will have to make here.

Wait – did I miss something?  How does he know that it won’t be relevant to YOUR life?  I bet the people in Sweden would beg to differ with his assessment that they are “irrelevant”!

This has really thrown my on my head because almost all introductory language classes are year long and it is obviously too late to jump into one. Overall, I have very little interest in studying German (the language he suggested), and there is no specific language I want to study, especially with the wealth of choices here in the five college area (Swahili, Hebrew, Modern Greek, Russian, Czech, etc etc). I could try and do a summer language immersion program, or I have the option of taking a super-intensive semester language course (but it is only offered in Italian). None of this is important to my choice in study abroad programs, because I want to study history and archaeology in the UK. As well, my historical interests are mostly in American History (ie, native american history, colonial american, and antebellum/civil war) or in the history/culture of the Celts and other early periods in the British Isles.

So I guess my question is this: is it more important to study a language which personally means a lot to me, or one that is practical? Is choosing a language really one of the most important college choices I will make? Any other thoughts on the situation?


Thanks, Sara.  As you can already tell, I think your professor is wrong.  Dead wrong.  Sure, Swedish isn’t as widely used as, say, Spanish, but I also can’t recall the last time I heard someone speaking German.

I could see his point if you were going into a career where an in-demand language was necessary.  Then I would likely suggest you study Arabic, Chinese or Spanish.  But as you said, you want to study in the UK, and your interests for a career in history lie in American History.  Last time I checked, English would be the preferred language in both of those endeavors, and I can tell by your email that you have that language down pat.

You said you wanted to learn Swedish because you have a deep connection with it.  Taking a foreign language course in school usually involves learning a lot about the culture during the course of learning the language, and I would assume that you are interested in that portion of it as well.  That’s great, and I think you should take advantage of such an opportunity.

Remember also that learning a foreign language is easier than ever these days with programs like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone.   You can always use a service like that if you need to learn a specific foreign language.   It’s quicker and easier (and cheaper) anyway.

Lycka till, Sara (that’s good luck in Swedish, according to Google)!


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