What Language Should I Study?

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)!

8 thoughts on “What Language Should I Study?”

  1. I would say…maybe try studying German where you are and studying abroad in Sweden or studying Swedish where you are and going abroad to Germany. (If taking both with the same language is really important, then disregard that. I think it depends on how big a role knowing another language will play in your work/research.) Unless you really don’t like the idea of studying German.
    Do you like the Swedish language and Swedish culture enough to change your academic focus and make Sweden ‘relevant’ to your work?
    Also, as Judge Josh said, college classes aren’t the only way to learn a language. It’s harder to do self-study in college, depending upon your workload, but if you can do it (it seems you have until next fall to try?), it could be worth it!
    Keep asking around and talking it out until you feel a solid decision form. 🙂

  2. Hi, Sara!

    I graduated last April with my degree in History, so I’d be remiss if I didn’t say “Welcome to the club!” That said, I have to tell you that I agree with Josh on this one. That professor is wrong!

    I’m fairly certain that the majority of History programs require a foreign language. I was advised to study German or Spanish, but given that my focus was on Antebellum America, I chose to go with Ancient (Attic) Greek. (Also, my minor was Archaeology, so Greek is super useful there, too!) What I learned was that language is so much more than learning the vocabulary and correct conjugations. It gives an insight into an entire culture that you just can’t get by reading textbooks or attending lectures. It helps with pattern recognition and cognitive development. I chose to study Greek because I was trying to figure out what it was about the ancient culture that Southern elites identified with. While my advisor was adamant that my language choice was unwise and unnecessarily difficult, I stood by my decision to learn as much as I could about this dead language.

    Ultimately, it comes down to you. You are the one earning your degree- not this professor. As long as you are fulfilling your graduation requirements, then shame on him for not encouraging you in your choice. Do what you think will work for you. In the end, you’ll be happier for it!

    Good luck!

  3. As a person who has a love of language, history, and culture, I too have an understanding of the “language” dilemma. I learned Mandarin Chinese, though I had a strong interest in computers, IT, and programming. This is in addition to my learning Spanish up to an upper-intermediate level, and studying basic Eastern Arabic. Needless to say, I was all over the place.

    Studying a language to fluency is difficult and takes years. It’s not simply a relationship with the words, but marrying oneself into a history and culture. If Sara already has a connection with Swedish, I say pursue with a vengence, because when the going gets tough on one’s language journey, it takes that passion to break through and get to the top. Then you can tell all of us what those names really mean for the items at Ikea.

    Best wishes and good luck!

    Max Lee
    B.A. Chinese Language and Lit., working in IT and programming.

  4. Hey!
    I did a fair amount of archaeology and humanities/religious studies work focusing on the Celtic era of the British Isles. The languages you are after are highly dependent on what you want to specialize in but your main and most versatile one is Latin. Both ancient German and viking populations were very prominent in England after the fall of the Roman empire. If you want to do England, going for those is going to be far more helpful than if you are looking at Scotland, Ireland, or Wales.
    Any ancient texts are going to be in an ancient form of any language you study, rendering your language studies of the modern version minimally helpful. German is more useful because there is a lot of scholarly work done in Europe. It should be noted that Swedish is a Germanic language and there is a lot of cross over between the two. I have family in Sweden and they’ve told me when they go to Germany they understand a lot and vice versa.
    I do believe it’s important to study something you have a connection too, but the sad fact is that Swedish is next to useless unless you are going to go into Scandinavian studies long-term. There is a reason everyone in Sweden starts learning English in kindergarten and adds a couple more languages before they graduate high school.
    Sorry if this was depressing. I wish you best of luck!

  5. Sara,

    Welcome to being a History major. I graduated with my B.A. History 2012 so can relate. I personally took French, after taking Spanish during my A.A. degree. I have a branch of French in my genealogy and so for me it crossed a couple of areas not just my major. However, your advisor is wrong. It matter little what language you study during your bachelor degree unless:
    1. You plan on working in a country that speaks a specific language. Like you will be living in Germany, Spain, France, etc. for a length of time.
    2. You plan on studying aboard in a country of a specific language–again France, Germany, Spain, etc.

    Employers don’t care what language you speak outside of what ever is necessary for the country you live, unless they do a lot of business with a specific foreign country in which case French is used throughout Europe. So speaking Swedish will not be a deterrent there.

    Also when employers consider foreign language they look at the other points it show about you. It shows that you have discipline, drive, and can learn new challenging things as an adult. It shows that your brain is capable of learning very different material in a short period of time–most foreign language programs at colleges cover one year, two if you go very advanced. When you compare that to countries other then the USA where foreign language is required to complete high school, and European countries require more than two by graduation–but students study from kindergarten thru high school to become proficient.

    Also England was invaded by Sweden several times in history as were Ireland and Scotland. So having knowledge of this culture will not hurt you in your study of England or other parts of the British Isles. Not to mention Sweden invaded and traded with many other European countries over the ages. So how would learning Swedish hurt you? Oh and there have been several mass immigrations of Swedish folks into the USA and Canada. That gives you a special group to study culturally in American History–how they came, where they chose to live, how they changed or stayed the same as what beliefs they held back in Sweden and here in North America, etc… Because let’s face it if you decide to go American History for your PhD. you will need a specific area of History to study and focus on, and if that connects with you due to family or other area and you have the interest it will be a big help.

    For example, I like the study of American History because while doing genealogy I found some interesting things about both sides of my family that dove-tailed with historical events. How the Germans traveled differently to the New World than other groups, and for different reasons in 1547. The intersection of the Native American families that intermarried with different branches of my family and how those cultures either came together or pulled apart. That on my African American side there is a lot of intermarriage with the French before America was even discovered… Speaking French allows me to read information in French on this cultural happening of interracial marriage and have access to documents I would not if I didn’t speak the language. It also allowed me to read and translate family journals to help fill in blanks in my own genealogy.

    So if Swedish speaks to you and you feel you can use it, if only for personal growth and interest, while other “mainstream” languages leave you uninterested then by all means pursue Swedish. What language you study will probably not make a big difference in your life outside of college, unless of course you are going to work in a field or industry where a specific language is often used. But if you are not planning on living in a specific foreign country where that language will be most useful, and they speak English in Germany, France and others often better than we Americans do.

    So if Swedish seems important to you then take it. You will only regret not doing it later. Yes, you can always add to your language skills as you go. Tell your advisor that there is nothing preventing you from learning more than one language in your lifetime and right now Swedish is where your interest lies. Actually you could take two languages in the course of a four year college degree, I almost did. Or take one during your undergrad and another during your masters or PhD. work.

    Swedish is one language I am going to be learning next. So far I have taken Latin (in elementary school for a year), French in high school, Spanish (during my Associates degree), and French to intermediate level during my B.A. degree. I hope to get to go to France at some point in the future. I also want to learn Swedish, Greek, and German–possibly Portuguese and maybe Mandrin if I find the time.

    Good luck,

  6. I don’t mean to contradict Sara’s well-meaning professor too strongly, but this is a bit of a no-brainer. Language acquisition requires hard work, dedication and passion for the material. If she is highly motivated to study Swedish, there really isn’t any way that another language can trump it. Swedish all the way.

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