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Which Language Class Should I Take?

Student Life

The job market has changed drastically since the start of the pandemic. What has stayed the same is the demand for bilingual workers. The marketplace for remote bilingual jobs has increased by 30% since February 2020, and as the economy continues to globalize, the need for bilingual employees in the workforce has never been higher. Aside from giving you a potential leg-up in the future, studying languages can improve cognitive performance, connect you to different cultures, or allow you to watch your favorite C-drama without subtitles. Here is a run-down of the nitty-gritty details of the most popular high language electives to learn right now.

Spanish - 559 million global speakers, The official language of 20 countries

Pro: The Sea of Information

Spanish is by far the most common language elective high schools offer. While knowing any second language can boost future employment, Spanish-speaking individuals have one of the largest demographics in the market. From being one of the six official languages of the United Nations (you must know at least two to conduct official work) and a common asset in social service jobs, there is no sign of Spanish slowing down. In addition, thousands of free courses, beginner guides, and classes are available. Spanish is a perfect choice if you want to learn a language from a beautiful culture that will benefit you outside of school.

Con: It Is Harder Than You Would Expect

When I asked students why they chose to learn Spanish, everyone replied, “Because it’s the easiest for English speakers.” While Spanish and English share similar grammar structures and words, there is a common misconception that anyone can learn conversational Spanish in a day or while sleeping. Although the learning rate will vary, no one can learn any language in only a few hours. To avoid finding yourself frustrated because you are not picking up concepts as fast as the internet claims, remember it can take 600 to 750 class hours to learn Spanish, according to the Foreign Service Institute.

French - 275 million global speakers, official language of 29 countries

Pro: Most International

You may wonder why I gave French this pro, considering French is only the fifth most spoken language. French is one of the official languages of the United Nations, European Union, NATO, UNESCO, the International Red Cross, and many more. If you are interested in pursuing an international relations major, French is the best choice.

Con: Difficult Native Accent

French pronunciation is one of the hardest, especially for English speakers. On top of the nasal sounds, French has many vowels and stress patterns (stress is not related to syntax), unlike other romance languages. As someone studying French for three years in the classroom, I realized one could only achieve the native French accent through many hours of speaking practice (preferably with a native speaker). In addition, there are many hidden rules to sound like a native, such as asking questions without inversion, not saying comme ci, comme ça, and using filler words. I, like many, wanted to learn French because it is beautiful and melodious. It is possible to sound like a native, but it is not easy.

Mandarin Chinese - 955 million global speakers, official language of Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore

Pro: Easier Than You Think (Still Hard, Just Easier)

Yes, you read this correctly. There are no verb conjugations, articles, genders, tenses, plurals, or grammatical cases. The language follows logical sentence structures and, as a bonus, has an efficient number system. Once you master Mandarin, you have most of the words in Cantonese. As Chinese does not use the Latin alphabet, it is a unique challenge for English speakers, but do not let the difficulty stop you.

Con: The Many Dialects

Mandarin is the official language of China, and the majority of people will understand it, but you may find communication difficult depending on where you are. For instance, there are seven large dialect groups (Mandarin, Wu, Xiang, Gan, Kejia, Min, and Yue), and each group has its own sub-dialects. If you master Mandarin, you can travel around Mainland China relatively easily as it is a northern dialect. However, you may struggle near the south, such as in Hong Kong, where they primarily use Cantonese. The many dialects are a wonder and represent thousands of years of Chinese history and its diverse culture, but for those hoping to live in China, you may have to do prior research on the dialects of each region.

German - 130 million global speakers, official language of six countries

Pro: Most Academic Language

What does this mean? German nearly became the official language of science in the 20th century. One out of ten books is in German. Beethoven, Mozart, Freud, Wagner, and Schumann are all recognizable names, and they all spoke German. Even if you have no plans of becoming a world-renowned music composer or scientist, German is a great choice for academics.

Con: Germans Speak English

In Europe, Germany has the second most English speakers with 45.8 million speakers. Unlike China, where less than one percent of the population speaks English, knowing German is not a deal breaker if you intend on living or working in Germany. Ironically, you may have more conversations in English than in German.

American Sign Language (ASL) - natural language of about 500,000 Americans and Canadians

Pro: Powerful Life Enrichment

ASl is one of the most valuable skills to learn for nearly everyone, and the benefits exceed being able to communicate without words. For instance, University of Massachusetts Amherst researchers found that students proficient with ASL had better spatial reasoning. Researcher Michele Cooke states that despite the inconclusive results, she will “incorporate ‘ASL-based gestures’ into the classroom.” From decreasing the chances of developing Alzheimer's, becoming a better listener, and increasing creativity to immersing yourself in deaf culture, you will approach the world in a new light with ASL.

Con: Requires Full Functioning of Hands

Like a surgeon, your hands are the most invaluable tool when learning ASL. Parkinson’s disease or other medical injuries can prevent someone from making intelligible hand movements while signing and limit clear communication. For example, my close friend broke her arm and virtually could not participate in her ASL elective class for two months! Even menial tasks such as carrying a box would prevent any signing at the given moment. While it is not likely you will hold a box all day, the limitations of ASL are worth noting.

Latin - no native speakers

Pro: Strong Foundation For English Speakers

Think about how often someone asks you, “What time is it?” You would respond, “It’s 11 am." Can you find the Latin phrase in the above statements? The abbreviation, am, is the Latin phrase ante meridiem, meaning “before noon.” In everyday conversation, 40% of the vocabulary is from Latin. The number can be up to 90% in a book of medicine. As a result of improving vocabulary and the ability to analyze grammatical concepts in sentences in Latin, writing and reading comprehension will undoubtedly become simpler.

Con: Dead Language

Unless you plan to deeply study niche fields such as the Classics or the ancient Roman world, you may find there are not many opportunities to use Latin. Latin opens the doors to the wondrous world of ancient Rome, but in the 21st century, everyday uses will be limited.

That is a lot of information. How do I decide?

When you choose which language elective to take, you can ask yourself three questions.

  1. Do I want to learn this language?

  2. Will this language help me pursue my passions or career interests?

  3. Am I willing to spend enough time to become conversationally fluent?

Regardless of the language you choose and its cons, you will reap countless benefits, so start learning!

Jessica Kim

Jessica Kim is a sophomore at American High School. She is the captain of her high school's debate team and now teaches local middle schoolers. You can often find her reading, volunteering, or shopping at the mall when she is not writing.