Should I Study a Language at University?

Ahoj! Studying languages is pretty tempting for people interested in humanities. It also seems like a great way to become fluent in a language. However, considering the cost of studies and the time you need to complete a degree is getting a language degree a good return on investment? Here’s your chance to listen to someone who obtained a Master’s Degree in English Studies 9 years ago.

Consider Your Goals

Would you like to work as an interpreter or a translator? If yes, I would say that getting a language degree or studying applied linguistics is a good idea. You can become a professional in this industry without having a degree but getting one opens many doors for you. Studying languages helps you to connect with people who are interested in working in the industry as well as with those looking to hire. This can prove invaluable.
If you’re after money (and who isn’t?) go for rare languages. Graduates of sinology can demand way higher rates than those with a degree in French or English.

Would you like to work as a teacher? If yes then unless you’re set on working in schools, there’s no need to get a degree. There are many qualifications, among them prestigious ones such as CELTA and DELTA, that allow you to become a teacher. Such diplomas and certificates are available for many languages. They usually cost a fraction of the price of a degree and are much less time consuming. With a certificate in hand you can join the labour market and start getting valuable experience that will allow you to charge more faster.

Would you like to work as… you have no idea what it is that you want to do? Well, getting a language degree will certainly boost your language skills. Still, this can be done in many other cheaper and faster ways.
In general, during your studies you’ll dive into literature, history or linguistics. Does this sound fascinating or do you feel lukewarm about it? Keep in mind that very few people make it into academia. There are also few direct work opportunities other than translating or teaching.
Sure, having any degree may mean slightly higher earnings. In some cases it gives you better chances of getting hired and promoted. However, the market is oversaturated with graduates of humanities. Like it or don’t, but you may end up landing a job way below your education level. Soft skills are simply not particularly valued.

Would you like to move to a country where the language is spoken? PLEASE DON’T SPEND 3-6 YEARS GETTING A LANGUAGE DEGREE. Unless it’s from Oxford, Cambridge or an Ivy League university, of course. Yet again, like it or not but employers (almost) always prefer native speakers for language jobs (writing, editing, proofreading and similar). They’re also prejudiced against degrees from countries were a given language isn’t spoken.

Manage Your Expectations

Another important thing with studying languages are your expectations. First of all, the level you’ll reach after completing your degree differs depending on a language. In many countries popular languages have a minimum entry language level (often B1 or B2). With less popular languages it’s often assumed you speak no language initially. This limits where you can get in 3-6 years.
Language studies are very good at teaching you academic language skills and good grammar. Pronunciation courses are often a part of the curriculum. Your accent will therefore be often better than that of a typical speaker from your country. You’ll also read complex and difficult texts and listen to challenging recordings. If you wanted to study in another country or pass language exams, you’d be very well prepared to do so.
Unfortunately, language studies have their limitations. There are many lectures and not so many opportunities for you to speak. When you do get an opportunity to speak you often have to conquer the fear of both 1) speaking in front of the group and 2) doing so in a foreign language. What you speak about when you do speak is highbrow stuff. It’s great in that context but in real life you’ll sound funny.
You also learn A LOT of vocabulary but upon graduation you don’t know that you need tickets for the 8PM show in the cinema or that an alternative to a bottled beer is a draft. And this is after you’ve written your thesis in that language!
What does this mean in practice? That people after language studies are often not actually fluent, particularly in the spoken language. You can’t rely fully on your studies to learn real life language.
It also means that people who graduate often deal with an impostor syndrome. Their degree sets the expectations of others very high. In reality, they may not be confident at all in a language. Speaking in a workplace is another cup of tea that discussing Derrida.

Before You Go

Look, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t study English literature, if you love it. I did! I have a roof over my head and I’ve had some sort of job most of my professional life. To be fair these jobs were partially due to the fact that I’m fluent in three other languages but I digress… The point is, you’ll make it one way or another, if you’re stubborn and hard-working.
Having said that, don’t go into languages if it’s just something to study. There are simply better things to study that will give you more professional opportunities (how about marketing or project management?). If you want to learn a language there are other ways to do so. That’s also true for language teaching.
If you do decide to study a language, make sure that you know what you’re doing it for. Ok, that’s it for today!
Buena suerte! Vi ses!

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