THE BLOG

The Foreign Language Requirement

02/26/2015 03:51 pm ET | Updated Apr 28, 2015

I was talking to one of my friends at UCLA a few weeks ago over the phone, and the topic of courses came up. The friends that I have known for 10+ years have begun their second semesters of college, and the majority of them already know their intended majors and what they plan to do with those majors after graduating. My UCLA friend will most likely study finance and follow in her father's footsteps, though she has an interest in photography and history as well. As we spoke casually about the courses we're taking this spring, she said something along the lines of, "If I major in economics, I still want to continue taking courses that interest me like history and photography. Of course, I'll also have to take a language eventually."

I was one of the only students in my high school graduating class to apply to college as an intended foreign language major. I grew up in a multilingual household, my parents both being first-generation Greek Americans. Languages have always come naturally to me, and I can't really imagine a world in which I grew up hearing and learning only one. My interest for language increased in high school, where I took on French in addition to the Spanish I had been studying since Kindergarten. I was then granted a scholarship to study in Bursa, Turkey for seven weeks the summer going into my junior year. By that August, I had the basics of Turkish under my belt as well. Finally, I added Chinese as my third foreign language in high school for my senior year. It never even crossed my mind to discontinue my language study in college, let alone toward the end of high school. Last semester, I finished the required Spanish level to study abroad. I might start Portuguese next semester, after which I will have the option to study abroad in either a Spanish-speaking country or in Brazil. I plan on concentrating in international relations.

Yet many of my friends chose to drop foreign language their senior year of high school, doubling up in history or math instead. And of the few who continued foreign language their senior year, even fewer took any languages their first semester of college or plan to in the future. When I asked a few of my friends their reasons for stopping their foreign language studies, they said, "I'm bad at languages," or "they're not going to be useful in my career."

I can't imagine why they thought they wouldn't need to be bi-, or even multilingual in whatever path they choose to follow. After all, a lawyer whom I know told me that she hired an attorney at her firm "in good part because she spoke Chinese." My dad works as an architect mostly in Eastern Europe, and he finds it necessary to speak at least a few phrases in the language of whichever country his client is from, whether that means learning conversational words in Russian, Turkish, or Ukrainian.

Some of my friends who intend to study science or finance in college dropped foreign languages as soon as they could and aren't planning to pick them back up. Other friends, though, prioritize language learning as I do. An English major who wishes to be a writer plans to get a language certificate in Spanish. My friend who will most likely go into finance and will "have to take a language, of course," realizes, as I do, that foreign language knowledge will be a necessary trait in getting jobs after we graduate.

There is no denying, though, that there has been a significant drop in foreign language study both in high schools and at the undergraduate level. According to a study conducted by the Modern Language Association, enrollment in foreign language courses has recently decreased. While it increased from 1995 to 2009, enrollment has dropped by 6.7 percent since then. Furthermore, about 100,000 fewer students took college language classes in 2013 than did in 2009. Meanwhile, though, more and more campuses are offering up-and-coming languages like Arabic, Chinese, and Korean, while more traditional languages like German and French are declining in availability. Even though more languages have become available, the desire to study language has declined. What is the cause of this foreign language deficit in America? It's illogical -- common sense alone tells us that foreign language knowledge is essential in the modern world.

I learned this two years ago. Last summer, I interned at the prosecutor's office in my county. I spent several days in the file room, sorting papers and filing them into countless cabinets. It was work that didn't require much energy or thought, and I certainly did not expect it to require foreign language skills. Yet one day, an attorney rushed into the room and looked around at the mostly female staff as he said, "Does anyone speak Spanish?" I was the youngest in the room -- only an intern -- so I didn't answer at first, but as the rest of the room remained silent, I found myself saying, "I do." Without hesitation, he led me down the hall and into a courtroom, where a middle-aged woman sat. I learned that she was his newest client and a Hispanic domestic violence victim. The attorney asked me to translate for her, as she tearfully told her story in Spanish. While she spoke of her husband hitting her and throwing a shoe at her when she tried to leave the apartment, I verbally translated in English, as the attorney scribbled notes on his legal pad. I had used my skill in foreign language in the most unexpected place, yet it turned out to be one of the most significant uses for it in my life thus far.

I can't help but discourage anyone who plans on dropping a language in high school or even in undergraduate university. I've come to learn that you never know when you'll need to speak even a few words in a language you picked up years prior. Or when you'll need to translate a whole story in order to help a victim of domestic violence. Or even when you'll need to be bilingual to get a job, any kind of job. Language knowledge is absolutely vital in being a global citizen, which is not only something I identify myself as, but also something that everyone should aim to be.