Common Questions about Studying Languages at Duke

These are commonly asked questions about how to fulfill the foreign language (FL) graduation requirement.

Why is studying a FL necessary if I don't plan to live in another country?

There are several answers to this question. For one, studies have shown that learning and acquiring another language can actually make you smarter (no joke! – it adds and strengthens a multitude of synapses in the brain!). But more importantly, it is highly likely in the 21st century that nearly every career will involve a global dimension. There are an increasing number of inter- and multi-national companies and corporations operating in the U.S. that seek employees with skills in languages other than English. Developments in nearly every field of knowledge involve interdisciplinary collaboration on a global scale. You will certainly need to interact with people from other cultures, and may even one day need to manage employees from other cultures. Even though most of these people will undoubtedly speak English, you will be subject to multiple misunderstandings unless you possess the kind of intercultural knowledge and sensitivity that is best acquired through the study of other languages and cultures. You will be less disposed to making embarrassing or even catastrophic decisions, and more inclined to make good decisions that are founded on non-superficial global perspectives.

In short, whether it be in your personal, professional, political, or social life, the ability you will gain through the study of other languages and cultures to see both global and local events from multiple perspectives will always give you an edge over your monolingual, monocultural peers.

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Will I learn about the culture of the country when I study the language?

Most certainly! It is impossible to develop any degree of proficiency in a language without knowledge of the culture. By “culture” we mean not only the cultural products (e.g. food, art, literature, festivals, customs, etc.), but of the values, attitudes, and beliefs held by speakers of a particular language in a particular region. What you also learn is that there is no such thing as a monolithic “culture” or set of values that comprise a “culture,” but that culture itself is composed of multiple identities constituted in particular places and particular historical circumstances. Cultures are constantly evolving over time.

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Are any of the languages harder or easier than others? Should I take a particular language if language study is a struggle for me?

All languages are easy or difficult in different ways, and often depend on the first language or prior language background of the student taking them. For native speakers of English, some languages will take longer than others to reach a certain degree of proficiency, but this does not necessarily mean they are harder. You should not decide to take or avoid a particular language because of its “reputation” or perception of being “hard” or “easy.” Motivation has been shown to be the key factor in language learning success, so it is important that you choose a language you WANT to learn. See more advice about choosing a language to study.

Please note that pedagogical approaches to language teaching have changed immensely in the last several decades. Duke’s language courses are taught by professional language teachers using pedagogies based on cutting edge research in second language acquisition as well as experience using techniques that have proven to be successful. If you do what is asked of you, there is no reason you will not succeed in any language you choose to study.

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Should I continue in a language I started in high school, or be encouraged to start a new a language at Duke? What if I speak another language at home (native speakers )?

If you want to major, second major, or minor in the language you studied in high school or speak at home, or if you wish to continue to an advanced level, it might make sense for you to continue study of that language at Duke. However, if knowing two languages is good, knowing more than two is even better, especially since plurilingualism is or is becoming the norm in many parts of the world. Students should choose languages that fit with their academic and personal interests, career goals, and other curricular and co-curricular opportunities available at Duke. (See Choosing a Language guidance.)

Even if you speak a language other than English at home, you may or may not be literate in that language or possess a high degree of proficiency. Those who were not born and educated in a country where the language is spoken, but who may speak it (in the U.S.) in the home are usually called “heritage speakers” and may well want to become literate or more proficient in this language. Some programs have special courses or tracks of courses designed for heritage speakers. These students should consult with the relevant program to determine the correct placement. See also the guidance for native speakers and international students.

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When should I begin studying foreign language at Duke? Is waiting until sophomore year too late?

It is strongly recommended that you begin your foreign language study in your first year, or in the first semester of your sophomore year at the latest. Junior and especially senior years tend to get very crowded with fulfilling major/minor/certificate requirements, non-language related study abroad, etc. Because it is not possible to get FL credit for domestic transfer courses, if you do not finish the FL requirement by your last semester, you will have no other alternative than to take an additional summer or semester at Duke before you can graduate.

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How do I get advice on what language class they would place into in Romance Studies? In Asian & Middle Eastern Studies? In other programs?

The Languages at Duke website has links to each department and program website, where you can find placement information for the individual language program(s). If you cannot easily find this information, call the main department number and ask for the number and/or email of the Director of Undergraduate Studies or Language Program Director or Coordinator, who should be able to assist you with placement. If you do not get a response, call or email Dean Jesse Summers (; 919-684-6066). For your convenience, contact information for placement questions is also provided at the bottom of this sheet, but you are encouraged to first consult the placement information on the individual language program websites.

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If I use the online guidelines to place into a language class, how can I verify that I am in the right course? What happens if, after the first week of class, the instructor says that I am in the wrong level?

If a student has placed her/himself into a particular class, it is imperative that s/he ask the instructor for advice on the first day of class, or even beforehand, by email. It is always possible to switch up or down during the drop/add period, if it becomes apparent that a student would be better served in another level. This is easily done during drop/add. Occasionally, it does not become apparent until after the drop/add period. If this is the case, the instructor should contact the student’s academic dean, who will most likely grant permission to drop the class and enroll in a different level during the correction week (week after drop/add).

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Do I have to take my language courses one right after the other, or is it okay to skip a semester or two?

We encourages students not to take a break for a semester or more between your language course sequences. The more time that goes by between courses, the more you are likely to forget, and thus be ill-prepared for the next course in the sequence. Also, if you wait until your senior year to complete the requirement you may experience scheduling difficulties because you are also finishing up your major and other requirements, not to mention honors theses or other senior projects. Moreover, not all courses in an elementary/intermediate sequence are offered every semester, so a hiatus can in some cases make it difficult or even impossible to schedule the fulfillment of the FL requirement. If you study abroad in your junior year in countries where the language you are studying to fulfill the language requirement is not offered or spoken, you are also vulnerable to the same risks. This is why it your are strongly encouraged to begin your foreign language study early, preferably in your first year, but no later than their third semester, especially if you will need 3 courses to complete the requirement.

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I'm confused about why some languages only offer entry classes in the fall. Which languages are those? Is there any chance that that will change in the future?

Some departments are unable to offer every language course every semester, and thus offer first semester FL (Elementary I) in fall, second semester (Elementary II) in the spring, third semester (Intermediate I) in the fall, and fourth semester (Intermediate II) in the spring. This is true for Latin, Greek, Polish, Turkish, Arabic, Chinese, Hebrew, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, and Persian, and may be true for other languages as well. Students who wish to study these languages should carefully plan their studies so that the courses can be taken in sequence, preferably with no breaks.

Please note also that some programs, e.g. Russian, Chinese, Italian, Spanish, and French, offer intensive or accelerated elementary and/or intermediate sequences in the spring. These courses are designed for highly motivated students who might wish to progress more quickly to the higher levels. Again, careful planning is crucial.

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Are there any 300-level (formerly 100-level) FL classes that do NOT fulfill the FL requirement? If so, why?

No. All courses that carry an FL code count towards the foreign language requirement.

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What's the difference between 1-credit and 2-credit FL courses? How do 2-credit courses count toward the FL requirement?

2-credit courses are intensive courses that cover the work of 2 semesters in a single semester. They count as 2 full course credits towards the foreign language requirement. For example, if a student takes FL 111 (formerly 14, Intensive Elementary FL, 2 course credits), s/he would only need to take 1 more course, FL 203 (formerly 63, Intermediate I) to fulfill the requirement.

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Can I take a foreign language class abroad and get FL credit for it? What if the FL they study overseas isn't a language taught at Duke (e.g., Finnish)?

Yes, if the language being studied is the same language that is spoken in the study abroad setting. That is, you may get FL credit for taking Chinese in China, but not for taking Chinese in Australia or in any other country where Chinese is not the main language of communication. Students on non-Duke programs must have the course itself pre-approved through the Global Education office and the relevant Duke department, but if you want to receive FL credit, you must apply for this after they have taken the course. Application forms for the FL mode of inquiry can be found on the Academic Requirements Transfer Credit page.

If you have a compelling reason for wishing to satisfy the foreign language requirement in a study abroad setting with a language that is not offered at Duke, e.g. with Finnish in Finland, you may do so only with permission from your academic dean, and provided you take the required number of approved courses at the required levels. The application for the FL for all courses should be submitted to Dean Jesse Summers (; 919-684-6066) in 011 Allen, who will locate the relevant department for approval.

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What is the policy about taking FL courses at another U.S. university? What about at UNC, NC State, or NCCU?

Because Duke’s language programs have specific and deeply rooted curricular objectives, including a strong intellectual engagement with the cultures and with trans-cultural understanding, and because the sequence of courses that fulfill these objectives is tightly articulated, you may not earn FL credit from another U.S. university or program other than an immersion study abroad setting. Experience has shown that students who have tried this route in the past often had difficulty being successful in the next level course at Duke.

Because of our inter-institutional agreement with other area universities in North Carolina (UNC-CH, UNC-Greensboro, UNC-Charlotte, NC State, and NCCU), you may take foreign language courses at these universities and apply for the FL through the relevant language department upon their return. Please note, however, that while these courses are eligible for the FL, there is no guarantee that the FL will be approved, and some of these courses do not easily integrate with the equivalent program at Duke. Therefore, If you plan to take an inter-institutional course for the FL, you should check with the relevant Duke language program beforehand to determine the likelihood of the FL being approved. Robertson scholars should also consult widely and carefully plan how they will fulfill the FL requirement well in advance of their semester(s) at UNC.

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How are languages classes at Duke different from classes at, say, Princeton, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or Columbia, or other institutions?

Duke’s language programs have been constructed over the years to integrate closely with the larger cultural studies missions and goals of the departments in which they are embedded. Duke’s programs make a conscious effort to integrate language, literature, and cultural study at every level of the curriculum, beginning in FL 101. Each course and level is constructed as part of a coherent and integrated whole. The fact that each course in the sequence is carefully designed to build on the previous one and prepare students for the next level makes it difficult to articulate with courses and programs at other institutions. This is one reason students benefit most by taking all their foreign language courses in sequence at Duke, or as part of Duke study abroad programs.

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What is a "native" speaker? Does that definition vary across departments? What are the policies for having native speakers fulfill the FL requirement in their "native" language? What is the rationale for those policies?

Although the term “native speaker” has been highly contested in academic debates around language proficiency, it is often used as shorthand to describe people who were born into and educated in a particular language. At Duke, the term is sometimes used in course descriptions (e.g. “not open to native speakers”) to indicate a group of students for whom the course is not suitable. This refers mostly to international students who have completed their secondary education in a language other than English in the country of their native language.
Some languages have a special track for “heritage speakers.” This refers to students who have been raised and educated in an English-speaking environment, but who may speak or have spoken another language in the home, for example, the language of their parents or grandparents. It may also refer to speakers of languages other than English who were raised or spent time in a non-English speaking country or region, but who are not “literate” in the language, that is, not educated beyond the primary school level. Because students who are heritage speakers can vary widely in their abilities, they should carefully follow the placement procedures described on the relevant program’s website.

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Why does Duke not waive the FL requirement for international students / educated native speakers?

The goals of the FL requirement go beyond mere fluency or ability to communicate in another language. They include cultural literacy and intercultural understanding, something that not all native speakers necessarily possess. Foreign language study at Duke includes an intellectual engagement with issues of culturally and linguistically determined difference; the foreign language classroom is a space in which students from different cultures can interact and reflect on these differences.

If you are a native speaker of, or fluent in, a language other than English, you will likely profit most from either beginning or continuing study of an additional language. You may also choose to take an advanced level class in your native language, but you should consult with the department to help you select the right course. Whatever you decide to do, your study will deepen and expand your own knowledge and understanding, and your presence and perspective will enrich the class to the benefit of all.

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