Languages at Duke

Our goal is for all Duke students to develop proficiency in a second language in order to fully explore other histories and literatures, to gain an understanding and appreciation for culture as embodied in language, and to bring new perspectives that enhance understanding of issues of similarity and difference.

Benefits of Studying Other Languages

Global Understanding

  • Knowing a foreign language can help you contribute to making the world a better place. Knowledge of other languages and cultures is an absolute necessity, not only for economic and political survival, but also for international cooperation.
  • Being proficient in more than one language will enhance your ability to participate effectively in the local, national and international debates of the 21st century.

Professional Success

  • "Soft skills" such as communication skills, leadership attributes, an ability to work in teams, and an awareness and understanding of other cultures are now just as important as technical or professional knowledge in initiating and building your career.
  • Knowing a foreign language will give you an edge in the job market, in career advancement and in knowledge of your discipline.

Personal Growth

  • Speaking another language can open doors for you physically, mentally and even spiritually. Speaking another language and living in another culture challenges who you are, builds empathy and makes you examine the factors that have shaped your identity.
  • Studying foreign languages and cultures also develops your analytical, critical, and interpretive abilities. Some studies have even shown a direct correlation between foreign language study and improved performance in verbal and mathematical skills.
Language How Frequently Offered? Fulfills Foreign Language (FL) Requirement? Offered By Can I do more in language & cultural studies?
American Sign Language (ASL) Regularly offered Yes Romance Studies n/a
Arabic Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies with Arabic Concentration

Minor in Arabic

Balto-Finnic Occasionally offered No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
Occasionally offered at Duke; Regularly offered at UNC-Chapel Hill No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
Chinese Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies with Chinese Concentration

Minor in Chinese

Creole Regularly offered Yes

Haitian Creole/Kreyòl Language Studies

Less Common Taught Language Initiative

Czech Occasionally offered at Duke; Regularly offered at UNC-Chapel Hill No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
French Regularly offered Yes

French Language Program

Romance Studies

Majors in French & Francophone Studies or Romance Studies

Minor in French Studies

Georgian Occasionally offered No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
German Regularly offered Yes German Studies

Major in German Studies

Minor in German

Greek Regularly offered Yes Classical Studies

Major in Classical Languages

Minor in Greek

Hebrew Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies with Modern Hebrew Concentration

Minor in Hebrew

Hindi Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies with Hindi Concentration

Minor in Hindi

Hungarian Occasionally offered at Duke; Regularly offered at UNC-Chapel Hill No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
Italian Regularly offered Yes

Italian Language Program

Romance Studies

Majors in Italian Studies or Romance Studies

Minor in Italian Studies

Japanese Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies with Japanese Concentration

Minor in Japanese

K'iche' Maya Regularly offered Yes

K'iche' Maya Language Studies

Less Common Taught Language Initiative

Korean Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies

Major in Asian & Middle Eastern Studies with Korean Concentration

Minor in Korean

Latin Regularly offered Yes Classical Studies

Major in Classical Languages

Minor in Latin

Malagasy Regularly offered Yes

Malagasy Language Studies

Less Common Taught Language Initiative

Persian Regularly offered Yes Asian & Middle Eastern Studies n/a
Polish Regularly offered Yes Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Major in Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Minor in Polish Language & Culture

Portuguese Regularly offered Yes

Portuguese Language Program

Romance Studies

Majors in Brazilian & Global Portuguese or Romance Studies

Minor in Brazilian & Global Portuguese

Romanian Occasionally offered No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
Russian Regularly offered Yes Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Majors in Russian Culture & Language or Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Minor in Russian Culture & Language

Sanskrit Regularly offered Yes Religious Studies n/a
Spanish Regularly offered Yes

Spanish Language Program

Romance Studies

Majors in Spanish & Latin American Studies or Romance Studies

Minor in Spanish Studies

Swahili Regularly offered Yes

African & African American Studies

Less Common Taught Language Initiative

Turkish Regularly offered Yes

Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Less Common Taught Language Initiative

Major in Slavic & Eurasian Studies

Minor in Turkish Language & Culture

Ukranian Occasionally offered No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
Uzbek Occasionally offered No Slavic & Eurasian Studies n/a
Wolof Regularly offered at UNC-Chapel Hill No UNC's African, African American and Diaspora Studies n/a


Many students tend to think of requirements as something onerous, to be gotten out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. But research has shown that motivation is probably the most important factor of success in second language acquisition.

What should motivate your choice of language? Here are a few things to consider:

  • Personal interests. Are there certain countries or regions of the world that particularly fascinate you, that you would like to know more about, or that you could see yourself spending time in? Are there important people in your life from other countries or regions of the world with whom you would like to be able to better communicate? Are there certain writers whose work you would like to read in the original? Knowing the language of that particular country, region, or individual will give you deepened insight into the history, culture, attitudes and beliefs, and make you more interesting to and accepted by speakers of that language.
  • Academic/creative interests. In every field of knowledge and creativity, there have been great thinkers, scholars, and artists who have made significant contributions that have either not been translated into English, or whose work is inadequately rendered in translation. If you have interests in a certain field that may even develop into a major or minor or certificate, get in touch with the relevant Director of Undergraduate Studies to find out which language might be a good fit.
  • Study abroad. Many of Duke’s majors are connected to rich and rewarding study abroad programs that connect well with Duke’s language programs. By taking one or more of your foreign language courses in a country or region where the language is spoken, you will exponentially increase your fluency, and you may even be in a position to pick up a second major, or a minor in that language, which can also enhance your future career opportunities. Do not assume that study abroad programs in Germany, France, Turkey, etc. only offer language and literature courses. Many of the Duke-In programs (and plenty of other programs as well) offer courses in Political Science, Economics, History, Art History, etc. that can count for these majors as well.
  • Career interests. It is more likely than not that your career will at some point take you beyond the borders of the United States, or require you to interact with employees and clients from other countries and cultures. You can’t necessarily know in advance where your life or career will take you, but you will be better positioned to take advantage of global job opportunities if you know another language. So what country or region of the world would you like to go live and work in at some point in the future?

Some common myths

MYTH: Spanish is the “easiest” language, therefore, take Spanish. German, Russian, Arabic and Asian languages are really hard, so avoid them unless you have a good reason to take them.

Some languages may take longer than others to reach a certain level of proficiency, but all Duke’s language courses are “equal” in the sense that they are taught by professionals trained to guide you to success no matter how “difficult” you may perceive the language to be. In fact, it is difficult to get a bad grade in ANY language class, so long as you participate in class and do the assignments to the best of your ability. This will be much easier to accomplish if you are motivated to learn the language for reasons other than “it’s a requirement.”

MYTH: If you’ve had difficulty learning to speak a foreign language in the past, take Latin. It will be easier, since you don’t have to speak it.

There are many good reasons to take Latin, but this should not be one of them. Non-spoken language classes, like Latin or Greek, are often heavy on grammar and translation, and this can often appeal to analytically-oriented learners. But these courses will not necessarily be any easier than modern language courses. Again, language choice should be motivated by your interests, not any perceived notions of ease or difficulty.

MYTH: Language classes are boring (or hard) because they are all about memorizing vocabulary and grammar rules.

Teaching methods have changed tremendously over the last several decades. Our classes are small, highly interactive and high-tech, with lots of individual attention from instructors. Most students, according to student course evaluations, view their beginning foreign language classes to be among the most fun, enjoyable and stimulating experiences of all their courses.

MYTH: It would be best to just continue a language you already know. If you are an international student, just take an advanced class in your native language. That way, you’ll only have to take one course and you’ll be done.

There may be good reasons to pursue advanced study in a language you already know, especially if you intend to pick up a major or minor in that language. But you should also seriously consider taking advantage of this (perhaps once-in-a-lifetime) opportunity to learn a new language. And, once you’ve learned a second language, learning a third is much easier.

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 – 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 one day need to manage employees from other cultures. Even though most of these people will 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 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), 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 to choose a language you actually want to learn. See the Guidance on Choosing a Language to Study tab.

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 the Guidance on Choosing a Language to Study tab.

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 more literate or 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 or 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?

Review the Our Language Offerings tab which 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. 

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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 themselves into a particular class, it is imperative that they 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 encourage 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 you 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 three 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?

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 two full course credits towards the foreign language requirement. For example, if a student takes FL 111 (formerly 14, Intensive Elementary FL, two course credits), they would only need to take one 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. 

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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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