Choosing a Language

Many students tend to think of requirements as something onerous, to be gotten out of the way as quickly and painlessly as possible. If this is your view of the foreign language requirement, you are very likely shooting yourself in the foot. Research has shown that motivation is probably the most important factor of success in second language acquisition.

So – 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. In this, our 21st century, 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 (and a good grade), 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. Classes are small, highly interactive, high tech, and 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/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.