Majoring in a foreign language is considered to be one of the most fruitless ways you can spend your time in college.
As a “Liberal Arts” degree field, the study of any foreign language is seen as less lucrative than the technical fields, or as I call them; the-ones-where-the-degree-is-a-job-title. Chemical Engineering = Chemical Engineers, Nursing = Nurses, etc. The numbers back this up, apparently. I’m not surprised by this, but in my personal experience, pursuing a major in Japanese has been absolutely life-changing, both for personal development, and for my career. I would like to make the case for a practical reason to major in a foreign language for university study.
For one, the job market for translators and interpreters is expected to grow by 18% by the year 2026. (based on 2016 data) One the other hand, while tech fields are also expected to continue growing into the future, many jobs are expected to become automated in the near future. I cannot make a legitimate case for a devoted study of foreign language to be as marketable as, say, medicine or data engineering. However, the increasingly global markets in which techies and other professionals will soon have no choice but to participate in, demand a level of cultural and linguistic fluency that may very well merit a serious, methodological, study in world languages.
In the following article, I want to tell you a little about how studying Japanese has opened numerous doors of opportunity for me, in addition to providing the perspectives of others who can also attest to the gains they have made, financially and otherwise, by attaining a level of fluency in a foreign language. Beyond the job market, there are many worthy reasons to study a foreign language, such as exploring the world around you, interacting with new types of people, or maybe even protecting against Alzheimer’s. These factors notwithstanding, the focus of this article will be the practical reasons to learn a foreign language in terms of career advancement and opportunity.
Why it matters to me (And should for you)
As a university student pursuing two majors; one in Creative Writing, and the other in Japanese, I represent two student bodies which are both marginalized in the perceptions of today’s “experts.” Liberal Arts degrees of any sort are considered to be useless in terms of earning potential and career advancement. Even among liberal arts degrees, hard sciences or economics are favored as having more career opportunity, while English and (especially) foreign language study is considered to be a one-way ticket to living with your parents forever. I have no qualms in admitting that the standard I bear is somewhat reactionary, as these stereotypes are especially pervasive in my home university in Seattle.
If you are skeptical about the practical use of learning a foreign language, I hope that this article will provoke some reconsideration. If you are passionate about studying a foreign language (especially Japanese!), I hope to provide some insight into the multitude of opportunities that await those who have attained foreign language proficiency. As a non-traditional student (I worked for several years before going to university), I will speak to the impact foreign language study can have for both students and professionals.
First things first; can’t everyone speak English already?
In a word, no. But the larger question at hand is whether learning any foreign language will have tangible benefits for someone who already speaks English. It is true that many people have attained high levels of English fluency in addition to another language or languages. However, if you speak a language which is in global demand, in addition to English, then you possess a skillset that is sought after in every global industry, and in both the private and government sector. Foreign language fluency alone may not be enough to secure an in-demand job (Though it might be, more on that later), but it certainly can be the deciding factor in whether you get bypassed for promotion in favor of someone who is more culturally flexible, or not.
Yes, linguistic fluency is a tool, not a career. But without it, your career will never have the growth potential that it could if you were able to function in multiple cultural settings. If someone like Mark Zuckerberg considers learning a foreign language to be a worthy investment of his time, then maybe the rest of us should take note.
If you hail from a monolingual country like I do, the opportunities to be seized are endless for those who have attained proficiency in a foreign language and culture. The English-speaking world is home to a lot of innovation and industry. But the vast majority of native English speakers do not have the language skills necessary to effectively articulate the value of western industries, and create value within the markets of other countries. You can be sure that those who have developed this skill have become indispensable in the globalization process – and reaped the rewards of their efforts.
Countries and companies will recruit foreign talent, but there is always a persistent bias for domestic talent, no matter where you go. While American governmental agencies will hire citizens of other countries for their skills, especially in foreign languages; they are also willing to spend large sums of money and time in training qualified Americans to learn foreign languages which they can put to use for American interests at home and abroad. I myself have been the recipient of several thousand dollars’ worth of American government funding for the purposes of learning Japanese. Which leads me to my first target demographic; University students and those soon to become one.