Are Language Degrees Useful?

Ahh language degrees, the holy grail of fluency. Spend thousands of dollars and four years to study a language and then come out speaking it close to a native right?




I want to set the record straight for anyone that is considering getting a degree in a language, especially those getting a degree in a so called “hot” or “needed” language such as Chinese. Getting a degree is a huge investment of money and time. We want to make sure the degree we will be able to give us the opportunities we are looking for.  After being told by dozens of people that a Chinese degree would make me highly sought after by companies and government agencies, I was thoroughly disappointed to find out that was not the case at all. So if you are considering a degree in a language, allow me to give you an idea of what to expect.


Post-Graduation Fluency Skills 

After studying Chinese in college, it’s safe to say that you will not get the language skills necessary to where you can live your life in another language. This is even after I studied abroad twice. It’s just not enough.


With a language like Chinese, there’s a big emphasis on reading classical Chinese, but that is pretty much a whole separate language from modern Chinese. This means that half of your time studied is spent on topics that have very little carry-over to how people today talk. I actually got to a point where my classical Chinese was better than my modern Chinese, which I thought was ridiculous because companies won’t hire me simply for my Confucius reading skills.


My own Chinese did not improve until about 4 months of living in Taiwan after graduating. I was able to focus on my own weakness in the language and got a lot more conversation practice.


Note: For languages similar to your native tongue, obviously you can learn them much faster and you do have the ability in college to learn them to fluency, but for English speakers, most of the needed languages are the ones that you can become fluent in after a couple years. The cultural differences and strange grammar make it difficult to learn without hearing the language being used in multiple contexts.


The Degree Isn’t Enough

Even if you have a degree, for some translation jobs, you will still be required to pass a test that proves you are fluent. So despite all the studying and money you spent, you could’ve saved all the money, gotten a private tutor instead, and then taken the test and still get the job. Most places don’t even care about the degree as long as you have the skills in that language. Why bother with the degree then?


Post-Graduation Employ-ability

When people asked me what I was learning in school, I would tell them Chinese. The immediate reaction was that big companies are looking to hire people like me and that I should find a high-paying job easily. I can say that reality has been the exact opposite.


After sending out tons of applications upon graduating, I was unable to find any jobs. I was barely getting any replies. Not even interview offers. Those that were interested upon talking to me lost interest very quickly. The closest I got was through a relative of mine who worked at a big name company. I could’ve gone to China and worked there, but ultimately it fell through. Why?


Companies Want Other Skills

The few companies that did reply to me were interested in my Chinese skills, but then upon realizing I had no other skills, except for management related skills, they didn’t want me anymore. I even had a business minor to help round out my major, make me more employable, but companies didn’t care.


Everyone I knew except for two people told me companies would want me. I can actually say too, the company my relative helped me talk to only wanted me to have Chinese skills to be able to live in China, not to use them for work. When I talked to the two people that told me not to get a Chinese major, they told me language should only be an extra thing. A bonus. The icing on the cake. Not the main part of my skillset.


Think about it, would Jason Bourne or James Bond be wanted by their respective agencies if all they could do was speak other languages? Of course not, yet for some reason this is the advice we pump out to others. Even my teachers told me that my Chinese major would be helpful. Then I realize something.


People who are not in positions to give you a job or help you are telling you what you should do. People that don’t understand what businesses want are telling you what you should do. Why do we listen to this? I honestly don’t know why, but I can at least offer advice for anyone with linguistic interest trying to figure out a degree.


Pick a Useful Major

Get a major in something useful. Like marketing, international relations, economics, etc. You want to get a degree that companies want. I can’t give advice on what to study, because I’m not you. I don’t know what you like or are good at. I can just say pick something that is universally useful.


Learn the Language

Now when it comes time to learn the language, you have a couple options. You can always minor in the language, but that still requires lots of time and money on your part. Remember, a lot of college courses on language are a waste. You can find a private tutor that will give material tailored to your needs, not to the needs of other people in a class. Depending on the cost of credits at your university, usually a private tutor will cost less than a college course. So not only will you learn faster, you will also save money. And who doesn’t like that?


Now when it comes time to talk to an employer about your language skills, they, like one company I talked to, might only want your language skills so that thy know you won’t have any problems living in another country, so no test is actually required. Some companies have their own tests they want you to take. Government agencies do this as well. So don’t worry about a lack of degree on your resume. If you pass their test, or another type of language test, that is usually all that the company wants.


Don’t believe me? Take it from a professor I had. He speaks seven languages, all self-taught. He’s worked in various companies across the world and has used his linguistic abilities along the way. He said focus on your main skills and then let the languages be a bonus.


So is a language degree right for you? Maybe, maybe not. If you are going into academia, then yes, it could very be useful. Outside of that, it may not be so helpful. My purpose is just to let you know my experience so that you can better prepare yourself for your own future.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? Please let me know.



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