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Does My Child Need Four Years of a Language?

By Karen Deger McChesney, Contributing Writer


Should my child take four years of a foreign language in high school? Her school only offers three years of Latin, the language she wants to study, but I don't want her to sabotage her chances of getting into a good college by not taking four years of a language if that's now the standard that most colleges expect.


First and foremost, your child needs to talk to her high school counselor. They are the experts with the latest information on high school requirements for college-bound students. They know the quickest, easiest ways to access such information and work closely with each student to ensure that they are fulfilling a sufficient number of credit hours.

Here are a few suggested questions for your daughter to ask her counselor:

  • What basic academic courses do you recommend for students who want to go to college?
  • What elective courses do you recommend for college-bound students?

Secondly, I recommend that your child start doing her own research, such as checking Web sites for state colleges/universities as well as for selective, small schools and private institutions. This will help her learn the different foreign language requirements. Every college/university is a little bit different, so she will find some require four years of foreign language and others only require two. State schools, for instance, often have a different foreign language requirement for each major - some majors require three years of foreign language while others require only two. Whereas, most selective, liberal arts schools require three years of foreign language.

Your child's choice of major and college will ultimately determine if she needs four years of foreign language in high school. Your daughter has several viable options to help her complete a fourth year of Latin in high school. She can take a fourth year of Latin at a community college (very common for juniors and seniors in high school), in summer school, or perhaps even at another high school. Depending on her choice of major and college, she will have an opportunity to demonstrate her foreign language proficiency through the college's foreign language exam.

The best rule of thumb: High school students should start taking a foreign language in ninth grade and continue with the same foreign language for three to four years (and avoid switching to a different language). Keep in mind that college admission encompasses many factors, well beyond just high school foreign language requirements. They want to see that you are curious, that you are willing to work, and that you really want to learn.

Karen Deger McChesney is a Colorado-based high school English teacher, contributing writer to various magazines and educational publications, and stepmother to a high school student.

Advice from our experts is not a substitute for professional diagnosis or treatment from a health-care provider or learning expert familiar with your unique situation. We recommend consulting a qualified professional if you have concerns about your child's condition.

Comments from readers

"Wrong. In the UK most people will take either French, German or Spanish, occasionally Latin. I am a trilingual person and yes that is common, but those languages are rarely thought in schools. I'd rather one second language were studied properly instead of two the way it is done now."
"Only in the U.S.A would this question be asked. Not only should American students take at least 4 years of a foreign language but they should also consider a 2nd one. The second issue is competent teachers. I have found the foreign language teaching requirements to be insufficient and some schools have even eliminated foreign language in their schools. This is based on personal experience. Bi- and tri-lingual families are more common than educators would like to believe. Students are more competent than their teachers. There is an issue of standards and credibility in teacher requirements dictated by the state."
"Learning a language is not just about getting into college! Languages provide wonderful opportunities for learning about different cultures, art, literature, history, politics, etc. Latin is a root language for many modern languages, and provides a fantastic base for learning other languages. As a teacher, I hope that all students decide to become 'global citizens' and pursue studies in more than one language, rather than just doing the minimum to get into college. I was disappointed that when asked whether a child should take four years of language in HS, Ms. McChesney did not emphasize the wonderful opportunities that learning more than one language provides, but instead decided to focus narrowly on what to do to get into college!"