Should I Take a Second Language as an Elective?

By: Neya Abdi | @neyaabdi

Most discussions about electives revolve around two main questions:

  1. Is it easy?
  2. Will it make me more attractive to employers?

To be honest, the best approach to electives is taking courses you are interested in. You are more likely to show up, do the work, and find practical applications for the course material when you care about it. But I digress.

Conversations around electives routinely involve a discussion on the value of the elective. It’s a course you don’t have to take, so if you’re going to take it it should either boost up your CGPA or help you win jobs post-graduation.

Learning another language satisfies two of the most worthy considerations we’ve mentioned: it’s both lucrative and it’s a course that can be enjoyable. While learning a second (or third or fourth) language requires work, it can also be rewarding and impressive giving students more incentive to pursue it.

There are Thousands of Languages in the World – Which One Should I Learn First?

There are more than 6,500 spoken languages in the world, but roughly 2000 of those languages have no more than 1000 speakers. Of the remaining languages, only a few are offered at the university level.

French is one of the most popular languages for native English speakers to learn. Before English took over the global scene, French was the superstar. Today, it is still one of the official languages of a number of prominent international institutions (the United Nations being one of them). It also holds the cute title as the “language of love”.

For Canadians, learning French carries special importance. As one of our two official languages there is much to be gained from learning French in terms of employability. Those interested in a career in public service likely already know that the federal government is the largest employer in the country. And many other industries are increasingly interested in landing candidates who are English/French bilingual.

Look to Your Desired Industry and Your Interests When Choosing a Language To Learn

Of course, there may be some readers who are uninterested in the french language or who have no intentions of finding work in a field that requires French/English bilingualism. In that case, what are the best languages to learn?

There are several factors you should take into consideration in this case. Interested in pursuing a career in international affairs, global security, or energy? Arabic may be the language you want to pick up. There are numerous non-commercial reasons to learn Arabic, including its beautiful script and rich history. From an economic perspective it can also be a very lucrative language to learn considering our contemporary geopolitical climate.

But sometimes it is not just about the commercial benefits of a language. For instance, there has been growing conversation about the benefits of learning Mandarin. Some parents are rushing to put their children into schools that teach Mandarin to make them more competitive in a world that is witnessing China’s growth as a superpower. Other observers caution that parents (and students) shouldn’t be so hasty.

While there is some disagreement, the consensus is that Mandarin is a notoriously difficult language for native English speakers to learn to speak (and even more difficult to learn how to write). In an article for the Harvard Crimson, Jorge A. Araya talks about how the cost of learning Mandarin will likely lead to a global situation where native Mandarin speakers are more likely to pick up English. While the actual difficulty of learning Mandarin could be argued back and forth (difficult for whom, exactly?) sinologist David Moser confirms how tough the language is in his hilarious, slightly bitter articleΒ “Why Chinese is so Damn Hard” that tackles the linguistic and cultural gap between East and West. In the case of Mandarin, students must have a distinct interest in learning the language because purely monetary motivation will only get them so far.

Languages Are Fun and Rewarding to Learn, Whatever the Motivation

Then again if ease is what you are looking for, consider learning how to habla espanol. For English speakers, it is considered an extremely easy language to learn. The shared cognates and the relatively simple grammatical rules make the language accessible. And Spanish just sounds sexy, even when you can barely speak it, so the motivation to become fluent will be extra strong.

Whichever language you choose to take, selecting any language as an elective is a great choice to make. Learning how to communicate with a million (or in the case of Mandarin, a billion) more people than you could with only your mother tongue is a beautiful thing. And a nice way to supplement a well-rounded, global education.