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 article “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.

Paris attacks: one week later

Last Friday’s horrific events in Paris left the world shocked and angry. But beyond those feelings of horror, there was a sense of overwhelming helplessness not only in terms of how to act, but how to think. ISIL’s attacks stepped up debates new and old on the issues of refugees, religious extremism, Western hegemony, and more.

In the week since, news outlets have been in a frenzy to explain the events to its viewers with continuous coverage and a seemingly endless stream of expert panellists who range from vaguely informative to shamefully alarmist. Below is a breakdown of the main facts, as well as summaries of articles that provides thoughtful commentary on a few of the key, ongoing debates.


On November 13, individuals acting on behalf of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) attacked a number of spots on a busy Friday night in Paris, France. They used explosives and assault rifles, killing 129 people and wounding hundreds.

The previous day, on November 12, 43 people were killed and hundreds wounded in Lebanon after suicide bombers detonated their devices in a Beirut suburb. ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. 

France 24 coverage of the suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: YouTube


A day after the attacks, ISIL released a statement claiming responsibility and promising France and its supporters that “they will continue to be at the top of the target list for the Islamic State and that the scent of death will not leave their nostrils as long as they partake in the crusader campaign.”

What’s in a name? IS vs ISIS vs ISIL.

An overview of the history of the Islamic State, its organization and methods, as well as an account of its rise over the past couple of years. In a testament to its brutality, ISIL was renounced by al-Qaeda in 2014.

So far, there is some information about the names and nationalities of some of the suspected terrorists and co-conspirators. The suspected leader of the attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, was killed in a police raid on November 18.

Suspected Attackers
French authorities conducted raids in search of suspected attackers and co-conspirators. Source: YouTube


ISIL has cited French intervention in Syria and Iraq as their reason for attacking the country. In the wake of Friday’s events, many commentators, writers, and academics have reiterated the complex historical and political factors that have contributed to the rise of ISIL. Others, while acknowledging this history, are underwhelmed by arguments that say the West is dealing with a problem of its own making.

A look at the role U.S. involvement in the Middle East has played, as well as its present-day implications. This article draws poignant examples of this relationship, particularly by pointing out how Islamic extremism and jihadism were encouraged by the United States as a strategy towards mobilizing the Muslim world against the “godless” USSR’s socialist influence in the Middle East.

Explanations of jihadism that stop at condemnations of Western involvement are lazy, according to The Guardian political columnist Rafael Behr. This discussion is in connection to recent comments by Labour party MP Jeremy Corbyn, but it is relevant to how leaders should act. Behr writes, “The hardest part of leadership is judging how far to stray from what is ideal for the sake of what is necessary.” 


First, is how ISIL managed to carry out these attacks and evade intelligence agencies. Those details will be made more available to us in the coming weeks and months.

Second, is how governments and individuals should respond to these attacks. There will certainly be increased military action. French President François Hollande has declared the attacks an “act of war”. Debates range from whether states should respond militarily, how events in some parts of the world are prioritized over others, and whether or not borders should be kept open for refugees seeking protection.

CNN reports on the international effort to apprehend a suspect who crossed into Brussels following the attack. Source: YouTube

In a lecture in March 2015 at Simon Fraser University, Gwynne Dyer, military historian and journalist, explained that military response to the, relatively speaking, minor issue of terrorism is exactly the kind of overreaction ISIL wants.

Anti-immigration sentiment has been strong in recent years. It comes as no surprise since groups are especially resistant to outsiders when the economy is struggling, and there is a perceived threat. The images of drowned Syrian toddler Alan Kurdi galvanized global support for refugee protection. The terror in Paris has returned ammunition to politicians opposed to welcoming migrants, and provided an out for EU members meant to share the load of settling refugees.

The links about refugees are primarily in regards to the United States. Our Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has remained committed to admitting 25,000 refugees into Canada, despite growing criticism.

Historically, the national security threat to the U.S. posed by refugees has been non-existent with experts maintaing that the risk is minimal. Admittedly, there are features of the Syrian refugee crisis, such as the large number of migrants, that prove more complicated than past influxes. This has led to concern over whether a U.S. Syrian refugee program could be infiltrated by terrorists who are not properly screened.

A Jewish writer’s perspective on negative public opinion about admitting refugees. He cites telling polls from the 1930s on public sentiment towards Jewish refugees. 

In addition, the issue of white lives versus brown lives was a prevalent topic. The coverage of the Beirut bombings by the same group just the day before did not garner the same amount of attention and public displays of support. This post is arguably complicit in that tendency.

Pray for the World
Poem that made the rounds on social media after the attacks in Paris and Beirut. Photo via Facebook.

In the hours after the panic and terror in Paris, Facebook enabled its Safety Check feature to allow those in the danger zone to check in, effectively alerting their friends and family to their status. Up until that point, it was only activated for natural disasters. This was not done for the bombing in Lebanon. Facebook’s Vice President of Growth, Alex Schultz, explained the reasons for this in a post on the social media site.

Facebook users were also given the option of applying an overlay of the French Tricolour. There was no option for the Lebanese flag. Emma Teitel wrote a pointed piece calling out critics of the Facebook filter and the news coverage, remarking that many of them did not discuss the Beirut bombings until after the French attacks occurred.

It’s common knowledge that Facebook uses algorithms to display content based on what we typically read, share, and like. Moreover, prominent newspapers do publish stories about what’s happening in the rest of the world – they certainly did after the suicide bombing in Beirut. The responsibility may ultimately be up to us to seek out information about the rest of the world, especially with a tool like the Internet at our disposal.