The Bilingual Graduate: The Benefits of Double Majoring with a Foreign Language Degree

Posted May 1, 2013


When Kevin Newton was a freshman at William and Mary, he knew he wanted to major in history. To avoid making it anything other than a "pre-law" degree, he also decided to study a language, ultimately landing on Arabic.

"It’s trite to say that in a shrinking world that languages are important, but it is true nonetheless," says Newton.

Newton is part of a rising trend in overachieving students — the bilingual double major. Students who double major rose 70% between 2001 and 2011, according to the the Education Department. Some schools are seeing rates of double majors at or above 50%. Among those double majors, a foreign language is often the common dominator. A recent national study by Vanderbilt University sociologists Richard Pitt and Steven Tepper examining the proliferation of double majoring on university and college campuses found that a foreign language was the most popular major. Among the top 10 most popular majors, six were paired with a foreign language.

Clearly, something is in the water. Students are seeing an advantage to not only double majoring, but double majoring with a foreign language specifically.

Benefits of Pairing a Foreign Language Degree with Your Major

There are many reasons why a student may elect to do so. Here are some of the major draws:

Add value to a degree

For Newton, studying Arabic gave him the opportunity to beef up, in a sense, his history major. The Vanderbilt study found a similar compulsion for students with majors they perceived as being "under-valued" in society, such as in the arts, humanities, and education. "While more research is needed, we suspect that students tend to pair under-valued majors with a second major in order to boost the status of their degree," the study’s authors conclude.

Boost your marketability

Students looking to gain a competitive advantage in the job market may consider double majoring to help distinguish their resume.

"The ever-changing job market requires a diversity of skills and knowledge coming out of college," says Gabriel Barreneche, associate professor of Spanish at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. "Pairing a major in a language communicates very clearly to potential employers that graduates have certifiable language and intercultural skills that set them apart from the rest of the job applicant pool."

Double majoring can also help students who are applying to medical or law school stand out from the pack of biology or history majors.

"Not all medical schools are looking for people with biology majors," says Charlie Miller, a college academic specialist in the greater New York area. "As long as you do well on the MCAT, have strong grades, and have all the prerequisites met, a school isn’t going to turn you down because you were a French major."

Meet demand

While speaking at the Foreign Language Summit three years ago, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lamented the fact that only 18% of Americans speak a language other than English — compared to 53% of European citizens who can speak more than one language. "To prosper economically and to improve relations with other countries, Americans need to read, speak and understand other languages," Duncan declared. Bilingual students are uniquely poised to help fill this foreign language deficit in areas like foreign policy, the military, and diplomacy, as well as science and business, with a more globalized economy especially driving demand for foreign language proficiency.

Open more doors

Becoming proficient in two areas of study can create more opportunity in fields like business, government, politics, education, or the non-profit world. After his studies in history and Arabic, Newton went on to study Islamic law and Persian at the graduate level. Since graduating with his master’s in 2008, he’s worked as an editor of a specialist encyclopedia on Islamic thought and history, consulted on development issues in the Islamic world, and taught late ancient and medieval history. He currently heads up a consulting company, Habbibi Consulting, which focuses on cultural training for those doing business in the Islamic world.

"Having learned both Arabic and Persian, as well as my knowledge of history and Islamic law, I know that I am uniquely positioned to succeed in this endeavor," says Newton.

Earn more

That’s right; working double time in college may help improve your ROI. A 2007 survey that studied the link between double majoring and salary found that overall, double majoring increased earnings by 2.3% compared to having a single major. Most of these gains were from having a double major in two different fields. For instance, graduates who combined an arts, humanities, or social science major in business, engineering, science, or math had returns 7% to 50% higher than graduates with just a single major in arts, humanities, or social science.

Gain cultural capital

Outside of potential earnings or career paths, studying a foreign language can reap rewards in more intangible things like exposure, international exchange, and understanding. Having a foreign language as a major often facilitates studying abroad and learning about different cultures, as well as can shape who you are as a person for the better. As observed in the Vanderbilt double major study, "[W]hile we cannot claim that the foreign language double major combinations make students more tolerant, those double majors who end up in foreign languages are more likely to self-rate as tolerant, empathetic, and able to work cooperatively with diverse people."

Potential Pairings

The combinations for double majors are seemingly endless, limited only by the university’s course offerings. In his 10 years at Rollins, Barreneche has seen students pair their major in Spanish with such varied disciplines as international business, education, political science, Latin American and Caribbean studies, and international relations.

"These students have gone on to graduate studies, Fulbright fellowships, and jobs in the business world here and abroad," says Barreneche. "While most college graduates eventually find careers that are unrelated to their undergraduate majors, students who major in languages possess skills and experience that transcend narrow career-oriented majors."

The Vanderbilt double major study provides some additional understanding of the types of majors students are pairing with their foreign language degree. Among the top 10 most popular pairings the survey found were a foreign language with international studies, political science, biology, economics, business, or psychology. Additionally, the report found that foreign language is a particularly popular combo with ethnic and area studies majors, biological sciences, business, social sciences, and communications.

Kasandra Ortiz, a junior at the University of North Florida, is currently pursuing majors in both communications and Spanish — communications because she wants to be a reporter, and Spanish because it’s allowed her to fine-tune her speaking and writing skills, and she’s already found the two coming in handy in her job working for a local news station.

"My Spanish major has allowed me to take the lead at work when we deal with Spanish guests and businessmen," says Ortiz. "Also, now that I am beginning my on-camera career, it opens up an opportunity for me to work a Spanish news station if I so pleased."

As Ortiz demonstrates, double major pairings will ultimately depend on your career goals. A student interested in international business may decide to study economics and Mandarin, while a pre-med candidate may study biology and Spanish to potentially work with a larger patient pool. History is a good degree to pair with a language, too, advises Miller. If you’re studying European history, for instance, French or Spanish might be a good fit. Latin, surprisingly, is another common option, says Miller, especially for students studying classic literature or looking to enhance their understanding of the English language. A foreign language with another foreign language is also a potential pairing, especially if the program recommends or requires study in a second language. For example, UNC Charlotte’s bachelor’s in Spanish program strongly encourages Spanish majors to take courses in another language through at least the intermediate level. At that point, you may be just a few classes shy of a second major.

Best Double-Majoring Practices

One major is usually enough for most students, so adding a second, intensive major in a foreign language may seem like a death sentence. For many of these overachievers, the passion and desire to learn is the biggest motivating factor that pushes them to the double major finish line. But there are some more practical ways to make double majoring successful:

Test out of prerequisites

Knocking off some required courses before you start your college career can make double majoring not just feasible, but a no-brainer. Having spoken Spanish in her home, Ortiz was able to test out of most of her Spanish major, leaving only a few classes to get her degree. AP courses or college classes taken while in high school can also help you fulfill core requirements in other departments. Students may also be able to receive college credit in subjects they already know through tests like the College Level Examination Program (CLEP), giving them more flexibility to pursue a second major.

Take more than the bare minimum

The minimum number of credits required of you each semester may vary from school to school, but by taking more than that bare minimum, you can get that much closer to finishing two degrees. Most schools also have a flat tuition rate, so even if you’re taking more classes, you’re not paying more. You can also consider taking classes during the summer if you don’t want to overburden yourself during the school year.

Make your classes do double or triple duty

Understanding the requirements is key to completing any degree, says Miller, but especially more than one degree. By knowing what’s expected of you each semester, you can use the system to your advantage and have one course fill more than one requirement in your major or core curriculum. This will free up more time to take classes in two majors.

"I’ve seen one course fulfill three or four different requirements," says Miller. "You want to double dip, even quadruple dip whenever possible."

Similarly, if you double major in related fields, you may have some overlapping requirements that will make finishing both degrees that much easier.

Is Double Majoring Right for You?

If the idea of doing twice as much work during the typical college career seems suspect, you’re not alone. Earlier this year, Time posited if colleges should ban students from majoring in two subjects, pointing to a similar recommendation made by a task force at the University of Texas at Austin. The logic goes, with schools encouraged to increase graduation rates, narrowing — not increasing — student choice is the answer.

For the students surveyed by Vanderbilt sociologists Pitt and Tepper, however, double majoring wasn’t a burden; anyone considering double majoring is already an over-achieving, over-extended student. The study found that foreign language majors in particular were "less likely to say that their major combination negatively influenced their ability to participate in extracurricular activities, volunteering, or taking electives." Contributing factors include their foreign language major being less rigorous, they already have credits, or they have prior experience with the language.

If you’ve determined that double majoring in a foreign language won’t jeopardize your graduation or free time, it’s also important to consider the type of language degree your school offers before taking the plunge. Brian Rosenbaum, a 2007 graduate of University of California, Los Angeles in psychology, knew he wanted to study Spanish, but decided to only minor in it because his school’s Spanish major was more literary focused. That freed him up to take 10 Spanish language classes, as well as study abroad in Barcelona for a year.

"A minor is a more realistic way to get fluent and still have that credential," says Rosenbaum, who frequently uses his Spanish language skills as a community engagement Coordinator at College Summit Southern California, a national nonprofit organization that partners with low-income high schools to send more students to college.

The key is knowing what the focus of that particular foreign language department is, such as applied language, literature, culture, or history, before you major to make sure it lines up with your own goals. Some departments may have multiple tracks so you can pick the one that best suits your needs.

Ultimately, picking a major is a personal choice, based on a student’s interests and professional goals. For all the benefits of double majoring, you shouldn’t study two subjects just for the sake of it. Rather, you should have a persuasive account of how your two majors go together. Pitt and Tepper call it a "compelling story" or "forceful narrative." With that, you’ll be able to sell yourself — and your unique skill set — even better.

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