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Languages at UW-Madison


Learning a language other than English can help you to develop a broad range of skills that are valuable in many career fields. Studying a language, especially to an advanced level, may be required for certain jobs, and may qualify you for additional pay and promotion. Also, language study can give you valuable skills that employers are looking for.

So, what are you going to do with that?

OK, but what are you going to do with a language after graduation? The answer depends on how you think about the relationship between language study and careers:

Language as technical skill

Some careers revolve around a core set of knowledge and skills that are required to work in that field. In these cases, the relationship between education and work is fairly direct and easy to understand:

  • You study engineering, then become an engineer
  • You study accounting, then become an accountant
  • You study languages, then become … a teacher or translator??

This is a really common way to understand the relationship between college and work, but it has some serious flaws:

  • The direct line from college to work only exists for a handful of careers
  • In every career field (including engineering and accounting), you’ll need to draw on a range of skills like communication and critical thinking, not to mention knowledge from areas outside your specialty
  • Most career fields change so rapidly that you'll definitely have to continue learning throughout your life, and while your college education is a strong foundation, it can't teach you everything you'll need to know in the world of work

This understanding actually limits your options (i.e. ‘I studied a language so I guess I have to be a translator). But what if you’re not satisfied with the career that your major supposedly dictates for you? Deciding to learn a language is not the same as deciding on a career path; rather than limiting your options to a single career path, language study can expand the possibilities for your future career, regardless of what that career is.

Language as medium of communication

In any career field, you’re going to need to communicate with others. Selling a service to potential clients, collaborating with colleagues on a project, explaining a diagnosis to a patient; you can probably come up with ten more examples of how you might communicate in a job. Some people assume that because English is so widely spoken today, learning another language isn’t worth the effort. While you can get by with English in many parts of the world, professional communication doesn’t happen only in English, even within the US. Any job that you can imagine someone doing using English, somewhere in the world someone is doing that same job using the language you’re studying.

When you study a language, you develop abilities that will expand the communities in which you can interact and the professional and personal networks that you can draw on. You can also greatly increase the number and types of places in which you could live and work.

Language study in the liberal arts

Learning a language other than English can help you to develop a broad range of skills that are valuable in many career fields. Studying a language, especially to an advanced level, gives you many transferable skills, including the ability to:

  • communicate well, both in English and in your language of study, both in interpersonal interactions and in more formal presentations
  • work well in a diverse team: you’re able to understand and appreciate worldviews different from your own and work productively with people from different cultures, ethnic groups, etc.
  • plan, organize, and prioritize your work: to succeed at learning a language, you need to set realistic goals and actively work towards them through consistent practice
  • interpret ideas and information in different cultural, social and historical contexts: when learning a language, you might be reading medieval literature one week and watching a TV news broadcast the next, and you’re learning to make sense of it all

Language study broadens your career options and can complement just about any other academic discipline or professional preparation. So instead of asking “What can I do with a language?” you should start asking, “What do I want to do?” This is a much more challenging question to answer, so check out the many career resources on campus or meet the International Directions Advisor in the Language Institute.