Foreign Language Courses: How Much is Enough In High School? - College in 321

Foreign Language Courses: How Much is Enough In High School?

Written by Kathy deJong

February 4, 2021

How More World Language Courses in High School Pays Off 

About this time each year, I work with high school students on their course plans for the following year. Inevitably, most students want to stop their foreign language studies as soon as they’ve completed their high school graduation requirements and whine (usually with the eye-roll) when I suggest they should continue it through their senior year. But, there are multiple reasons to continue a second language throughout high school if a student is capable. We now live in a global society, and those that have some level of fluency in another language will reap the benefits. 

Generally, the more competitive a college, the more they expect in high school foreign language study from applicants.

Are there 4-year colleges that don’t require any foreign language in high school? Yes. However, most colleges require a minimum of two years of a foreign language to be considered for admission. Many colleges recommend at least three years of the same world language in high school for a student to be competitive in the admissions pool. Four years makes a student more attractive. The most competitive colleges recommend and expect students to take a foreign language in each of their four years of high school or until they exhaust the available curriculum available. The bottom line, the more foreign language, the more attractive a student is in the college application pool.

But this is just the first reason to keep going on those foreign language studies. 

You may need to take a foreign language or place out of the courses to get an undergraduate college degree. 

If you can get to and maintain an intermediate level of proficiency or better in a language in high school, why would you pay to take those courses in college if you don’t need them for your major and can place out of them? Each college/system determines its foreign language requirements for an undergraduate degree. Some colleges require all students to take or place out of a foreign language as part of their core curriculum requirements for a bachelor’s degree. Others may require it for specific majors. The point is that if you take and do well in a foreign language in high school, you can potentially reduce the number of classes you take in college – if you choose. Keep in mind, if a student doesn’t take a language in the latter part of high school, it may be difficult to maintain the proficiency to place out of required courses by placement examination. 

Here are a few examples of current requirements from popular competitive colleges in North Carolina. This information is always subject to change. Note: some colleges may not consider American Sign Language to fulfill their requirements. Consult each college for specifics.

Duke UniversityMust take a minimum of 1-3 foreign language courses at Duke. Some students with only basic or no language proficiency may need to take more. The shortest path is taking a placement exam which places a student into an advanced 300 level course. 

 University of North Carolina – Chapel HillAs part of the General Education requirements at UNC–Chapel Hill, all students are required to complete (or place out of) at least a level 3 course (the third semester, usually numbered 203 but sometimes 403) of a foreign language.  Some majors may require additional levels.

North Carolina State University – All students at NC State must demonstrate competency at the Elementary II level in a foreign language (FL* 102) as a requirement for graduation. Students who do not meet the proficiency requirement as determined by a review of the student’s transcripts by the Office of Undergraduate Admissions may need to take a placement test. Proficiency can be met by either of these options:

  • Two years of high school study of the same language with a grade of ‘C’ or better in each of the two years
  • College credit from a previous institution

Students enrolling in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences (CHASS), the Poole College of Management (PCOM), or Design Studies in the College of Design are required to complete the Intermediate I level (FL* 201).

Wake Forest University – Requires completion of one 200-level foreign language course. (Completing two, 100 level classes or placement out of these courses are prerequisites.)

Elon University – Foreign Language is a core requirement.


  1. Take Elementary Spanish I & II at Elon
  2. Take a placement exam that places you in a 200 level class and take that course
  3. Get a 4 or 5 on the AP Spanish exam in high school

High Point University – Required to complete a foreign language at the 1020 level. This may be fulfilled by getting a 4 or 5 on an AP exam.

University of North Carolina at Asheville – Demonstrated proficiency, either by placement or course completion, through the first year (second semester) of a language.

University of North Carolina Wilmington –  Required: Proficiency through the 201 level in a language previously studied, or the 102 level in a “second” foreign language not previously studied. Students will demonstrate proficiency by completing a course at 201 level or higher in a language previously studied depending on placement, or through the 102 level in a language not previously studied.

College graduates with foreign language fluency may be more competitive in the job market. 

It just makes sense. If you plan to work in a global/international business, foreign language skills may provide an edge. There is also evidence that salaries are slightly higher for bilingual speakers in some jobs – all other things being equal.

Best advice, if you are capable of doing well in a foreign language course through the senior year of high school, do it.

Students that maximize their foreign language studies:

  • Are more attractive college applicants 
  • Can reduce the cost of college or invest their tuition into other areas for a double major or a minor
  • Have the proficiency to feel comfortable studying abroad
  • Become a more attractive job applicant in many careers
  • Potentially earn more income in their careers

If you are struggling with a foreign language in high school, speak to a counselor about the best approach to get the maximum benefit of taking foreign language courses without sacrificing your GPA.



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