What is a Foreign Languages and Literatures Degree?

Foreign languages and literatures degree programs teach students how to speak, read, and write foreign languages. Some programs focus on the linguistic structure of the studied language and others on its major written literary works. Many programs cover both of these components.

Among the most common languages offered in these programs are French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Bengali, Hindustani, and Malay. It is typical for students to focus their studies on two languages.

Because of the literary and linguistic concentration options, foreign languages and literatures degree program courses vary. The following are some sample classes:

• The Structure of Foreign Languages
• English/Foreign Languages Comparative Grammar
• Foreign Languages Conversation
• Foreign Languages for Business
• Foreign Languages and Culture
• Foreign Languages – Literatures: poetry, drama, fiction, nonfiction

Program Options

• Foreign languages and literatures degree programs often include an option to complete part of the curriculum abroad.
• Many students who major in foreign languages and literatures complete a double major. This provides them with another skill and prepares them for jobs in a wider range of fields. Some examples are combining foreign languages and literatures studies with a second major (or minor) in business, economics, political science, international relations, or education.

Associate Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures – Two Year Duration
An Associate Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures prepares students for a limited number of entry-level positions. Possible roles include language tutor or bilingual/multilingual salesperson, customer service representative, or tour guide.

At this level, coursework focuses on the fundamental structure and patterns of languages. The typical curriculum combines classroom instruction with language lab time, during which students have the opportunity to interact with tutors who are native speakers of the language they are studying.

Here are sample courses from the associate curriculum:

• Introduction to the Foreign Language – reading, writing, and speaking
• Intermediate Foreign Language – second-level course that introduces students to more complex oral and written material
• Business Terminology in the Foreign Language
• Literature and Culture(s) of the Foreign Language

Bachelor’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures – Four Year Duration
With a Bachelor’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures, graduates qualify for a variety of roles, especially if they have completed a double major or a major/minor curriculum. Depending on their specific degree, they may find employment in fields like business, media/communications, human resources, or teaching.

Foreign Languages and Literatures Bachelor’s Degree programs may include courses like these:

• Introductory Foreign Languages
• Intermediate Foreign Languages
• Introduction to Foreign Languages Linguistics
• Introduction to Foreign Languages Literature
• Foreign Languages Conversation
• Foreign Languages Composition
• Foreign Languages Phonetics – the sound systems of languages
• Grammatical Analysis of Foreign Languages
• History of Foreign Languages
• Teaching Foreign Languages as a Second Language
• Study of Novels in the Foreign Language
• Study of Poetry and Theatre in the Foreign Language

Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures – Two Year Duration
Graduates with a Master’s Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures may work as educators, business professionals, or public servants.

At the master’s level, students focus on a specific track of study such as foreign languages linguistics or foreign languages literature. Classes may include:

• Foreign Languages Phonetics
• Foreign Languages Phonology
• Foreign Languages Morphology
• Foreign Languages Syntax
• Foreign Languages Semantics
• Foreign Languages Sociolinguistics – the study of a foreign language in relation to social factors: region, class, dialect, gender, bilingualism
• Ancient Foreign Languages Literature
• Contemporary Foreign Languages Literature

Doctoral Degree in Foreign Languages and Literatures – Three to Five Year Duration
A Ph.D. in Foreign Languages and Literatures can open many career doors. Students with this graduate degree often teach at the university level. With the appropriate background, they may qualify for roles in business and international relations.

Doctoral programs in foreign languages and literatures are research-intensive and students often work as teaching assistants while they earn their doctorate. Each curriculum will vary depending on the chosen concentration. However, most programs require that students become fluent in at least two languages.

Common classes at this level include:

• Methods for Teaching Foreign Languages
• Foreign Languages Literature – Theory and Criticism
• Foreign Languages Culture
• Romance Languages – Comparative Grammar
• Germanic Languages – Comparative Grammar

Degrees Similar to Foreign Languages and Literatures

Other Foreign Languages
Students who consider a Foreign Languages and Literatures degree may choose instead to focus on the linguistics and/or literatures of one single language.

Linguistics explores the nature of language variations and dialects, how language evolves over time, how it is processed and stored in the human brain, and how it is acquired. It is the scientific study of language and communication, both within a single language and across language groups. Its primary sub-areas are phonetics – the study of the production, acoustics, and hearing of speech sounds; phonology – the patterning of sounds; morphology – the structure of words; syntax – the structure of sentences; semantics – meaning; and pragmatics – language in context. These sub-areas of linguistics are the foundations of foreign language learning.

Degree programs in translation prepare students for careers as translators. The work of a translator is to convert written documents and spoken text from the ‘source’ language to the ‘target’ language. The curriculum covers translation of various kinds of content, from technical, scientific, and educational to legal, commercial, and literary. Students learn about the history of translation, the sociology of translation, media and translation, and how to use translation memory software and specialized dictionaries.

Anthropology is the study of the evolutionary history of people, how they interact, how they adapt to various environments, and how they communicate and socialize with one another. The link to language and to linguistics – the nature and structure of language – is evident. In fact, many anthropologists are trained in linguistics.

Comparative Literature
This field studies the literature and literary traditions of two or more different countries, cultures, or languages. Examples of courses in comparative literature are literature of the Americas, literature of China and Japan, romanticism, and tragedy.

Individuals who consider earning a foreign languages and literatures degree often think about teaching languages. The processes of language learning and teaching are naturally linked.

European Studies
This is a broad based field of study. It includes European languages, history, art, philosophy, sociology, anthropology, politics, economics, and geography.

International Business
Students of international business study business from a global perspective. They learn how to work cross-culturally, how to manage multinational businesses, and how to turn local and national companies into international corporations. Coursework often includes some foreign language studies, as well.

Latin American Studies
Degree programs in Latin American Studies focus on the study of the language, culture, society, political systems, geography, and history of Latin America.

Mass Communication and Media Studies
Degree programs in mass communication and media studies are concerned with the critical study of communication and media. The typical curriculum explores topics like communication infrastructure, as well as issues in communication from all of these perspectives: social, cultural, historical, political, economic, technological, and legal.

Skills You'll Learn

The process of learning a foreign language and studying its literature is a workout for the brain. Because language learning is complex, it improves cognitive skills and overall brain function. Quite simply, it makes the brain stronger. This means that graduates of a foreign languages and literature degree program bring more than their language competency to their work. Studies have shown that adult speakers of more than one language typically:

• have higher general intelligence
• are more creative
• are more patient
• are better listeners
• have better concentration abilities
• have greater mental flexibility
• are better at planning and making decisions
• score higher on reading, vocabulary, and math tests
• are more aware of their surroundings
• are more likely to understand different points of view
• are less likely to fall for marketing ploys
• are better at multi-tasking
• have better memory and memorization skills

What Can You Do with a Foreign Languages and Literatures Degree?

Graduates can work in several different areas. Please note that some roles – especially more senior ones – may require education in addition to an undergraduate or graduate degree in foreign languages and literatures. For example, students who wish to teach languages may need a teaching certificate as well as a foreign languages and literatures degree. Those who are interested in working as a foreign correspondent may choose to combine language and journalism studies. And those who are attracted to the fashion industry may complete a double major in foreign languages and literatures and fashion buying/merchandising, for instance.

Translation and Interpretation
Holders of a degree in foreign languages translation and interpretation may find opportunities to translate and/or interpret for various sectors, including government departments and agencies, law and courts, healthcare, publishing, and conferences.

This sector is far-reaching and many businesses seek bilingual or multilingual employees. Some examples are sales, customer service, banking/finance/foreign exchange, manufacturing, engineering, import/export, international relations, and administration.

Communications / Media / Entertainment
Knowledge of foreign languages and literatures is valued in several roles in this sector: foreign correspondent, journalist, video crew, broadcaster, publisher, proofreader, film producer.

Culture / Travel & Tourism
Businesses in these sectors consistently need foreign language speakers. They include airlines, airports, tour companies, travel reservations services and websites, hotels, event planning companies, and museums.

Possible positions are high school language teacher and university language professor.

Governments are one of the largest employers of people with foreign language skills. In the United States, knowledge of foreign languages is particularly valued in positions in the armed forces, the Foreign Service, immigration and customs, law enforcement, security, and intelligence.

These are just some of the volunteer programs, non-profits, and non-governmental organizations that often seek bilingual and multilingual speakers: the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps VISTA, Habitat for Humanity, Save the Children, Care International, Médecins sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, UNESCO, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the American Red Cross.


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