In 2017-2018, foreign languages and linguistics was the 26th most popular major nationwide with 34,883 degrees awarded.¹
Blacks hold only 4% of undergraduate degrees in world languages; however, in comparison, they earn close to 11% of all bachelor’s degrees and represent 12% of the U.S. population.²
The numbers alone are enough to prove that there’s a market for language learning.
But is it worth the investment?
The Short Answer: Sure, I Guess.
I attended a private four year college where I double majored in Japanese and International Studies.
Through a cocktail of grants, scholarships, and those lovely, lovely loans, I was able to afford my degree.
It was a four year investment that I can say was worth it.
It Was Worth It...And Also Very White
Some students commented that my campus was the most diverse place they’d ever seen.
I grew up in a predominantly black and Latino neighborhood.
My college was majority white. And the neighborhood put the “I” in gentrification So yeah, it wasn’t that diverse by my standards.
The Language Department Changed Every Year
Sabbaticals, maternity leave, research—all that fun stuff that makes an undergraduate education a matter of chance.
Depending on the size of the school, language departments can be small.
The Japanese language major was grouped into the Asian Language and Culture Studies at my school.
So undergrad studies deal with a lot of turnover and changes.
Finding a constant (like a mentor), can help strengthen your overall sense of community with a college.
There's Questionable Language Learning Course Material
Many schools struggle with offering practical courses for language learners.
Or, I should say, having an entrepreneurial mindset isn’t integrated into the curriculum.
I wasn’t taught to value my degree after graduation. The career development center was…well, I’m not sure what it was. But it wasn’t very helpful.
As for the courses that I took, several of them gave me insight into Japanese culture. Linguistic insight too. But it’s annoying to be asked:
卒業してからどうする？（そつぎょうしてからどうする）“sotsugyou shite kara dou suru?”
What will you do after graduation?
It makes me want to retaliate, “How have you prepared me?”
I find it that odd that at institutions, talking about money, class, and race can be taboo. We can go on and on about it in theory. But many departments don’t address the reality of the socioeconomic struggles their students face.
And we graduate with enough debt to last until we hit our late 40s.
Even when I went abroad, the language classes were pretty superficial. Once all the outings and orientations were over, it felt like I was left hanging.
I even had a writing class where we learned how to write make-believe restaurant menus.
Yup. Not something practical, like a resume or a cover letter.
Doing an internship in Japan helped me learn more about Japanese business culture. But nothing had prepared me for that experience. Everything was touch and go.
The whole experience has led me to believe that what you do outside the classroom is just as important as what happens inside one.
But if you’re learning more outside of the classroom, what does that say about language learning in the institutions that we invest in?
Life During and After College
I went to career fairs, took the Japanese Language Proficiency Exam (JLPT), and spent many hours trying to figure out just what I wanted to do with my Japanese major.
But even in the states, most of the people who came to talk about their experiences with working in Japan were not people of color.
I Sought Community and Solidarity with Other Black Students
If smaller settings appeal to you, go for a small school. But remember to seek community.
Larger campuses may be more diverse but microaggressions still happen. Racism and prejudice exist everywhere. Especially in the classroom.
Given how I was one of the few black Japanese majors, I didn’t interact much with black people outside of my major.
It wasn’t until I realized that my mental health depended on being around people who looked like me that I started to reach out more.
Spaces for people of color are crucial.
But there weren’t spaces like that when I went abroad.
So after dealing with isolation for half a year, I returned to the states to mentally exhausted.
And I still had to do my senior thesis.
You’ll Hate Kung-Fu Panda By The End of This
I had done my senior thesis about Japanese translation. When it came time to present, however, the Japanese majors and the Chinese majors were grouped into the same room.
Despite the large number of people in the room, I could have heard a pin drop by the end of my presentation.
Some of my other classmates went up to present. Similar response.
But then the game changer showed up.
I still remember looking at the power point and getting excited.
“Cherry picking Chinese culture in Kung-Fu Panda.”
The girl presenting, (do I even need to say it? Yeah, she was white) was going to compare the English language version to the Chinese dubbed version.
Or so I thought. The whole presentation, including the power point, was in English.
Everybody’s hand went up during the Q&A portion.
And you guessed it, they were all asking about the panda.
I mean, c’mon people, what more do you need to know? It’s a panda!
The fact that the head of the Chinese department (who was also white) let this slide was disappointing.
I couldn’t believe both departments let us sit through that ridiculousness.
My degree lost all value to me after that.
The Value and Worth of a Language Degree
To certain markets, a degree in a language looks very promising and even establishes authority.
It’s not enough to believe that a degree alone is going to lead to a promising career.
You still have to understand the value of networking, pitching, and negotiating.
A Language Degree’s ROI
I went into customer service straight out of college. I also did medical billing for medical device suppliers.
I never used any of my Japanese. And in every interview, I’d always be told that my background was “interesting,” and then asked, “So why this job?”
Because the grace period for my student loans is about to end, duh.
Don’t get me wrong, I tried to find something Japanese language related.
I had landed a job in Tokyo. But for personal reasons, I decided not to go back there.
And the translation jobs that I did apply for didn’t go anywhere.
So when my school called up one evening asking for a donation, I wanted to hang up on them.
“This major was not worth it!” I wanted to scream.
A Language Degree’s Market Value
There will always be a market for languages.
Whether that market requires a degree depends. A degree doesn’t always mean experience. .
While the college experience may seem all about us and how we grow as individuals, our degrees are about serving a higher purpose.
Language majors are worth it but you have to find the market that will value your skill set.
My experience as a Japanese language major left me questioning my worth. And it was years before I truly saw the value of my “investment.”
Lastly, I learned that learning culture is very white.
No, there’s nothing wrong with a white person learning a language.
The problem is the lack of representation for people of color who are studying languages.
The solution? Include us. Create better systems that can prepare us for success in global industries.
Did you major in a language? Tell me if you feel that it was worth it!