I advise about 50 students and, of all the questions I have been asked over the years, this is, by far, the most common. Parents, too, ask this question when their high school students come to visit the campus.
Many students and parents think they know the answer to this question and are usually looking for some sort of confirmation that Chinese, Arabic or Russian are the “right” languages. They are confused (and maybe a bit disappointed) when I tell them, “It depends.”
In fact, I think it depends on three things: Interest, aptitude and goals. Let me talk about the one I think is most important first - interest.
I am a pretty strong believer that interest should drive learning. Interest equals attention and effort and, over time, those things matter quite a bit in how much one learns and how well one does in a language. Picking a language to learn in college because it is in demand in the current job market or it is perceived to be the “right” language to learn is, in my opinion, a mistake.
Aptitude is another important and often overlooked factor. I have been to the Defense Language Institute (twice, once for Italian and once for what used to be called Serbo-Croatian). I was able to qualify for these courses partly because I did well on the Defense Language Aptitude Battery or DLAB. The DLAB does not measure how well you know a language; it measures how well you can learn any language and it is, in my experience, surprisingly accurate.
Students (i.e. soldiers and other government employees) who did very well on this test learned even the most difficult languages fairly easily. Students who did poorly on this test struggled with languages that are traditionally easier for English speakers to learn. It turns out that language ability is a lot like musical talent; some people have it and some do not.
Over the next few weeks, all of our freshmen will take the Modern Language Aptitude Test, which is a commercial equivalent of the DLAB. We used to have students take language courses as freshmen but changed a few years ago because we wanted our students to have a better feel for the intelligence career field (which is important for the last factor I will discuss) and because we wanted them to take the MLAT before they decided which language program to pursue.
Let me be clear: We do not use the MLAT as a way to sort our students. A student can still take any language they wish to take. We do think, however, that it is unfair to students not to give them the information they need to make a more informed choice. In short, a student who does poorly on the MLAT can still take a language such as Japanese or Arabic but they should not be surprised if they have to work harder at it than others to achieve a similar level of mastery.
(Note: There are other good reasons not to use the MLAT in such a black and white manner. When the military tests someone for DLI, they expect them to spend many hours mastering the language. This is an expensive proposition and they want to be sure that the student has the aptitude to achieve those mastery goals. College level programs in a language rarely rise to these exacting standards. For example, consider my Italian language course. At the time I took it, it was a 24 week course. For five days a week, six hours a day, we learned Italian. After hours, we were expected to put in at least 2 additional hours on homework. Each week added up to roughly 40 hours studying a language. This is roughly equivalent to the number of classroom hours a college student spends in a semester. Even if the student spends as much time outside of class studying as they do in class, the typical DLI student arguably spends more time studying and practicing a language in a couple of weeks than a college student spends in a semester. In addition, the college language course is deliberately geared towards the average student (or whatever passes for average at that university). This is not the case at DLI, where the students have been carefully selected based on the government’s assessment of capabilities and the needs of the military or government agency sponsoring the position.)The final factor to consider is goals. Students in our program often start out narrowly focused on positions within the CIA or FBI. Many go on to achieve these goals but it is not uncommon for students, once exposed to the full array of opportunities within the national security (not to mention the business and law enforcement) fields, to change these goals.
As the goals change, the languages that might augment those goals also change. For example, if a student starts to become more interested in the possibilities of intelligence in business, then any of the romance languages, German or Japanese become very good choices. Europe and Japan continue to be major trading partners of the US and having a good understanding of any of these languages is a plus. Some people tend to disparage Spanish. This is a mistake. A growing percentage of Americans speak Spanish as a first language and if a student is interested in a career in law enforcement intelligence or in customs enforcement, a working knowledge of Spanish is becoming increasingly important.
Chinese, Russian and Arabic are clearly important languages but they are also very challenging for most English speakers. Taking these kinds of courses without a strong interest, aptitude or goal can be a frustrating experience for many students.
If a student really wishes to become reasonably proficient in a particular language, I also recommend that they start planning early on for a semester or more abroad in a country where the language is spoken routinely. There is nothing like daily immersion in a language to add depth and nuance to your vocabulary.
A final word about languages: Some students are better off thinking about a digital language track; that is, they should focus on learning a computer language rather than a traditional spoken language. Ideally, I would recommend that a student learn both. One of the most important things an analyst can bring to the table is an appreciation of the value of culture in analysis. There is no better way to get that appreciation in my experience than by learning a language – any language. That said, being able to code, to be unafraid of the workings of a computer or a network of computers, are critical 21st century skills as well. In those cases where a student has a tin ear but an aptitude for all things digital, learning a computer language is a respectable option.