Middlebury, LA, Madison and More: 10 of the Best American Colleges for Learning Foreign Languages
We’re all pretty excited about the new ways that are popping up to learn languages online.
But if you’re going to learn a language in a more formal way, there are worse places to do it than a college campus—experienced teachers, motivated classmates and piles of easy-to-access resources are all in one place!
Here’s what you should know when picking a college to study a foreign language, including what to pay attention to when making your decision and ten standout programs to get you started.
- What to Look for When Choosing a College to Study a Foreign Language
- Our Recommendations: Colleges with the Best Foreign Language Programs
- What to Do If You Wish You Were a College Student But You’re Not
What to Look for When Choosing a College to Study a Foreign Language
The first thing to look at in any foreign language department you’re interested in is their bread-and-butter: what languages do they offer?
You should be able to find a list on the school’s website. Importantly, you want to check which languages are offered continuously and which are only taught occasionally. The languages at the core of their program will be the ones they have full-time faculty for.
The next thing to pay attention to is how the languages are actually taught. For example, some schools will have immersion programs you can sign up for. If you’re going to major in a language, you also want to look at the requirements to see what it all actually entails.
Finally, research any additional perks and resources the school offers. Do they have a language center that hosts events? What are their study abroad opportunities like?
All of the schools on our list provide excellent environments for language learning, but each school has a slightly different emphasis, so you’ll want to do as much research as possible on the programs you’re interested in.
For example, all the schools have language centers, but some of the centers are more research-oriented, some offer tutoring, some hold events and workshops, etc. Likewise, all the schools have study abroad opportunities, but each school will have a slightly different catalogue of study abroad options.
Looking at both the core of their program and the extra resources that make that school special should give you a good overview. And if you want to really get a clear picture, nothing beats an in-person visit!
Our Recommendations: Colleges with the Best Foreign Language Programs
1. Middlebury College
Location: Middlebury, Vermont
Middlebury is well-known among language learners for its Language Schools, which provide an intensely immersive summer language learning environment.
Based on that, you might expect Middlebury College proper to be a good place to learn a language, and the school doesn’t disappoint. Their first-rate program covers 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish.
It also includes partnerships with the Monterey Institute of International Studies, where you can complete an accelerated Middlebury/Monterey BA/MA, and the Middlebury C.V. Star Schools Abroad, where you can take your language studies overseas.
2. University of California, Los Angeles
Location: Los Angeles, California
UCLA isn’t just a big school in a major U.S. city. It’s also a language learning hub.
They offer a diverse array of languages that would make most language departments green with envy. Thought you couldn’t study Armenian, Quechua, Uzbek and Yoruba in college? Turns out you were wrong!
Their Center for World Languages provides a rich collection of language learning resources, including everything from an online database of learning material for 150+ “less commonly taught languages” to an Italian library and foreign language teaching workshops.
And because second language acquisition is one of the Center for World Languages’s research focuses, innovative language learning techniques are always making their way into UCLA’s classrooms.
3. University of Wisconsin–Madison
Location: Madison, Wisconsin
By the numbers alone, UW-Madison produces more language majors a year than any other U.S. university. During their time at the school, these students have access to an impressive collection of language learning resources, including classes in over 40 languages and study abroad programs with ties to over 60 countries.
UW-Madison boasts an impressive 26 conversation tables that meet regularly during the school year, so you can have casual conversations outside of class in a relaxed environment.
There’s also the Language Institute, a center for research, career advising, interdisciplinary studies and the federally funded Russian Flagship Program.
4. Cornell University
Location: Ithaca, New York
Cornell offers classes in languages ranging from Akkadian to Zulu. Altogether, there are 52 languages offered, including 31 that can be taken for at least two years.
The school’s Language Resource Center is home to a media library as well as a language lab. It also hosts talks related to language learning, many with an interdisciplinary bent.
In the past, a distinguishing aspect of Cornell has been its immersion programs in Asian languages, most recently its summer Mandarin intensive. Although the future of these offerings is unclear, Cornell’s language program in general remains very strong.
5. Harvard University
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
It’s no Middlebury, but Harvard still isn’t too shabby. Case in point: It has courses in 80+ languages, more than any other U.S. college.
The school’s Language Resource Center has a space for watching international TV (armchairs included!), screening rooms and a computer center. And if these on-campus resources aren’t enough, you can also get a discounted Rosetta Stone subscription through the school.
6. Indiana University
Location: Bloomington, Indiana
Indiana teaches a dazzling array of foreign languages and has the Center for Language Technology, which puts together regular workshops, conversation hours and festivals for language learners.
The school also hosts more Language Flagship Programs than any other U.S. university—programs that combine one-on-one tutoring, group instruction, immersive environments and interdisciplinary work to help students reach ACTFL Superior proficiency within four years.
7. University of Pennsylvania
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Like other top language schools, University of Pennsylvania offers a competitive selection of languages.
More unique to the program is the Penn Language Center. Through the center, you can request a language tutor or become one yourself, and you can take proficiency assessments.
If you have an interest in sign language, business or medical professions, you can also sign up for specialized language courses in those areas.
8. Stanford University
Location: Stanford, California
Stanford stresses that because their program is all about becoming proficient, it emphasizes “doing rather than knowing.” Much of this doing happens with the help of the Digital Language Lab, which administers spoken and written tests—including the Simulated Oral Proficiency Interviews students take to graduate.
Stanford students also have easy access to a rich array of study abroad opportunities, and 50 percent (!) of Stanford students have studied overseas by the time they graduate.
9. University of California, Berkeley
Location: Berkeley, California
Besides taking courses and potentially majoring in one of almost 70 languages, students at UC-Berkeley can supplement their studies with a minor in Applied Languages to gain an understanding of how people learn languages and how languages interact with their broader cultural context.
Meanwhile, the Berkeley Language Center is a dynamic hub of learning and research. Some of the center’s activities include publishing a journal, putting on a series of workshops and curating a collection of foreign language film clips for students.
10. Yale University
Location: New Haven, Connecticut
Unlike its rival Harvard, Yale offers a mere 53 languages. But foreign language students at Yale aren’t left out in the cold. The Center for Language Study runs a thriving tutoring program and courses in special purpose languages like medical Chinese and medical Spanish.
Plus, if the language you’re interested in isn’t one of the 53, you can apply to receive up to four semesters of funding and support for outside study through the Directed Independent Language Study program.
What to Do If You Wish You Were a College Student But You’re Not
Ever wish you were in college again?
That’s okay! While it’s true that many of the features that make these programs unique are only accessible to students enrolled full-time in the schools, in many cases elements of the program will also be open to the public. Look into all of the following possibilities:
Can you audit a course or take a summer course?
Are there special courses like summer immersion programs that are open to the public?
Are some of the services provided through the language program, like workshops, non-credit courses and digital tools, open to the public?
Can you take distance learning or extension classes?
Even if you aren’t a college student, universities tend to be pretty into the free exchange of ideas and all that, so you might find you still have access to some of these resources.
Alternatively, you could look into massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which are college-like courses available to the general public online. For a more traditional classroom experience give edX a go, while Coursera is great for flexible online learning.
There are plenty of other online language learning programs on the world wide web—you just need to know where to look for courses which suit your needs. Our roundup of the best online language courses will introduce you to a few options, including the well-structured Rocket Languages program.
There’s also FluentU, an immersive language experience that lets you determine your own learning path through authentic videos, custom flashcards and personalized quizzes. The basis of this program means that you can watch engaging videos like movie and show clips, music videos, vlogs, news segments and inspirational talks (to name just a few) to study your target language.
FluentU lets you jump straight into authentic content by giving you the training wheels you need to learn in context and stay motivated.
Ready to get back to school?
In the end, if you know what your priorities are, keep an open mind and do your research, you probably won’t go wrong.