The Benefits of AP and IB Foreign Language Courses
Advanced language study in high school can lead to opportunities in college and beyond.
By Cole Claybourn | September 30, 2022, at 10:35 a.m.
High school students seeking to better prepare for college and careers should consider taking higher-level foreign language courses, experts say.
Two ways to do that are through the College Board’s Advanced Placement World Languages and Cultures courses and higher-level foreign language courses in the International Baccalaureate diploma program.
While there are differences, with the IB program being relatively small compared to AP, both programs challenge students with a rigorous curriculum and offer a number of benefits. Through these courses, students can become proficient in a foreign language; earn college credit; gain knowledge of history, literature and culture; and prepare for international education programs. Taking advanced language classes may also help with college admissions, experts say.
“I always tell students foreign language is the way to go,” says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an education and admissions consulting company. “When students are applying to colleges, top-tier schools … want students who have taken four years of a foreign language, for the most part. It’s not necessarily required, but you become a stronger applicant.”
Micha Langenberg, a counselor at Central Senior High School in St. Paul, Minnesota, says these courses are a way for students to demonstrate a diverse set of interests to colleges.
“Even if it’s not an incredibly competitive college,” Langenberg says, “the more in-depth you can get into a specific world language, the more attractive you are as a desirable candidate for any institution.”
Furthermore, foreign language skills are increasingly sought after in the professional world. Experts say AP and IB foreign language courses set the foundation for developing skills that could open up new job opportunities when students enter the workforce.
Students can take AP courses in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin and Spanish, as well as Spanish literature. Many high schools do not offer every AP foreign language course, so students will need to speak to their guidance counselor about availability.
Through the IB diploma program, students can take advanced courses in a wide range of foreign languages, including Latin and classical Greek as well as modern languages like French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese and German, depending on what is offered at their school.
Here are four of the many potential benefits of taking AP or IB foreign language courses in high school:
Earn College Credit
For many students, the most immediate advantage of these classes is the opportunity to earn college credit.
Students can typically earn a credit by scoring a 3, 4 or 5 on the AP test or a 4-7 on the IB exam, though colleges differ in their requirements.
Many colleges and universities require some level of foreign language credits, regardless of students’ intended majors. Getting this credit in high school can save students one or more semesters of foreign language study.
For students who decide to major or minor in a foreign language, an appropriate score on the AP or IB exam can place them in a more advanced level. That can save students money on tuition and allow them more freedom for electives or a part-time job.
While he strongly encourages students to take higher-level foreign languages classes in high school, Rim says students should consider their likely grade and weigh whether it would ultimately benefit their college application.
“Of course, if you’re not good at it, don’t enroll in a fourth year (of a language) just because you think it’s going to look good to colleges,” he says. “Getting a worse grade is going to end up being worse. It would be better for you to just not take it at all.”
Study Both Language and Culture
AP and IB world language courses typically immerse students in both the language and culture they’re studying.
Students deepen their knowledge of vocabulary and grammar and often speak only the foreign language in class. In courses like AP Spanish Literature, students also read and converse about texts in Spanish, similar to an English language arts class. But equally important is studying culture, says Maritza Sloan, an AP Spanish Language, Literature and Culture teacher at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis.
“We’re always looking at how the language and culture are interrelated and how that culture compares to our own culture where we live,” says Sloan, who also leads AP Summer Institute workshops to instruct teachers about the AP Spanish program. “It’s not to see who’s better or worse, it’s to see what similarities there are and to have a better understanding.”
She applies this in her classes by appointing each student as an “ambassador” to a Spanish-speaking country or a state in the U.S. that has a large Spanish-speaking population. Students investigate and report back on what’s happening in their assigned location.
“It’s very interesting to hear our students communicate in the language on very important topics,” Sloan says. “It goes beyond describing their mom or talking about colors.”
This language and cultural immersion is a “critical” attribute for students to develop, says Jennifer Baker, principal at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Maryland, which offers six AP foreign language options.
“I don’t think anybody can emphasize the importance of that enough in today’s world,” Baker says. “I think a lot of problems worldwide would be resolved if we understood each other’s cultures and backgrounds better.”
Prepare for Study Abroad or an Overseas Degree
Studying abroad allows students to experience new locations, cuisines and art while also learning about a country’s culture and history.
AP or IB foreign language courses can spark students’ interest in studying abroad in college, or even earning a full degree overseas, and can help them prepare both linguistically and culturally, Sloan says.
Baker says many students at her school who went through an AP foreign language class developed an interest in majoring or minoring in a foreign language and took advantage of study abroad opportunities once they got to college.
And that has long-lasting benefits, she says. “If you think about the world today and how culturally blended we are, just looking at the world in general, being fluent in another language can only help you in your travels afterward.”
Gain Valuable and Marketable Job Skills
Studying a foreign language can set students up for jobs in fields like international business, diplomacy or nonprofits, or open up other unique career opportunities.
Fluency in a second language is an increasingly sought-after skill, experts say. The demand for bilingual workers more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, according to a report from New American Economy, a research and advocacy organization.
It’s estimated that about 20% of English-proficient Americans are also proficient in another language.
Studies show fluency in a foreign language can boost your salary, though estimates vary on how much.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects careers as interpreters and translators to grow 20% by 2031.
AP and IB-level courses can put students on the path to foreign language fluency and even provide hands-on experience that might not be offered in lower-level courses.
Sloan’s students, for example, are frequently asked to translate for patients at a local medical clinic in St. Louis. They also work with local organizations to help teach math and English to native Spanish-speaking children.
“Giving the opportunity this early on to high school students to use their language out of the classroom is just an amazing opportunity,” she says. “They get to college with that experience – the experience of using the language with native speakers. To me, that is very, very important. Many students, when they get to college, want to continue with that.”
Originally published on U.S. News & World Report on September 30, 2022