Should I do a degree in modern languages?

You could opt to study one or more languages on a modern languages degree, and are likely to spend a year abroad. Find out more about how to choose and your career options as a graduate.

Modern languages degrees involve studying one, two or three languages to an advanced level. You can sometimes learn one of your languages from scratch. The year abroad, which is part of most modern languages courses, is a big draw for many students.

What A levels or Scottish Highers do I need to get onto a modern languages degree?

Offers are typically a combination of As and Bs for A levels and Scottish Highers. You often need an A or B in any language that you’d like to study at an advanced level. IB scores need to be equivalent to the UCAS points requirement and you may need a certain number of points in a language.

If you’re going to study a language from scratch, you won’t need any qualifications or experience in it. However, course providers may prefer you to have a good grade in another language at A level or equivalent.

What will I study on a modern languages degree?

One option is to study the language that you have got an A level or equivalent in and start learning another one from scratch. For example, you could study German with beginner’s Italian. Another is to just study one language as your degree subject, such as a BA in Spanish. On a single language course you typically don’t study it from scratch (see above) unless it is a less common language to study in the UK, such as Japanese or Turkish.

Another option is to do a joint honours degree, where you study a language and a non-language subject alongside each other, such as French and business. The non-language subject could be almost anything, although it is less common to take a language with a science subject. Your options will depend on the university you apply to and the subject you have studied for your A levels, Highers or IB.

All modern languages courses include core language modules, in which you learn and practise the fundamentals of the language (eg grammar and vocabulary). Other modules depend on your university and the expertise of lecturers, but it is common for language students to do at least some literature modules. Other modules may cover linguistics, film and media, culture, politics, translation and history, related to the parts of the world where your languages are spoken. Some modules may be taught in the language you’re learning, especially in your final year.

You will be assessed in different ways for different modules. Your language skills are likely to be assessed mostly through exams: written, oral and listening. The rest of your course is likely to have a large element of coursework, which often includes essays.

Will I do a year abroad with a modern languages degree?

Modern languages degrees include a year abroad in the vast majority of cases. It is normally compulsory to spend a year (usually your third) abroad. The most common ways to spend the year are:

  • studying at a foreign university that your home university has link with
  • teaching English as a foreign language in a school (often through an organisation such as the British Council)
  • finding your own work placement.

Most universities offer a lot of help with year abroad plans and will have a bank of experience and recommendations from past students. You are likely to still have to pay university fees during this year, but they will probably be significantly reduced.

If you study more than one language you are often expected to spend your year in more than one country so that you practise all languages. You may also be tasked with completing a year abroad project that counts towards a small proportion of your grade at the end of your degree. The year abroad often gives you a chance to travel around and have fun while you’re not working or studying, and students often return for their fourth year of university a lot more confident in their language and life skills.

What teaching methods are used on a modern languages degree?

You will be taught through a combination of lectures and smaller classes (often called seminars) or language workshops for practising grammar. Most courses also include a weekly oral class, where a small group of you discuss topics in your learner language. You often do a little work or research in advance for oral classes, and may give presentations.

How many contact hours will I have on a modern languages degree?

Contact hours vary from one course to another, but language degrees have fewer contact hours than science degrees, for example. Ten to twenty hours of contact time a week for is normal for language students, but you need to do several hours of work a day in your own time to prepare for this and to complete coursework.

What careers could a modern languages degree lead to?

Modern languages graduates can choose a career that will allow them to use their language skills, or change direction to do something different.

Careers using modern languages

Options when you have studied a language include:

  • Translator or interpreter – translators translate written material and interpreters translate out loud as people speak
  • Politics and the diplomatic service – working for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office or intergovernmental organisations such as the EU** or UN
  • Business roles – working for a multinational company or a UK-based one that trades abroad
  • Hospitality and tourism – employment with hotels, tourism offices, tourist attractions and travel companies, in the UK or abroad
  • Teacher – teaching a foreign language in a UK school or other institution, or teaching English as a foreign language (EFL) in the UK or abroad.

Careers outside of modern languages

Many language graduates don’t go into careers that use their foreign languages in a direct way and often find that their job applications are enhanced by the fact that they speak other languages and have experience of living in another part of the world. Skills gained while studying a language are transferable to other areas of work and life (see below).

More on what jobs can I do with a modern languages degree?

What skills will I gain on a modern languages degree? Will employers like them?

Studying a language to an advanced level will develop the following:

  • communication (written and verbal)
  • analysing language
  • attention to detail
  • presentation skills.

Doing a year abroad is a good opportunity to develop:

  • flexibility and adaptability
  • resilience
  • problem solving
  • cultural awareness
  • confidence
  • organisation (or other skills learned from your job, if you work during your year abroad).

All of these skills increase your employability after university.

What other degrees could I consider if I’m thinking of studying modern languages?

If you’re considering other subjects, find out whether you could study a language alongside them as a joint honours course (where you study two subjects alongside each other, but still do the core language modules that all language students do). Popular options include:

  • business, management, economics, finance, accounting
  • international relations, politics, history, economics
  • English literature
  • linguistics
  • law: a few universities offer courses including modules on law in a specific country, alongside your language. For example, the University of Nottingham has a law with French and French law BA.

What happens to modern languages graduates after they leave university?

This is what the Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education survey revealed about modern language graduates six months after graduation*:

  • 10.1% were working overseas, compared with 1.9% of all graduates.
  • 6.4% were unemployed, compared with 6.3% of all students.
  • 18% were in further study, compared with 12.1% of all students.
  • 6.2% were working and studying, compared with 5.5% of all students.
  • Of those in employment, the largest proportion (17.1%) were in business, HR and finance professions.
  • Among arts and humanities graduates, they had the highest salary range – between £15,000 and £28,000.

*Those who graduated in 2013/14 from UK universities.
**It is not yet clear how employment opportunities with EU institutions will change following the UK referendum result.

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