Foreign Languages and Studies

Foreign Languages and Studies

Industry Outlook

The overall outlook for foreign language careers is good, because foreign language knowledge is an economic necessity in a global economy. In 2019, the Office of the United States Trade Representative reported that the United States is the world's global trade leader. More than 20 percent of global income is attributable to Americans, even though they represent less than 5 percent of the world population. Although school and college budgets are under pressure, foreign language teachers are suffering fewer cuts than teachers in many other fields.

The American Councils for International Education's National K–12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report, published in June 2017, surveyed high school foreign-language programs regarding anticipated changes in language courses offered. While 1.26 percent of respondents anticipated a decline in French language programming and 0.32 percent expected a decrease in German, other foreign languages were poised for growth. For example, 8.7 percent expected to increase the number of Arabic programs, while 3.41 percent foresaw more offerings in Chinese.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not project figures for the employment outlook for language teachers at the K–12 level. Employment of elementary and middle school teachers is forecast to increase 3 percent between 2018 and 2028, a rate that is slower than the average for all occupations, while high school teachers will experience average employment growth of 4 percent during the same timeframe. Initiatives to reform education have tended to test students on their mastery of reading and mathematics, with the result that schools are encouraged to shift resources away from foreign language instruction. Nevertheless, many schools have reported difficulty finding fully qualified foreign language teachers, especially at the elementary and middle school levels.

The most job openings for K–12 foreign language teachers will probably be in private, urban, and suburban schools, but competition will be most intense for these positions. Although rural schools and schools in areas with high poverty tend to offer fewer language classes, there will be less competition for jobs at these schools.

Best opportunities will be for certified teachers of languages that are less widely known in the United States but are growing in importance, such as Chinese, Arabic, Russian, and Portuguese. Businesses in need of bilingual workers are luring these teachers away from the classroom by offering higher salaries. Demand for these languages is so acute that some states are offering alternative certification routes to step up recruiting. Some states have contracted with companies that hire highly qualified teachers in other countries to teach virtual classes by computer. Other states have brought teachers physically from abroad, but schools that hire foreign-born teachers experience high turnover because the teachers are usually brought in on visas that limit their stay. For American-born teachers who are highly skilled in the language, an additional advantage over foreign imports is that they better understand the culture of the American classroom.

The Department of Labor predicts that the number of people teaching foreign language and literature at the postsecondary level will grow from 31,900 in 2018 to 34,400 by 2028, at a rate of 8 percent, which is faster than the average. Over the same time period, employment of postsecondary area, ethnic, and cultural studies teachers will grow by 7 percent, from 12,600 to 13,500.

Employment of all postsecondary teachers is projected to grow by 11 percent through 2028. However, a declining number of higher education institutions are requiring foreign language study as part of all bachelor's degree programs. Many of the new jobs for postsecondary teachers will be part-time or adjunct positions rather than tenure-track positions. Fastest institutional growth is expected in for-profit colleges. These tend to focus on career-related majors, in which language or cultural studies requirements often are minimal or lacking, but where demand is increasing. The best opportunities at the postsecondary level will be for those who can teach the languages that are less well known in the United States.

The Department of Labor predicts that employment of interpreters and translators will grow much faster than average through 2028, at a rate of about 19 percent. Demand is expected to stem from rising levels of diversity in the U.S. population, as well as globalization. Best opportunities will exist for interpreters with professional certifications, bachelors degrees, and advanced degrees in translation and interpreting. Those with Spanish language experience will have excellent prospects, as will those specializing in law and healthcare.

Demand for foreign-language skills in business settings was on the rise at the end of the decade. In 2019, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages released the results of a survey of U.S. employers. Among its key findings were that about 90 percent of domestic employers depend on employees with language skills other than English. About 25 percent reported losing business over a lack of language skills. More than half (56 percent) indicated that, in the coming five years, their demand for foreign-language skills will increase.

As with many other industries, the field of foreign languages faced challenges created by the coronavirus pandemic that began in 2020. Companies already working in digital space, such as Duolingo, Preply, and Rosetta Stone were able to continue business as usual. Interest in learning a language while in quarantine remained steady after a surge in March. Usage for some services, such as Busuu and Preply, nearly tripled in key markets. The shift away from in-person learning forced language instructors to reinvent their curriculums for online platforms. Restrictions on international travel prohibited trips to foreign countries and study abroad opportunities, which students often used to practice their language skills.

Even with lockdowns and travel reductions, of the more than 3.5 million job listings on UK Indeed, there has been an increase in demand in marketing, sales, and customer service for people with foreign-language skills, according to an article in Businesses around the world are realizing the importance of having employees who can speak the same language as their customers. Other trends noted in the BBC article include the rise in companies providing interpreters for conferences held online and increased demand for translators to provide subtitles, dubbing, and descriptions of products in different languages for global film and TV streaming services. These trends are expected to continue in post-pandemic times. 

The language instruction industry in the U.S. is valued at $1 billion, with nearly 13,000 business and total industry employment of 31,255. With the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and anticipated return to international travel, demand for language instruction is projected to have steady growth through 2025. According to the research group IBISWorld, the U.S. language instruction industry will continue to build on the success of its online, corporate, and international markets. More international travelers will require the services of language schools. The diversification of the U.S. population and businesses will also increase the need for language training.