How to Become a Foreign Language Teacher


In today’s society, knowing a foreign language is not only an advantage in education, but also is beneficial within the work force. From medical professionals to social workers to corporate executives, there is an increasing demand to hire people who speak a language outside of English. As a result, teaching positions related to the field are increasing at all levels of education.

The path to becoming a foreign language teacher, whether one is teaching Spanish, Mandarin or ASL, shares a great deal in common with other subject specializations with one notable exception. In order to teach a foreign language, an educator is typically expected to be fluent in English, and have native or near-native fluency in another language, which often requires additional education and immersion in the language and culture he or she wishes to teach.

How can I become a foreign language teacher in elementary school?

While most elementary schools do not offer foreign languages as a standalone class, some school districts and specific learning institutions have an exceptional demand or need for foreign language instruction and offer these courses. According to the Center for Applied Linguistic, 25 percent of all elementary schools offered foreign language instruction in 2009 with Spanish being the most commonly taught language at this level, followed by French, Latin and Chinese.

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), there are three types of foreign language programs offered for grades K-8:

  • FLES (Foreign Language in the Elementary School): Students encounter learning experiences related to a language aimed at developing language proficiency
  • Immersion: Teachers combine foreign language instruction with content studies from the regular curriculum
  • FLEX (Foreign Language Experience or Exploratory): Offers elementary and middle school students limited exposure to one or more foreign languages

To teach elementary school students a foreign language, teachers must hold a bachelor’s degree and be certified to teach in their state. While they may hold a bachelor’s degree in the language they intend to teach, in some cases, foreign language teachers also hold a bachelor’s degree in another discipline and have demonstrated fluency in the language in question. For this reason, a native French speaker with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics who is certified to teach in his or her state may be more qualified to teach French than a native English speaker who has completed a bachelor’s degree in French language and literature.

Scientific research on the brain suggests that learning foreign languages can make students smarter overall, citing benefits to the way a student reads, writes and focuses mentally, which is why experts encourage foreign language introduction to begin at the elementary school level.

How can I become a middle school foreign language teacher?

At one time, many middle school classrooms only offered students a choice between taking Spanish and French to fulfill a foreign language requirement. Nowadays, options have expanded to include German, Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and other dialects which are often dependent upon school districts, budgets and other factors, such as local statistics and community trends.

In contrast to most elementary schools, many middle schools offer foreign languages, such as Spanish and French, and depending on the school and district budget, sometimes Mandarin, German, Latin, ASL or another foreign language. However, not all students are required to complete a foreign language course in middle school. Unless teachers are working in a middle school with an immersion program, they typically only meet with students a few times a week and focus on teaching foreign languages at their most introductory level.

handsome young teacher teaching chinese language in elementary classroom
handsome young teacher teaching chinese language in elementary classroom

There are three different teaching styles associated with exposing middle school students to a foreign language – exploratory, language focus and immersion:

  • Exploratory: As one of the most commonly offered programs at the entry level, students receive a basic introduction to a foreign language.
  • Language Focus: Teachers guide students, as they listen to and learn how to speak, read and write in a foreign language.
  • Immersion: Students often reach high levels of proficiency during these types of classes, which are typically offered once or twice a week, and also provide core courses in a foreign language.

In most cases, middle school foreign language teachers have completed a bachelor’s degree in the foreign language they are teaching, and are certified to work as a teacher in their state. Native speakers of a foreign language who hold a bachelor’s degree in another subject and also possess teacher certification may also work as a foreign language teacher in their native language.

In addition to introducing and cultivating a student’s knowledge and ability to understand, speak and read a foreign language, teachers must also teach about the history and culture of the countries in which the language is prevalent. Teachers also organize special events that help their students gain a better grasp of the language and culture, such as hosting language dinners, assigning independent projects, creating cultural displays, and arranging dance/song performances.

How can I become a high school foreign language teacher?

In the United States, high school foreign language teachers typically offer courses in Spanish, French, German, Chinese, Japanese or Russian. In some areas of the U.S., however, there are such a high number of native Spanish speaking students that Spanish is not treated as a foreign language. In the San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD), for example, students can opt to enroll in a two-way bilingual immersion program where native English speakers and native Spanish speakers are placed in a single classroom and learn to speak a new language from one another with the support of a fully bilingual teacher. Recently, American Sign Language (ASL) has become recognized as a distinct (if not technically “foreign”) language. For this reason, schools are increasingly offering ASL as a second or foreign language.

Outside immersion schools, high school foreign language teachers either continue the education of students who have taken language classes in middle school, or introduce students to their first experience with a foreign language. In most cases, teachers possess a bachelor’s degree in the foreign language they are teaching and are certified to teach in their state of residence. In some cases, native speakers of a foreign language who hold a bachelor’s degree in a different discipline that become certified to teach might be hired to teach a foreign language. Since fluency is expected, many high school foreign language teachers who aren’t teaching their native language have spent a summer or longer period of time immersing themselves in the language and culture they expect to teach, often through study abroad programs.

The steps that individuals usually take to become a high school foreign language include:

  • Obtaining a bachelor’s degree, such as a B.S. in Foreign Language Education, which blends specialized coursework in language and pedagogy, and offers a broad liberal arts education that includes taking core courses in the social sciences and humanities.
  • Completion of a teacher education program, which prepares an aspiring educator to understand and serve high school-aged students.
  • One to two semesters of classroom observation and student teaching are spent under the supervision of a seasoned teacher, and typically occur during a student’s junior and senior years.
  • Becoming licensed and certified to teach at a public school by completing state-specific guidelines, such as passing applicable examinations. For example, teachers in New Mexico are expected to pass the NMTA (New Mexico Teacher Assessments) Basic Skills test, Teacher Competency (for elementary or secondary certification) and appropriate Content Assessment(s).

Depending on school district policy and budgets, some foreign language teachers supervise activities outside of school hours, such as advising a French or Spanish club, or participating in field trips that may include summer sessions that allow students to study abroad. For example, a Spanish teacher may chaperone a trip to Spain, Portugal or Madrid with his or her students.

How can I become a college foreign language professor?

Teaching a foreign language at the college level requires at least a master’s degree or PhD in education (or a related field) with a demonstrated fluency in a specific language.

At two-year colleges, junior colleges and community colleges, professors may offer courses in foreign languages to full-time students, or work in programs that cater to the needs of part-time or occasional students (students not enrolled in degree programs who are just taking one or two courses out of personal interest). For this reason, college foreign language teachers, many of whom work on a part-time basis, frequently offer both credit courses and non-credit courses.

The latter approach often focuses more on teaching non-career track or major-related courses for individuals with a leisurely interest in learning Spanish, such as retirees. While some non-credit language courses are offered by language teachers with a bachelor’s degree, most colleges expect applicants to have a minimum of a master of arts degree in a relevant field (such as the foreign language in question or applied linguistics), or a master’s degree in education with teaching experience showcasing a demonstrated level of fluency in the language they wish to teach.

How can I become a university foreign language professor?

At the university level, foreign language professors are expected to meet the same criteria as most English literature professors. This means that they are not only fluent in a foreign language but have also proved themselves as an expert on a particular aspect related to a foreign language’s literature or culture. As a foreign language professor at the university level, one may be grouped under a specific department related to Foreign Languages or Modern Languages; or belong to a sub-category of departments, such as the Department of German Studies.

In most cases, university foreign language professors have:

  • Completed several years of graduate-level coursework related to a foreign language and its literature and culture
  • Passed one or more related field exams
  • Written and defended a dissertation on a related topic

For the above reasons, professors are often expected to do more than simply teach proficiency in a particular language. They are also expected to offer electives related to their specific areas of expertise (such as Medieval French literature, French cinema, or contemporary French philosophy). In many cases, part-time faculty or graduate students are employed to teach more introductory language courses. PhD-holding professors at universities are also often expected to perform research related to their field of specialization.

In addition to their work in the classroom, professors typically supervise graduate students completing their master’s degrees and PhDs in a foreign language or literature field.

What is the job outlook for foreign language teachers?

Overall, increased interest in bilingual and multicultural education, as well as increasing enrollment in high schools across the U.S. (especially in the South and West) means that foreign language teachers will encounter many job opportunities at all levels of education. Geographic location and the makeup of individual communities can also affect the number of foreign language positons available. For instance, New York City is an example of an area school system where more than 200 languages are spoken.

The U.S. Department of Education releases a nationwide listing of teacher shortages (which they update annually) to pinpoint the states and schools districts demonstrating the greatest need to hire educators to teach specific K-12 subjects. For instance, the following states were just some of the locations noted to experience a widespread shortage of foreign language teachers for the 2015/2016 academic year: Alabama (for grades 6-12), Ohio, Oklahoma, Virginia (for pre-kindergarteners to grade 12), and Wisconsin.

Some states exhibit a need to hire educators to teach a specific language, such as Spanish, which is what the states of Oregon, Wyoming, and Rhode Island (for middle grades) needed for in 2015 and 2106. For the same academic year, Utah were at a loss for teachers able to oversee Chinese and Dual Immersion classes for their students, while Mississippi required foreign language teachers to manage French classes in their schools.

Job prospects for foreign language teachers and professors are greater when a candidate is fluent in more than one foreign language, and possesses advanced degrees. Those with study abroad experience are often deemed a more desirable applicant as well.

What is the compensation for foreign language teachers?

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported the median salaries earned in 2014 for foreign language teachers (including those who taught American Sign Language (ASL), language and literature courses outside of the English language, as well as combined teaching and research with their job) were as follows:

  • Elementary and middle school teachers – $53,760 – $54,940
  • High school teachers – $56,310
  • Postsecondary teachers – $59,490 (median) $67,910 (mean)

The amount of money that a foreign language teacher makes is dependent on a few factors, such as educational background, place of employment, and geographic location. For example, states that the BLS identified as paying the highest salaries to postsecondary foreign language professors in 2014 include the following: California ($87,760), Connecticut ($84,410), New York ($82, 860), New Jersey ($75,650), and Rhode Island ($75,370).

Although colleges, universities and professional schools employ the highest number of foreign language professors, these places of employment are not noted for paying the most lucrative salaries for the occupation. Junior colleges employed 6,390 foreign language professors in 2014, paying an annual mean wage of $76,190, while 20,410 professors at colleges and universities were paid an average of $68,260.

In conclusion, teaching a foreign language plays a significant role in preparing students for an increasingly diverse workforce and world, in addition to opening minds to different cultures and ways of thinking. Those who learn a foreign language increase their overall employment opportunities in all career fields, from law to business to the military. Job openings for foreign language teachers require a fluency in a specific language, as well as holding at least a bachelor’s degree and possessing state-mandated credentials to teach, which varies according to school districts, colleges or universities.

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