Critical Languages: What Are They and Why You Should Speak One

By Dr. Lisa Baglione, Department of  Political Science

U.S. government has designated Several languages “critical” ones, tongues that are essential of American national security and economic competitiveness.  These include Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Urdu, Korean, (and depending on the agency, Japanese), Persian, Russian, Swahili, and Yoruba. Of these, Saint Joseph’s University offers instruction in Chinese, Japanese and Russian.  Taking one of these languages and achieving proficiency in it can provide many opportunities for a student in both public service and business because the national need for trained speakers in these languages exceeds the number of bilingual speakers available.

Students with the ability to speak these languages (and understand the cultures of CL countries[1]) are highly valuable to the government, industry and society.  That is why the State Department has a special summer scholarship program to fully fund students’ study in these areas.  (See ROTC students with CL background can also earn summer grants, and senior cadets receive an extra cash incentive just for taking a critical language class.  These ROTC graduates with CLs then go on to expanded opportunities and more lucrative contracts after graduation.  In addition, government and businesses are looking for students with additional skills and experience that come with the study and knowledge of a critical language.  At SJU, students with a critical language may be able to participate in the State Department e-internship program, where they serve as an intern for an embassy abroad while living here in Philadelphia and receiving credit for a Political Science upper division course (as well as fulfilling their writing-intensive overlay).  Students with CLs can also use these talents to gain interesting internships at the Washington Center in our nation’s capital, working either for the government, non-governmental organizations (e.g., Amnesty International, Asia Watch), or lobbying firms.  And upon graduation, critical languages open many doors in industry: think of all the economic opportunities today with companies that do business with or are run out of China, Japan, Russia, and the former Soviet states where Russian is still an important means of communication.  Moreover, knowledge of one of the East Asian languages typically makes businesses confident that a student could pick up another (like Korean, for instance) and makes a candidate more attractive.  For government jobs in national intelligence and security, these critical languages are nearly essential today, as otherwise, organizations expect a Master’s degree.  However, having a critical language makes an SJU grad an attractive new hire, even with a Bachelor’s degree.

Thus, taking a Critical Language opens many doors for students and increases the likelihood of landing an exciting first job.  Those of us who speak these languages (as non-native speakers) will also say that this knowledge expands our understanding of the world and helps us to be more appreciative of other cultures, as well as provides us more insight into our own.

[1] SJU also offers numerous courses in its Economics, History, Political Science, and Modern and Classical Languages Departments that will increase students’ understanding of these cultures.