Home How to Become a Foreign Language Teacher

How to Become a Foreign Language Teacher

Parlez-vous français? ¿Hablas español? In an increasingly connected world, speaking French, Spanish, Mandarin, or another foreign language is a necessary skill for the next generation of American students. Studies show foreign language instruction correlates with higher standardized test scores and higher overall academic achievement, even at the college level (ACTFL, 2018). Teaching a foreign language is an opportunity to pursue a personal passion, develop international goodwill, and help U.S. students compete in a global economy.

On this page, you will learn what a foreign language teacher does, the salary and career outlook for the field, the steps required to become a foreign language teacher, trends in the field, information about online programs, and useful resources for foreign language teachers.

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What Does a Foreign Language Teacher Do?

Foreign language teachers plan and implement grade-level appropriate instruction in the target language. Instruction generally focuses on learning to read, write, and speak the language. Foreign language teachers also instruct students in the history and culture of the countries where the target language is spoken. They encourage respect and interest in other cultures, and they promote the idea that U.S. students are ambassadors of American culture when interacting with people of other cultures.

Depending on the type of school and what grade level they teach, foreign language teachers may have their own classroom or travel from classroom to classroom – and even school to school – to teach their pupils. Many foreign language teachers also sponsor language-related extracurricular activities, such as language clubs or trips abroad. Foreign languages are taught at all grade levels, from pre-K through high school and college. In many schools, the menu of language choices has expanded from the traditional French and Spanish to include a host of other options such as Mandarin, Russian, Japanese, and Italian. However, not every school requires students to learn a foreign language. Prior to starting their degree, prospective foreign language teachers should make sure the grade level and language they want to teach are available in the area where they want to live.

Foreign Language Teaching Career Outlook and Salary

While the job outlook for all language teachers is high, foreign language teachers may be needed in some states more than others. In 2017, the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages reported that for the third year in a row 40 states experienced a shortage of language teachers, on par with key subjects like science, math, and special education.

The job outlook for foreign language teachers also depends upon your language specialty. For example, the American Association for Employment in Education reported in 2016 that there is a shortage of nearly all qualified language teachers, with the highest shortage in Chinese, Japanese, and Greek language teachers. The supply and demand of candidates for popular languages like Spanish, French, and German are more balanced, but there is still some shortage.

Foreign language teachers often receive pay on par with most teachers, with salary varying due to the level of education they teach. For example, the average salary for elementary teachers in 2018 was $58,230, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Middle school teachers earned an average of $58,600, whereas high school teachers pulled in an average of $60,320 (BLS, 2018).

Foreign language teachers at the college level may earn the highest salary. The BLS reports a median annual wage of $67,640 per year for postsecondary foreign language and literature teachers. However, teachers at this level may be required to earn a graduate degree. The states that employ the most postsecondary foreign language teachers include:

  • New York
  • California
  • Texas
  • Pennsylvania
  • Massachusetts

Steps to Becoming a Foreign Language Teacher

Foreign language teachers must be fluent in their target language and knowledgeable about the history and cultures of the countries that speak that language. Sometimes the language foreign language teachers teach is their native tongue, but that is not a requirement. Being a native speaker has its advantages and disadvantages. Native speakers tend to have inherently stronger language skills and pronunciation due to socialization, but they might not possess a thorough understanding of the grammatical rules of their language, which non-native speaking teachers might have learned. Regardless, both native and non-native speaking foreign language teachers can be equally great instructors.

In addition to being fluent in the language, foreign language teachers must have at least a bachelor’s degree, typically in a relevant major such as elementary or secondary foreign language education. Many teachers also have a master’s degree or other graduate-level coursework. Some degree programs require a passing score on an oral language proficiency exam by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Language.

All 50 states require that foreign language teachers be licensed. Exact requirements vary by location, so you should check with your state department of education for more information. Basic licensing requirements include a bachelor’s degree, a student teaching internship, and a passing score on a national competency exam such as the Praxis I.

Foreign Language Teaching Trends

Foreign language immersion programs are an increasingly popular method for teaching a second language. According to a 2018 exploration of the benefits of these foreign language programs, immersion education benefits academic achievement and cognitive skills (University of Minnesota, 2018).

First introduced in 1971, total and partial immersion programs are now available in many schools across the country. In immersion programs, teachers speak only the target language to teach academic subjects such as English and math. The goal is for students to become fluent in the foreign language as well as English.

The most spoken languages in the United States outside of English are Spanish, with 41 million speakers; Chinese (including Mandarin and Cantonese), with 3.5 million; and Tagalog (including Filipino), with 1.7 million speakers. America is only becoming more diverse, and being bilingual is readily gaining importance to employers. Spanish speakers, in particular, have gone from just 5% of the country’s population in 1980 to 13% in 2015. This percentage will likely rise in the coming years.

Unsurprisingly, the foreign language most widely taught in K-12 schools according to a 2015 report is Spanish, with 69% of students in a foreign language class learning this language. The next highest was French with 12%, and German with 3%. However, only 20% of all students were enrolled in a foreign language course.

Online Foreign Language Teacher Education

If you are fluent in Spanish, French, or another world language and would like to teach students in elementary, secondary, or postsecondary school, an online foreign language education program can be a convenient and flexible way to earn your degree.

The choices in online foreign language education programs are more limited than in other education specialties, but they do exist. Some of these programs are delivered fully online, while others require some on-campus attendance and/or a study abroad. Most require that applicants already possess a bachelor’s degree and the ability to demonstrate competence in their target language (often via a writing sample and an oral reading recording).

Typical online coursework is comparable to brick-and-mortar programs and includes:

  • Foreign language teaching methodology
  • Linguistics
  • Culture
  • Literature

Some programs also require classroom observations or student teaching. Most online foreign language education programs take two to two-and-a-half years to complete. Additionally, some institutions work with international schools and universities to allow students to study abroad in a country that uses your chosen foreign language. You can also research international universities that allow American students to complete a degree program while living overseas.

The Department of Distance Education at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces has a useful online self-evaluation to help you determine if you have the skills, personality, and resources to succeed in an online degree program. Alternatively, there are several on-campus foreign language degree programs that can provide you with the college experience on an actual campus.

Online Foreign Language Education Degrees to Consider

Online foreign language programs are available throughout the country, with most coursework involving online discussion. When choosing the right school for you, consider your online learning needs. Think about which program aligns with your languages and future career goals.

New Mexico State University offers a Master of Arts in Teaching with a concentration in Spanish that is available online, on-campus, or through a combination of the two. This program is aimed at current Spanish language instructors in public and private schools and community colleges, but does not lead to licensure.

Nova Southeastern University in Miami Beach, Florida, offers an online Master of Science in Education with a specialization in Spanish. This program teaches skills appropriate for K-12 Spanish teachers, teaching Spanish as a foreign language, and Spanish for heritage speakers. Because the degree is taught entirely in Spanish, a bachelor’s degree and previous knowledge of the language are required.

Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, has a Master of Arts in Romance Languages with options to concentrate in French or Spanish college or K-12 teaching. This is a hybrid program that combines online coursework with on-campus meetings and summer workshops at Appalachian State University at Hickory. Applicants must have an undergraduate degree in French or Spanish.

Useful Resources

Becoming connected with other foreign language teachers can be a great way to meet people with similar goals and stay current in an ever-changing field. The following organizations, websites, and blog posts are geared towards teachers of foreign languages to help benefit them in their chosen profession.

Additionally, below is an interview with Dr. Joan E. McRae, Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at Middle Tennessee State University and professor of French. In the video, she discusses foreign language teaching and why you should consider getting involved in the field.