Foreign Language Teacher Career Guide

Foreign language teachers aid students in learning a foreign language from the conversational level through fluency. To be successful, a teacher of foreign languages must be fluent in the language(s) to be taught. In this guide, you will find further information on what foreign language teachers do, how to become a foreign language teacher, and foreign language teacher salary and job outlook.

Foreign Language Teacher Job Description

The role of a foreign language teacher is to teach courses in a specific language, which in modern curriculums often includes instruction in literature and cross-cultural studies. Foreign language teachers are masters of their language, demonstrating a high proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking the language they are are teaching. With these skills, instructors create an environment for students to learn effectively. Foreign language teachers usually teach several levels concurrently, from beginning speakers of foreign languages to students who are approaching fluency. Instruction in foreign languages includes vocabulary, grammar, and accent as well as spelling and other mechanics of language.

Foreign Language Teacher Requirements and Common Tasks

To enter a career as a foreign language teacher there are certain requirements that must be met. Minimum requirements include a bachelor’s degree in foreign language, linguistics, or a related field, native fluency, an understanding of the culture associated with the language(s) taught, and a strong desire to teach the subject. Like other educators, foreign language teachers are responsible for planning and delivering lessons. At the high school level, foreign language teachers often sponsor and supervise foreign language clubs and related extracurricular activities. Since many students take foreign languages preparatory to applying to college, teachers of foreign languages may take on a mentoring role and participate in the college application process with students. Secondary schools with diverse curriculums may ask teachers of foreign languages to instruct English-speaking classes on the literature and culture in which the teacher is expert, such as French Literature.

How to Become a Foreign Language Teacher

Along with a bachelor’s degree, an instructor should have the subject endorsements needed to teach a foreign language. This may vary from state to state and it is advisable to check which certifications a state requires through the State Board of Education or a local college teacher preparation program. Many states have alternative pathways to certification for individuals who qualify by educational background or work experience.

The first step for prospective foreign language teachers who have not previously completed a college degree is to enroll in a college or university that has an accredited education program. The process for earning a bachelor’s degree and receiving certification typically takes four to five years. Most students begin by taking two years of general education classes, which encompasses a wide array of classes, including math, English, science, and humanities.

After general education requirements are met, the student must be accepted into the school of education at their college, and then take education courses designed to help the student learn how to teach foreign language. The student will major in the language they want to teach (i.e. Spanish, French, German), which will generally require at least 24 subject-specific credit hours. Many programs also require a practicum and student teaching experience. Students may also need to take state mandated testing, typically a series of tests designed to test basic skills, content, and teaching proficiency. The classes and certification tests require vary based on whether the prospective teacher wishes to become certified to teach K-8, secondary, or K-12 grade levels. Some states and school districts have more opportunities for foreign language in middle schools than others. Students will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in the language(s) they have chosen, and then entitlement documentation will be sent to the state. Graduates must then apply to the state to issue a teaching certificate and subject endorsements.

If a prospective teacher already holds a bachelor’s degree (in any field), he or she may apply to graduate school to prepare for a teaching career, after which a master’s degree and teacher certification can be earned in approximately two or three years. The coursework is dependent on a student’s educational history. If the student has a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language, he or she may need to take fewer courses for certification. If the student’s background is not foreign language, he or she will need to take enough courses in the specific language to constitute a language concentration according to the state’s requirements. Practicum hours and student teaching may be a requirement for either path.

There are, of course, other paths that a student can take in order to become a foreign language teacher. Requirements to teach college, for example, can be much different than those of the high school or middle school setting. Most colleges require at least a master’s degree to teach a foreign language, while others require a doctoral degree in the specific language to be taught. However, even at the K-12 levels a graduate degree in foreign language can be helpful to the teacher of foreign language, as a graduate degree represents a greater mastery of the language.

Foreign Language Teacher Salary and Job Outlook

As globalization connects different areas of the world, the demand for foreign language teachers is rising. The salary for a foreign language teacher varies depending on the grade level taught and location. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, middle school teachers earn an average salary of $53,430 annually and can expect job growth of 12% from 2012 to 2022.1 High school teachers earn an average of $55,050 per year and can expect job growth of about 6% between 2012 and 2022.2 The increase in job growth is largely anticipated due to increases in student enrollment.1,2 The job market in education will also be driven by the retirement of career teachers.1,2 In addition, many school districts report difficulty in filling positions for teachers of English as a second language, which may represent opportunities for bilingual educators.1

Helpful Skills and Experience

While education and certifications are requirements for foreign language teachers, they should also have certain personality traits. Being very patient, having a sense of creativity, and the ability to use the latest technology will ensure a productive learning environment for learners of foreign languages. Teachers of foreign languages who have lived abroad in nations that speak the language(s) taught in a study abroad program or other form of experiential learning will sharpen their skills in the language and may be able to gain a competitive edge in the hiring market.

Additional Resources

The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages draws its membership from educators of all grade levels as well as educators in business and industry. The association aims to improve and expand the learning of foreign languages in the US, and provides such member benefits as free subscriptions to language publications, career search resources, and professional development activities.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Becoming a Foreign Language Teacher

Question: What certifications are needed to become a foreign language teacher?

Answer: To teach in public schools, teachers of foreign languages must hold a teaching credential as well as a subject endorsement in the language(s) taught. Your state Board of Education or local college teacher preparation program can provide additional information on specific requirements for your area, including alternate routes to certification.

Question: Is there a difference between teaching a foreign language and ESL/TESOL?

Answer: Teachers of foreign languages typically specialize in teaching native English speakers how to communicate in another language. ESL/TESOL teachers teach native speakers of other languages how to communicate in English. However, depending on the school district and certifications held by the individual educator, a teacher may be both a foreign language teacher and an ESL/TESOL teacher.

Question: What specific tests must a foreign language teacher complete to become certified?

Answer: The tests required vary by state so it is advisable to check with your state Board of Education. However, many states require at least four tests for a foreign language endorsement: the basic teaching skills test; a content area test in the language to be taught; a professional teaching assessment; and an oral proficiency test to assess spoken fluency.

1. US Bureau of Labor Statistics – Middle School Teachers: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/middle-school-teachers.htm
2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics – High School Teachers http://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm#tab-6