Foreign Language Teacher Career Guide
Foreign language teachers assist 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 teacher of a foreign language, and the salary and job outlook for these positions.
Foreign Language Teacher Job Description
The role of a foreign language teacher is to teach courses in a specific language, which in modern curricula often includes instruction in literature and cross-cultural studies. Foreign language teachers are masters of the language, demonstrating high proficiency in reading, writing, and speaking the language they 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, spelling, grammar, and accent, as well as the evolution and history of the 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 to teach at a private or K-12 public school include a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language, linguistics, or a related field, native-level fluency, and an understanding of the culture associated with the language(s) taught. Foreign language teachers at the college level will need an advanced degree, such as a master’s or doctoral degree.
Some foreign language teachers work at traditional public or private schools, while others teach in dual language immersion (DLI) schools or programs, in which students learn a second language by receiving some or all of their instruction for all subjects in the target language.
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 in preparation for 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 curricula may ask teachers of foreign languages to instruct English-speaking classes on the literature and culture in which the teacher is an expert, such as French Literature.
Foreign Language Education Degrees and Programs
How to Become a Foreign Language Teacher
The first step for prospective foreign language teachers is to earn a bachelor’s degree from a college or university that has a state-approved teacher preparation program. Most students begin by taking two years of general education classes, including math, English, science, and humanities, as well as beginning to intermediate language classes in the foreign language to be taught. The student must then be admitted to the school of education at their college to complete a teacher preparation program. The student will typically major in the language they want to teach (e.g. Spanish, French, or German) and minor in education. Following are the typical steps to become a foreign language teacher in a K-12 public school:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree in the foreign language to be taught that includes a teacher preparation program.
- Complete a student teaching internship that includes foreign language classes.
- Take your state’s required tests for foreign language educators.
- Apply for teacher certification.
- Begin applying for open foreign language teaching positions.
The requirements for foreign language teachers vary from state to state and it is advisable to check certification requirements in your state prior to committing to a program. The classes and certification tests required will 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 education in middle schools than others.
Many states have alternative pathways to certification for individuals who already hold a bachelor’s degree. Earning a master’s degree that includes a teacher preparation program can also lead to initial teacher licensure in many states.
Prospective teachers who already hold a bachelor’s degree may apply to graduate school or an alternative teacher preparation program to prepare for a teaching career. The coursework required will depend on the individual’s educational history and experience. If the student already holds a bachelor’s degree in a foreign language, they may need to take fewer courses for certification. If the student’s background is not in a teachable foreign language, they will need to take adequate coursework in the specific language to constitute a language concentration according to the state’s requirements, or fulfill them in a different way (with native fluency or experience where applicable). 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 can be helpful as it can indicate greater mastery of the language; it may also increase the salary of the teacher, depending on the school.
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 Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), as of 2022, middle school teachers earned a median salary of $61,810 annually and can expect job growth of 4% from 2021 to 2031.1,2 During the same time period, high school teachers earned a median salary of $62,360 per year and expected job growth of about 5% through 2031.3,4 The increase in job growth is largely anticipated due to replacements and is dependent on school budgets.2,4 The job market in education will also be driven by the retirement of career teachers.2,4 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.4
Foreign Language Teacher Career Interviews
- Middle School Spanish Teacher, Lisa Butler
- Saskatchewan French and Spanish Teacher, Krista Gates
- Past President, Florida Chinese Teachers Association, Yee-Chen Robson
Helpful Skills and Experience
While education and state teacher certification are requirements for foreign language teachers, they should also have certain personality traits. Being patient, having a sense of creativity, and possessing the ability to use the latest technology will ensure a productive learning environment for learners of foreign languages. Teachers of foreign languages who are native speakers, as well as those who have lived abroad in nations that speak the language(s) taught in a study abroad program or who have earned other forms of experiential learning, may be able to gain a competitive edge in the hiring market.
- 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.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: What certifications are needed to become a foreign language teacher?
Answer: To teach in K-12 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. You can also learn more through our guides to traditional route and alternative route teacher certification.
Question: What are the most common foreign languages taught in public high schools?
Answer: According to a survey by American Councils, the most common foreign language taught in public high schools by far is Spanish.5 The second-most common foreign language program offered is French (with about half as many programs as Spanish); followed by German (with about half as many programs as French); and Latin (with nearly the same number of programs offered as German).5 The study also concluded that nearly all states offer foreign language programs in Chinese, French, German, Latin, and Spanish.5
Question: Is there a difference between teaching a foreign language and ESL/TESOL?
Answer: Yes. Teachers of foreign languages typically specialize in teaching native English speakers how to communicate in another (foreign) 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. You can read more about ESL teachers in our ESL teacher career guide. For information about teaching English as a foreign language (TEFL) abroad, see our TEFL teacher career guide
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.
Question: How much do Spanish teachers make?
Answer: The BLS does not publish specific information on teachers of different subjects, such as Spanish or another foreign language. However, Spanish teachers tend to make the same as other teachers in their grade level, with variations based on years of experience, education, location, and type of school. That said, teachers in K-12 public schools earned a median of $61,810 at the middle school level and $62,360 at the high school level as of 2022.1,3
Question: What qualifications do I need to be a French teacher?
Answer: To be a French teacher in a K-12 public school in most states, you will need a minimum of a bachelor’s degree along with teacher certification to teach in your state. Most French teachers complete a bachelor’s degree in French and an educator preparation program before seeking state certification to teach at the desired level.
Question: What are the best states for being a foreign language teacher?
Answer: There are many factors you should consider when determining the best states for being a foreign language teacher, but one factor is the percentage of K-12 students enrolled in foreign language classes. According to a study by the American Councils, New Jersey has the highest percentage of its K-12 population enrolled in foreign language classes, with 51% enrolled.5 The same study reports that 47% of Washington DC students; 36% of Wisconsin students; and 35% of Maryland and Vermont students are enrolled in foreign language courses.5 This may indicate that these states are particularly welcoming for prospective foreign language teachers.5
Question: What are the worst states for being a foreign language teacher?
Answer: Again, there are many factors that determine the best states for these teachers, including average salary and number of open positions. However, when looking at one factor, foreign language enrollment of K-12 students, the three states with the lowest enrollment are New Mexico, Arizona, and Arkansas.5 Keep in mind that the enrollment for New Mexico and Arizona were estimates.5
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, Middle School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252022.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Middle School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/middle-school-teachers.htm
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics May 2022 Occupational Employment and Wages, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes252031.htm
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, High School Teachers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/education-training-and-library/high-school-teachers.htm
5. American Councils, “The National K-16 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report,” March 2017: https://www.americancouncils.org/sites/default/files/FLE-report.pdf