How much can knowing a foreign language beforehand help with studying it in college?

Since I’m not from America, this is a more general question, not specifically related to US colleges.

I always sucked at high school, I am hyperactive, lazy and in addition to all that I had a medical problem during high school, because of which I struggled even there, so I didn’t go to college. After that I found a great job that paid more than many jobs with degrees do and everything was fine until last year, and while I found another job, I started rethinking about college. Not only because it might give me more career options, but also because even a person with the most generic degree is considered higher in society than a skilled technician with only a high school.

Even though I am bad at studying things I don’t want to, I am good in things that interest me, like languages. I know 2 foreign languages at an advanced level (C1 and B2) and another 3 on a beginner level (A1). One of the main reasons is that instead of classes or Duolingo, I learn using less traditional methods like creating my own sentences in Anki with frequency lists, loads of exposure,etc, which is far more effective.

For that reason, assuming I reach B2 or higher in my target language and after that enroll in a philology faculty, how much would that help me? Are there such things as skipping a few semesters assuming you are evaluated and you know what someone starting from scratch doesn’t?

Unfortunately the problem with universities is that they also teach hard subjects that aren’t really important, but that you must finish. In the case of my target language, you have literature classes where you study literature theory (in general, not language specific) and things like that, as well as a subject where you study the history of various (other unrelated) ethnicities that lived in the region over 1 and 2 thousand years ago. So I suppose that even if I could skip/advance quick with the main language subjects, I’d still have to struggle with these secondary subjects.

The language I took in college was one that I already spoke fluently as a child. I had lived in another country and went to the local school for a few years. We moved back to the US when I was 10.

I had a very easy time with the first two years of college classes in that language. It was an easy A for me. I did have to learn formal rules for things I just intuitively “knew” but I knew pronunciation, a lot of vocabulary, and intuitive sentence construction, etc.

I tried to keep going into year 3, but it became much more difficult, quite suddenly, because it became a literature course in the foreign language. We moved from basics into more advanced vocabulary and complex grammar, etc. Because it wasn’t a credit I needed, I didn’t keep going after the first semester of year 3.

I guess we can only give your our anecdotal experience.

I live in the US. I knew intermediate Spanish by the time I graduated high school - without question, I was the top Spanish student in my high school class, as I was the only student doing advanced placement work. I attended a rigorous undergraduate program with a unique intensive language component. It’s a bit hard to explain, but it was a smaller college inside of an enormous university that placed a special emphasis on foreign language immersion and required proficiency in a foreign language in order to graduate. That started with a Spanish placement exam. I placed out of the first semester into Spanish II, which was primarily focused on reading and writing exercises (this was intense, like a sort of language boot camp, complete with the students having nervous breakdowns) followed by what was called a “readings” course meant to prepare me for upper-level university Spanish courses. In order to qualify for the readings course, I took a five-hour proficiency exam which is normally failed by 50% of students the first time around. I passed, which meant I could officially graduate from that particular program within the university. I went on to take advanced Spanish courses at the broader university in history, literature, politics, etc. and graduated with a BA in Spanish.

Did having a prior grasp of Spanish help? Yes, by about one semester. There were kids who entered the program with zero Spanish ability who were caught up to me by the time we graduated - but I did get the benefit of additional courses in higher-level subjects. And I would say my language ability relative to my college peers was about average.

However, my program was a full-on Spanish immersion program, on top of coursework we did foreign language coffee hours and it was not uncommon for students in the dorm to hang out speaking entirely in the language they were studying. It was a bit obsessive. So I’m not sure if you would see an equal level of advancement in an educational program that was not immersive in this way.

Assuming you are a native English speaker, how well did you do in High School English? That’s the sort of work you will be doing in a foreign language after you have mastered the vocabulary.

US colleges and universities don’t use the A1, B2 etc. levels much. What you scored on those isn’t going to carry a lot of weight in the US. However, to the extent that the knowledge itself allows you to pass placement exams, the knowledge will be helpful.

I cannot speak for all universities, but the way the ones I have looked at work is like this: upon arrival for orientation, or sometimes as soon as you are accepted, and reply that you will be attending, you take a placement exam (online in the latter case). Your score determine the level of class you may enroll in.

Most universities have a minimum number of semesters of a foreign language you must pass to graduate, and usually it is four. Some specify in no more than two different languages, and that you must take at least two semesters at the sophomore (second year) level or above.

If you have experience with language A, and pass out of the first two semesters of it, so that you require only semester 3 & 4, you usually have two choices: one is that you may “skip” the classes you tested out of, but you still have to pay for the credits in order to have them on your transcript, and count toward your graduation. The second is to begin with semesters 2 & 3, and then also take semesters 5 & 6, for a total of 4, and not pay for the credits you tested out of.

I can’t say whether 5 & 6 will be literature classes that will require analysis, using exegetic skills beyond simple use of language. It probably depends on how big the school is, and how great the variety of classes offered at the 5/6 level is, but you certainly can look at this when you make a decision to do something like buy the 1/2 credits, or forgo them, and take 5/6 classes. The school I went to was large, and it was possible to take purely grammar and composition courses at the 5/6 level. But there were also lit & culture courses at this level.

Just a caution: many universities are not allowing what are called “Heritage speakers” take courses in their “heritage” language for credit. This is a fancy way of saying that if you grew up bilingual, we want you to study a new language from scratch, and consider it cheating if you try to test out of the foreign language requirement by taking the placement test in a language you have spoken fluently all your life.

That may not sound fair, but the origin of the foreign language requirement in the first place is to get you to learn certain things that you don’t learn if you are credited with your other native language as a foreign language. If you don’t like it, you can find a school without this policy. I’m just reporting. I didn’t make this up, and I’m not saying I agree with it.

Whilst it’s admirable to want to study for a degree, it sounds like you’re ‘in the world of work’, so you should really focus on a subject which will help enhance your career. Will having a degree in a certain language do that? Do you have opportunities to work for international companies which would find that useful?

Because if it isn’t going to enhance your career prospects when you’re already in a profession, then you’re just gathering bits of paper.

(example, a degree is highly prized to get your first role in my profession, but once you’ve been working for a few years, a degree isn’t going to alter your prospects unless it brings you a new, relevant skill)

The job I currently have is a dead end job in a small town, an average salary with no prospect of advancing, the only good thing is that there’s very little work (while you still get an average salary), but if I got a degree, I could work for example in government institutions as well, which I currently can’t.

My experience probably doesn’t mean much in terms of a general rule. I speak Spanish, which did help with a lot of terms of Latin origin that I came across in my science classes. On the other hand, language itself isn’t my strength. I got 3 C’s in college, all during my freshman year. 1st semester I got a C in English and in Spanish. Since I was on a scholarship and needed to bring my GPA up at that point, I retook the Spanish class and got a C again. Fortunately I did well enough in the math and science classes I took to balance that out. At that point I decided I’d never be a master of language, whether English, Spanish, and presumably any others I might decide to take up in the future.

As an undergrad, there was originally no foreign language requirement, which worked well for me, as I suck at English (my native tongue). Then they changed requirements for graduation and it barely included me. I quickly added Spanish to my next semester.

There was a guy in my Spanish class who was from South America. He spoke Spanish fluently. He helped me get through Spanish, and I helped him with his English. His main problem with Spanish was that the professor was Cuban, so there were slight grammar differences. Plus he hated Cubans and didn’t hide that well enough.

I got a B in Spanish, he got an A.

I’m not entirely sure what "I know 2 foreign languages at an advanced level (C1 and B2) and another 3 on a beginner level (A1). " means - is it your own assessment of your level or is it based on some sort of test?

In any event, I have known a number of people who spoke a language at home and also studied that language in high school or college. For the most part, if they took a class that was not specifically aimed at heritage speakers , they actually did not do as well as the non-speakers. As best as I could figure out, the dialect people speak at home is generally not the same as the one studied in school and it was difficult to keep them from mixing. Pretty much everyone faces this in their native language as well - but the difference is in your native language, you start learning the “standard” dialect by the time you start school where the people I’m talking about didn’t start learning the “standard dialect” of their second language until high school.

I’d change “most” to “many.” My daughter and I both looked for colleges that didn’t require high school foreign language and didn’t include foreign language as a graduation requirement. We both found one without much difficulty (30 years apart, obviously)

Ironically, she spent a year in Italy while in college and ended up quite proficient in Italian.

Your core question is this:

“I am an adult with real-world experience and a particular area of interest and skill. Will I have to slog through the boring filler nonsense to get my university degree?”

The answer is “yes, you will have to slog.”

The best advice I can give you is to shift your attitude. Everybody has to take stuff they dislike in undergrad, because colleges love making money off of General Education requirements. Don’t think of them as speedbumps so much as mandatory gateways. Take your lumps and buckle down. Once you finish your BA, you can enroll in a graduate program and pretty much focus on the stuff that interests you.

Advice #2 is to really really really study the course catalogues. You might be surprised at how much stuff you’ll find that piques your interest and provides you with necessary GenEd credits.

That’s exactly what I was going to say… I knew a guy named Abe (short for Abelardo) in my high school advanced 3rd yr Spanish class who was a native speaker, and believe it or not, I was actually better at the academic Spanish grammar, various rules, etc… than he was, even if he could have a fluent conversation with our teacher in flawless Cuban Spanish, while the rest of us struggled because the vocabulary and verb tenses weren’t intuitive to us like they are to a fluent speaker.

So your mileage may vary; you could be like @eschrodinger, or you could be like Abe, if you already know the language.

It was a long time ago, but from what I recall there was not a meaningful difference in my program between native speakers, brand new speakers, and students with a background studying the language. They all varied dramatically. Innate language ability has something to do with it. Were were tested across five proficiencies and some native speakers could speak better than me, but struggled with reading and writing.

My husband was in the same language program with some Spanish ability and his Spanish was always worse than mine even though he also tested out of Spanish I. He has reminded me that we skipped two semesters. So I guess it put me a year ahead. Which led to some fascinating coursework.

If what you like is languages, why not study linguistics?

Have you even read what I asked? I literally asked about studying a specific language for a degree in that, but I have certain medical issues because of which studying in general is hard for me, but learning languages by myself is very easy for me, so I asked whether learning a language by yourself and then starting a degree in that language would be easier.

Right. I was saying if learning about languages is easy/interesting for you, a degree ABOUT languages might be easier than anything.

This is great advice. A friend of mine in high school enjoyed learning languages so she studied linguistics in college and at one point spent a year in Germany learning Spanish. She ended up fluent in Spanish, German, and could read or write Latin too. She ended up teaching ESL to students with disabilities.

Learning a single language means you study a lot of literature and culture, studing linguistics has you learning a bunch of languages and how languages work. It sounds like you are more interested in the later.