Learn about Foreign Languages Majors at Reed College

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Overview of Reed College

Reed College is one of the more unique academic establishments in the United States. In brief, it’s a highly selective, small, private liberal arts college located in Portland, Oregon. In depth—in depth, what can be said? It is both exquisitely rigorous on the mind and liberatingly eccentric for the soul. The mood is one of raw curiosity, not just for intellectual pursuits, but also for decided non academic activities.

Unique atmosphere aside, Reed is known for its incredibly strong academic programs, including studies in foreign languages.This article provides an overview.

Overview of Foreign Languages at Reed College

A student coming out of high school with AP credit cannot use it for actual advanced placement in courses. However, during orientation week at the beginning of the year, one may take a placement test for either second year or beyond. A 5 on the AP test roughly correlates to entry into second year.

All languages at Reed College have a 1-2-3 attack on language learning: the first year emphasizes grammar and vocabulary, while the second year emphasizes literature, with the third year developing diction and good writing skills. In addition to formal classwork, there are also weekly “conversation groups”, where one studies culture with a “language scholar”, a native speaker of college age. All courses are taught entirely in the particular language, resulting in complete immersion.

No matter the major at Reed, at the end of the junior year, majors must “qual”, short for taking a qualification exam in their field of choice. This is typically what goes for a major declaration. If they pass, they are cleared for a special requirement for graduation—the writing of a “senior thesis”, a year-long project that is typically described along the lines of a “soul-devouring monstrosity”.Think a PhD thesis in not-so-miniature. For majors in a foreign language, this typically means an in-depth analysis of one or more literary works, though interdisciplinary majors are also accepted.

After this point, there are a myriad of literature and culture courses in which one can participate, from a semester-long intensive study of Don Quixote to a class on City, Space and Memory in modern German literature.

In addition, there are also “language houses” on campus. Any student may apply to live in a language house, regardless of whether they are majoring in that language or even whether they’ve ever even had previous experience in the language. One or more language scholars are housed within to organize activities. These houses host weekly movie nights and dinner tables, in addition to larger campus celebrations for relevant holidays.

Another valuable resource for foreign languages at Reed is the “language lab”, a room in the library with computers set up with top-notch translating software and more. All courses 200-level and below offer free tutoring.

For non-foreign language majors, every student at Reed must fulfill a divisional requirement which, though varying by major, usually requires at least one year of a foreign language, often more.

Many courses have equivalents in translation for non-majors who cannot or do not wish to learn the language, in history, literature and humanities. (These same courses are recommended for majors as well.)


The French Department of Reed College studies primarily continental French literature, but also offers courses on more general Francophone literature. The French language house hosts movie nights and a “table française” at dinner, as well as organizing celebrations for various French holidays. Study abroad opportunities include various campuses in Paris (including La Sorbonne) and University of Rennes II Haute Bretagne.

For more information on the French department at Reed College, check out their website.


The Spanish department at Reed studies both Peninsular and Latin American literature. The Spanish language house, in addition to the typical movie nights and dinner table, hosts an annual campus-wide Cinco de Mayo celebration. Study abroad opportunities include the University of Costa Rica, Universidad San Francisco De Quito (Ecuador), and more.

For more information on the Spanish department, including a course list, thesis archive, faculty pages and more, check out their website.


The German department at Reed focuses on Germany more than other German-speaking countries. The focus is more on the German historical legacy than on modern times. The German house hosts movie nights, as well as an annual Oktoberfest on campus. There are numerous study abroad programs, including at the University of Munich, Berlin, Tübingen and Freiburg, with an especial recommendation to the Munich program.

For a German course list and description, study abroad resources, faculty pages and more, check out their website.


Chinese, a notoriously difficult language, is taught with the goal of students being able to read simple but original texts by the end of the second year. Chinese majors are strongly encouraged to attend study abroad in China through one of their many programs. The Chinese language house at Reed offers not only the usual dinner table and movie nights, but also celebrations of the Chinese New Year and more.

For more details regarding the Chinese department at Reed, check out their website.


Russian at Reed is a little bit different from other foreign languages in that it offers many of its literature courses in translation, due to the difficulty of the language. The Russian department is also smaller than that of other foreign languages at Reed; however, it is incredibly vibrant and undeniably—well, Russian. Study abroad opportunities include locations in Moscow and St Petersburg, as well as US-based immersion programs. Portland is also blessed with a lively Russian minority group.

For more information on the Russian department at Reed College, including course list, theses and faculty information, check out their page.


It should be noted that Reed College also offers a program for a very classical study of the two classical languages, Greek and Latin. However, there are none of the typical language house or language scholar opportunities for these.

For more information on the Reed Classics program, check out their page.

Other Languages

Love a language but it’s not on the list? Reed College also offers a number of informal courses on languages, from Japanese to Arabic to Hebrew. The availability of these varies from year to year, as these are taught by volunteers. While they are no substitute for a formal language course, they may prove attractive for students seeking a non-intensive introduction to a language.