How to improve your second-language skills for a stronger Fulbright application

The amount of time between submitting a completed Fulbright application and being accepted is upwards of six months. That’s longer than the amount of time it takes to train for a marathon, and longer than a college semester.

If you take into account the amount of time between when you’re deciding to apply for a Fulbright and final grantee notifications, the length of time can be a year or more. That’s plenty of time to get from zero to intermediate or intermediate to advanced. That means that you can start an application with very little skill in a language and be at at least an intermediate level by the time you’re in-country if you’re selected.

Speaking and understanding another language can strengthen your Fulbright application and enrich your life! But you don’t have to have advanced language skills to be able to successfully complete a study or research project, or to be effective in an ETA position. A strong application makes the case that you can do the project that you set out to do. If your Fulbright is about studying dance performance and you’re a skilled dancer, you could likely do well with intermediate language skills. On the other hand, if you propose to analyze literature, you should demonstrate that you have the language skills to do that.

Host Country Requirements

Host country requirements are a critical component here: some have no language requirements, while others have strict language proficiency requirements or strong preferences. You should review the language requirements noted in the country summaries to decide which host country/ies are reasonable for you, and, should you need to improve your language skills, make yourself a timeline. You’d be surprised at how much you can improve in 15 or 20 minutes a day.

You need to be certain about two things:

  1. that your language skills match your proposed host country’s requirements, and

  2. that you have and can demonstrate “language proficiency commensurate with the nature of the proposed project.”

A Little Bit of Effort Goes a Long Way

Even if your proposed project is going to be carried out in English, learning a language of your host country demonstrates your interest in the country and its people. With between three and six months, you can improve or gain enough language skills to significantly strengthen your application in any of these ways, most of which cost only your time:

With enough time, you could take a formal course at a university, community college, or community center. While university courses may not be accessible if you’re not a currently-enrolled student, community colleges are open to all and low-cost. We particularly recommend having an instructor work with you in a classroom setting because one component of the Fulbright US Student Program application process for any host country requiring a non-English language is the language evaluation.

The Fulbright Language Evaluation: Two Components

The Language Evaluation consists of both a self-evaluation and a formal one by an instructor/someone qualified to evaluate language skills. A productive way to treat these two components is not as obstacles but as tools to demonstrate your commitment to improving your language skills.

The self evaluation is an opportunity for you to address both how your language skills are sufficient to get your project done, and for you to elaborate upon how you’ll work on improving your language skills, if needed, between the time of application and departure. Applications are due in October; most grantees don’t leave for their host countries until September or October of the next year. In essence: you can propose a year’s worth of independent study and a concrete plan of action for strengthening your skills.

This section is your opportunity to demonstrate a commitment to learning and improving your language skills. If your language skills are nascent, you can acknowledge that you are new to the language, and speak to how you will develop your language skills further between the time you apply and starting your research. You can get creative here and mention future classes you will take, volunteering with an immigrant population that speaks the language, and any other pathway to language improvement that you will try.

The formal evaluation is a simple form completed by a person of your choosing; ideally, this person is a current or previous language instructor. If you can’t find a professional language teacher or tutor, someone fluent in the language can also conduct the evaluation. Have a non-language-professional conduct an evaluation only for less-commonly taught languages, and even then, only if you can’t find a resource through outreach.

When you schedule your language evaluation relative to the application deadline is up to you. If you’re taking a language class in the spring semester, are doing well, and don’t want to wait until after a summer of your language skills getting rusty, by all means schedule the language evaluation for the end of the semester, before finalizing your proposal. On the other hand, if you’re planning on the summer for getting from zero to functional beginner, by all means schedule the language evaluation as near to either your university’s internal deadline or the final application deadline as possible.

The evaluation process itself is straightforward. The evaluator will ask you to read something, write something, and converse with you and score your reading, writing, and conversation skills. If relevant, the evaluator should discuss your ability to carry out the research you propose.

Language Skills and Structuring your Proposal

The Fulbright selection committee is looking for you to demonstrate that you can do your project, not for you to be perfectly fluent in a second language. Address any linguistic limitations that might get in the way of your project: if you need to do in-depth interviews, but don’t yet have strong conversation skills, you can propose to hire a translator. You may also look for English-speaking affiliations, mentors, or advisors in your host country. Another option is to structure your proposal to allow for language improvement. For example, you could propose to spend the first month in an intensive language course or to hire a tutor in-country.

Remember that at the core of the Fulbright program is cultural exchange. At the core of culture is language. Showing an interest in and commitment to one or more of the languages of your proposed host country will strengthen your application.

Adriana Valencia