US students speaking more languages

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A survey has revealed that more US college students are studying languages than ever before. The increased interest in previously unpopular languages, such as Korean, has resulted in more crowded language classes at community colleges, but how much longer can this trend continue when faced with fierce budget cuts?

The survey, released by the Modern Language Association last month, reports that the number of students enrolling on language courses increased by 6.6 percent between 2006 and 2009. The Association also states that this new intake has resulted in the highest numbers of students taking languages since the survey began in 1960; this continues a growing trend in enrollment that had previously seen a 12.9 percent increase between 2002 and 2006.

Popular languages such as Spanish, French and German continue to carry high enrollment figures alongside huge increases in the take up of previously less popular languages. Arabic has itself the biggest climber with a significant 46 percent increase in enrollment and a jump from 10 to 8 on the ‘most popular’ languages list. Other languages that saw double-digit enrollment increases included Korean (up 19 percent), Chinese (18.2 percent) and Portuguese (10.8 percent).

Experts state that these figures are expressive of a growing trend within students to broaden their geographical horizons beyond the USA. The globalization of the Internet, an increased knowledge of world events and more frequent inter-continental travel are all factors that can be attributed to this movement towards language uptake.

On a wider cultural level this evidence could be taken to show the more pluralistic and tolerant views of many Americans in the 21st century. Since 1960, race relations have improved dramatically, alongside a better understanding and appreciation of the US’s Native American heritage and a growing dependency on the tourist trade within large cities. Although there is still a way to go in many of these areas, there is no doubt that the movements made have been in a more egalitarian, global direction.

US students do not want to be insulated against the world anymore (if they ever truly did). They know that large companies want multi-lingual employees and also that many humanities-based subjects strongly encourage students to have some knowledge of another language.

However there is a problem. The global economic downturn has hit language departments hard. Whilst 35 new languages were being taught last year that were not taught in 2006 (including Native American), in the last 30 months alone 70 language programmes at 30 institutions have been either threatened with closure or terminated completely. Even large institutions such as the University of Stanford have been forced to terminate courses that allowed students to major in French, Italian and Russian.

But if languages are so increasingly popular then why is funding being withdrawn? Perhaps they are not so popular as they seem. In an odd twist although the uptake of languages by students is increasing, the overall number of graduate enrollments is falling. Graduates are the foundation of language departments in that they will not only go on to teach the students of tomorrow but in many cases are also teaching the undergraduates of today.

As Professor Berman of Stanford states it is “perplexing” that language courses are being threatened in such a way given the “increased student demand…and the need for Americans to become more aware of the world around them”. If the study of languages at colleges is to continue leading students towards a better linguistic (and cultural) understanding of the world then more needs to be done to protect the financial security of departments and to encourage students to continue developing their language skills through graduate study.

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