Saturday, December 11, 2010

Is Studying a Foreign Language Still Important?

Every year, we are advised about all the additional stuff we need to be teaching our middle schoolers and high schoolers.  We are told they need more science and math, more computers and technology, more business and finance work, more arts and music, more writing, more more more.  But how can we fit it all in?  If we are adding in additional years in traditional subjects, or including new subjects like information technology, what do we let fall by the wayside in a school day that only has so many hours?

One area I haven't heard as much about lately is foreign languages.  On one hand, with all the emphasis on the globalization of our modern world, it seems it would be important to communicate to at least some section of the planet that doesn't speak English.  On the other hand, are we just assuming that everyone else will continue to learn English, so there is no need for us to learn one of their languages?

However, at least on the college level, it seems that foreign language instruction has been growing steadily for at least the last decade.  The Modern Language Association has just released the results of its 2009 comprehensive survey of enrollments in languages other than English among 2,514 US undergraduate and graduate institutions.  It shows that foreign language enrollments in 2009 were at an all-time high of 1,682,627 students, having grown by 6.6% between 2006-2009 and by nearly 13% from 2002-2006.  

The most popular language by far (it enrolls more students than all other foreign languages combined) is Spanish, which has long held the #1 position in foreign language studies with 864,986 students.  The second most popular language is French, with 216,419 students, and followed by German with 96,349 enrolled.  These languages, along with what has traditionally been the fourth-ranked language, Italian, continue to grow, but by relatively small percentages (from 2-5%).  

The great leaps in enrollments, however, have come from what the MLA calls "less commonly taught languages" or LCTLs, which grew by 31.2% from 2002-2006, then by an additional 20.8% from 2005-2009.  The biggest percentage gains were registered among the Arabic languages, where enrollments raised by 126.5% from 2002-2006, then by another 46.3% in 2006-2009.  Any guesses about what the most popular LCTL is?  Actually, it is American Sign Language (ASL), which was up by 16.4% to a total of 91,763 students and supplanting Italian as the fourth most popular language.  Japanese, with 73,434 enrollments, was the most popular Asian language and was the 6th most popular language overall, followed by Chinese in 7th place with 60,976 students.  The top ten list was rounded out with Arabic in 8th place (35,083 students), Latin in 9th (32,606), and Russian in 10th (26,883).  The only languages among the top 15 that reported losing students were Ancient Greek (although some of that was explained by some schools that have reclassified their Greek classes) and Hebrew, both Modern and Biblical.

The good news, according to experts, is that language studies seem to be more stable now then they were in the 1980s and 1990s.  So if your children are interested in pursuing a LCTL, there's a good chance they can find a college that will enable them to continue their studies at the postsecondary level.  Overall, US colleges and universities reported offering a total of 217 LCTLs, which is 35 more languages than were available in 2006.

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