Dec 6, 2010

College-Level Foreign Language Study Slowly Changes Focus

Once upon a time, French was the language of diplomacy. It was the language of philosophers and intellectuals, and high-achieving high school students were not-so-gently steered in the direction of signing up for French classes if they wanted to go to the ‘best’ colleges.

But times are changing, and French is slowly dropping off the college map along with German, Latin, and Russian. According to the New York Times, universities across the country are looking closely at foreign language majors and eliminating a few options.

This fall, the State University of New York at Albany announced that it would stop letting new students major in French, Italian, Russian, and the classics. Louisiana State University is phasing out majors in German and Latin, as well as basic instruction in Portuguese, Russian, Swahili, and Japanese.

The University of Maine’s president, Robert A. Kennedy, recommended suspending undergraduate degree programs in Latin and German, while at Winona State University in Minnesota, a moratorium has been placed on new majors in French and German. And at the University of Nevada, Reno, students can no longer declare majors in German Studies or minors in Italian.

Locally, George Washington’s Columbian College of Arts and Sciences will no longer require any foreign language to graduate, although students may use language courses to help fulfill broader humanities requirements.

The most recent information available from the National Center for Education Statistics confirms why colleges are being forced to make hard decisions when it comes to funding language majors. There just aren’t too many.

In 2009, GW graduated 26 Spanish majors, 7 French majors, one each in Chinese, German and Japanese, and no majors in Russian or Italian. American graduated 3 French, 3 Spanish, and 2 German majors. UVa graduated 30 French majors, 1 German major, and 73 Spanish majors. And the College of William and Mary had 3 French, 5 German, and 12 Spanish majors.

On the other hand, traditional language powerhouse Georgetown graduated 14 Arabic, 22 French, 9 Chinese, 6 German, 2 Japanese, 4 Russian, 20 Spanish, and 5 Italian majors. And the University of Maryland—College Park had 18 French, 13 Chinese, 11 German, 24 Japanese, 10 Russian, 66 Spanish, and 3 Italian majors.

At other area schools, language majors were negligible or not to be found.

Yet, the Modern Language Association will soon release a report showing that overall enrollments in college language courses are actually at their highest level since 1960.

Why? Because of apparent interest in more “practical” languages like Arabic and Spanish. And as China assumes a greater role in world affairs, more college programs are being offered in Mandarin—generously funded by the Chinese government.

“…if we’re going to remain economically competitive and provide the skill and manpower for government, I think we need more Americans to learn Chinese or Hindi or Farsi or Portuguese or Korean or Arabic,” commented Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations in a speech to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages in which he questioned the prominence of European language instruction.

But secondary school systems have been slow to recognize this change and largely continue to offer advanced programs in languages being phased out at the college level. Ironically, just as the College Board reinstates Advanced Placement Italian, colleges forced to make tough budget decisions are doing away with Italian language options.

The takeaway from this story is that if you’re considering a foreign language major, look very closely at what individual departments on your college list offer and how many students they graduate each year in foreign languages or culture. Not only will this tell you something about college “fit,” but it may also suggest the likelihood that the major will be around for the long haul.

No comments:

Post a Comment