Foreign language enrollment up at U of M, in U.S.


All languages are seeing enrollment increases, but Asian languages and Arabic have increased the most.

English is beginning to get some company in the United States, as college students nationally and at the University are studying more languages than ever before.

Asian languages and Arabic have shown the greatest growth among foreign languages.

A Nov. 14 Modern Language Association study showed foreign language enrollment increased by 13 percent between 2002 and 2006. During the same time period, undergraduate foreign language enrollment at the University increased by roughly 7 percent.

“From the MLA’s perspective, there’s a lot of good news in the report,” Rosemary Feal, the association’s executive director, said during a Nov. 13 telephone news conference.

By far, Arabic showed the largest increase of any single language nationally, increasing 126 percent since 2002. Chinese increased by 51 percent, Korean by 37 percent and Japanese by 27 percent – all among the largest gainers.

At the University, beginning Arabic jumped from an enrollment of 62 students in 2002 to 106 in 2006 – a 71 percent change.

Beginning Chinese classes have seen enrollment increase by 20 percent and beginning Korean had its enrollment more than double.

Additionally, extra or new courses were added in Swahili, Vietnamese, Hmong and Turkish.

College of Liberal Arts Dean Jim Parente said growth of Asian languages – particularly Chinese – was a reaction to global business patterns. He said the rise in Arabic can be attributed somewhat to an increasing demand for Arabic speakers in the government sector.

“In the wake of 9/11, people in the U.S. government who knew Arabic were slim,” Parente said.

Parente also said it was notable that the languages showing the largest growth also happened to be among the most difficult to master.

According to the Foreign Service Institute of the Department of State, Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese and Korean are ranked as the most difficult languages for an English speaker to become proficient in.

The survey estimates these languages require approximately 88 weeks of study to reach a proficient level.

By comparison, level-one languages, such as Spanish and French, require an average of 24 weeks to achieve proficiency.

The difficulty of these languages, however, does not make learning impossible, Elaine Tarone, director of the Center for Advanced Research on Language Acquisition, said.

“It can be done in three years (of college),” she said.

Tarone said an increased emphasis on getting students immersed earlier in all languages – especially the most difficult ones – can give them a head start when they get to college.

She said Chinese immersion programs in Minnesota and an intensive Chinese program at the University of Oregon were good examples of how to get students involved with a language earlier.

On this campus, Tarone said, more resources are needed if foreign language departments hope to keep up with the growing enrollment numbers.

“We need better facilities, we need more teachers,” she said.

In particular, Tarone cited Folwell Hall as needing renovations to its classrooms. She said bad acoustics and poor technological design were among her main criticisms of the building, which is the primary home for most foreign language courses.

Junior Travis Byrd said he has enjoyed his foreign language experience on campus. The biology student is in his fifth semester of Chinese, his minor. He also said he hopes to one day put these skills together and do research in China.

“It’s so amazing over there,” said Byrd, who visited China after high school, “so incredibly different.”

Byrd said many of his Caucasian friends in the class were looking to couple the language with some type of business program. He added that many of his Chinese friends wanted to learn more about their culture and be able to speak with relatives who spoke little or no English.

Byrd said the most challenging aspect of the language was the alphabet, which consist on symbols rather than letters.

“You basically have to learn two languages,” he said.