Habla Chino o Arabe?


Let's learn Arabic, urges Penn's Arabic Department.

Enrollments in Chinese and Arabic college courses are growing faster than enrollments in other foreign languages, with Spanish enrollments also increasing significantly.

These are among the findings of the Modern Language Association of America's (MLA) 18th annual study of foreign language enrollment.

The organization, which surveyed 2,700 two- and four-year colleges and universities, found that registrations in Chinese and Arabic were up 36 percent and 28 percent, respectively, over what they were five years ago, while those in Spanish had climbed by more than 13 percent.

Meanwhile, French, German and especially Russian have fallen off sharply, while registrations in Italian and Latin declined less dramatically. French and German are both down by 28 percent and Russian is down by 45 percent.

Largely unchanged are registrations in ancient Greek, Hebrew and Japanese.


Although down since 1990 despite an overall rise in college enrollments, foreign language enrollments are still at higher levels than at any time in the 1960s, 1970s or 1980s.

Some experts say that changing demographics and the global job market are responsible for the trend to Chinese, Arabic and Spanish, which is still the most popular foreign language among students. The numbers for all three languages are also boosted by the children of Chinese-, Arabic- and Spanish-speaking immigrants who want to improve their skill in the family language. Others simply see language as another asset on their resumes.

Roger Allen, professor of Arabic, chair of the Language Advisory Committee for SAS, and co-director of the Program in International Studies and Business, believes that students understand that China will be the major commercial power in Asia during the next century. Japan, on the other hand, is regarded as having achieved its commercial heyday.

Allen feels that some language enrollments have increased because of what he calls the "heritage learners. " He says that enrollment in Chinese at Penn is due in part to American-born children of Chinese immigrants.

Although Allen questions some of the MLA data -- "non-Western language enrollments still constitute a minute percentage of total enrollments in foreign languages in the United States " -- the increase in Arabic is the most perplexing. The Association's data, according to Allen is not reflected at Penn.

"Our enrollments are at best stable and even slightly lower than they have been, " says Allen. "I suspect that our student body -- both by background and by motivation -- is not typical of the national picture. "

"The number of students studying Arabic nationally is something in the order of 2,000 plus, so that any rise in number may appear as a 'major trend' when in actual fact it is a mere 'blip,' " adds Allen, who has seen these trends in foreign languages for several decades.

A more sobering statistic, says Allen, is that for the first time one language -- Spanish -- accounts for more than 50 percent of all enrollments in foreign language.

David E. Maxwell, director of the National Foreign Language Center at Johns Hopkins University, says that most decisions about teaching foreign languages are made according to economic conditions and needs, rather than long-term needs of the country and a population which must deal increasingly with a global economy and the telecommunications revolution.

Maxwell fears that the increases in Spanish, Chinese and Arabic have come at the expense of French, German and Russian. The MLA data suggests neither a high level of interest in nor a high level of preparation for further language learning among American college students, Maxwell wrote in a recent editorial in The Christian Science Monitor.

Some university language departments including Penn's, are becoming proactive in addressing the nationwide decline in enrollments. The chairs of German departments at six major universities recently banded together to establish a rigorous study abroad program at the Free University of Berlin.

The program, called the Berlin Consortium for German Studies, includes Penn, Yale, Princeton, Johns Hopkins, University of Chicago and Columbia.

According to Joyce Randolph, director of the Office of International Programs at Penn, the program had its inaugural session last spring, which included several Penn students. A six-week presession emphasizes intensive German language, with sections at different proficiency levels. Students then enroll in regular courses at the Free University of Berlin where all classes are conducted in German.

"It is essential that we recognize needs for language competence -- and our capacity to meet those needs -- as an important public policy issue, " Maxwell wrote. "These needs must become a component of public discourse in America in ways that provide an informed and intelligent context for decisions about language -- decisions made every day, at every level, in every sector of our society. "

Originally published on January 14, 1997