Enrollment in Language Classes Down at the U and Nationwide

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(Photo by Conor Barry)

By Kylee Ehmann

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(Photo by Conor Barry)
(Photo by Conor Barry)

Across the nation, college classrooms teaching foreign languages have grown a little quieter.

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In a report released this month from the Modern Language Association, enrollment in all languages decreased by 6.7 percent from 2009 to 2013, marking the first decrease since 1995. While the U hasn’t seen as dramatic a decline, there are still fewer students studying a foreign language. According to the U’s Office of Budget and Institutional Analysis, the number of students majoring in a language fell from 297 students in Fall 2010 to 242 in Fall 2014.

Nationally, even the most-studied language, Spanish, dropped by 8.2 percent — a first since 1958. The only languages to increase in enrollment were Korean, Portuguese and American Sign Language.

Rory Penman, a senior in film, studies Russian at the U and would like to study Spanish after he graduates. He said the dip in language enrollment is depressing.

“In a world where most college-educated people know at least two languages, it’s really embarrassing that [the U.S.], with some of the best colleges in the world, is majorly populated by people who only know their native language,” Penman said.

A 2007 American Community Survey found that about 18 percent of the U.S. population is bilingual.

Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, said in a statement about the report that people shouldn’t panic. Those who completed the study are not sure if the numbers represent an anomaly or the start of a broader trend, but she added that colleges should work on recruiting and retaining students in their language programs.

Feal is worried the dip is due to financial pressure both on the university and the student level. Due to the economic impacts of the recession, students tend to prioritize practical and immediately useful courses. This trend reflects the decrease of students in the humanities and the increase of business degrees nationally and at the U.

Feal said it’s a mistake to assume that studying a foreign language offers fewer returns because the global job market is becoming more interconnected. The Department of Labor estimated that around 25,000 jobs will open for interpreters and translators between 2010 and 2020 — an estimated 42 percent growth. There is also an increasing demand for bilingual workers in financial sectors, the military and education.

Penman has a different theory. He thinks part of the reason for the drop is that understanding a language requires a different set of skills than most other courses.

“Learning a language is very difficult and the effort required differs from the standardized test approach that we have now,” Penman said.

He said learning a language is important because it “rounds you out as a person.” Some of the benefits of multilingualism include quicker brain function and a better ability to deal with ambiguities and conflicts. It may even help in resisting dementia, a disease that affects memory.

Penman said he’s learned more about the English language through his studies of Russian. It’s also helped him make new friends and learn about Russian culture, which he said is important given current events, such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year.

But he said one of the biggest drawbacks in studying a foreign language is the amount of time he’s put into it.

“Studying a language when you don’t need to is kind of a big sacrifice,” Penman said. “That’s where I’m at right now.”

Lisa Hutton, the academic advisor for the U’s Department of Languages and Literature, said her program’s staff tries to reach out to as many students as possible, informing them about the more than 20 languages currently offered at the university. They use events like the annual Major Expo to get the word out.

She said students who would like to study a foreign language but are having trouble making it work with their major can make an appointment with her or a peer advisor for help.

“Between daytime, hybrid, evening and summer accelerated classes, I’m sure we could find a language that would fit in their schedule and allow them to complete their major on time,” Hutton said. “It usually just requires thinking outside of the box and being willing to discover any new language that we offer.”

The decline in enrollment with the U’s language classes does not mean that Utah, as a whole, will fall behind in bilingual residents. According to a 2011 report from the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, about a third of the state’s workforce are bilingual. This number is partially due to the number of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, some of whom go on religious missions in countries where the dominant language is not English. The report also noted there are 180 languages spoken at the U, among students.

The state’s growing Latino population also plays a role in the high levels of bilingualism. Additionally, Utah is one of the nation’s leaders in dual-immersion programs. There are 104 elementary schools where students speak in English for half of the day and then in a foreign language, such Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese, for the other portion. These programs have led to a higher proficiency in the immersion language, increased memory and attention control, improved performance on standardized tests and improved cultural sensitivity.

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