Flagging interest in foreign languages

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Thursday the 21st of February, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: learning a second language.

Enrollment in foreign language programs at the university level had grown steadily since the late 1950s. In 2009, more students than ever took up learning a foreign language.

EICHER: But language class enrollments began dropping after that. And the exodus shows no sign of slowing down. Why aren’t college students as interested as they used to be in learning a foreign language? WORLD Radio’s Leigh Jones talked to several professors to find out.

LEIGH JONES, REPORTER: Julia Villaseñor taught Spanish at Malone University for 27 years. But in 2015, the small Christian college in Canton, Ohio, decided to shutter its only foreign language program.

After leaving Malone, Villaseñor took a part-time teaching job at Hiram College, a secular liberal arts school nearby. That turned into a full-time teaching job. But it didn’t last long.

VILLASENOR: Well, just last year, Hiram also decided to cut back.

And Villaseñor found herself out of a job again.

Julianne Bryant teaches Spanish at Biola University in California. She called the cutbacks in foreign language programs devastating.

BRYANT: But it’s not something that surprised me so much because since the economy crashed in 2008, it’s been kind of whispered that, um, you know, things are going to be changing in higher ed.

When the recession hit, parents and students became much more interested in degrees that would translate into good paychecks. Enrollment in science, technology, and engineering programs skyrocketed. Interest in Spanish and French dwindled, and Bryant says college administrators noticed.

BRYANT: And I feel that the students are the ones who are saying, well, I don’t want to take languages because it’s too hard. And so in order to please the students, they’re lessening their requirements in order to attract them.

But Bryant says students’ attitudes toward foreign language often change soon after graduation.

BRYANT: Once you get out into the work world, you realize, wow, if I were bilingual or if I knew another language, I’d be able to communicate with these people better than I’m working with.

While the recession might have accelerated the decrease in foreign language learning, Bryant says it started with a wider cultural attitude.

BRYANT: I think in our country, the language ideology is that English is the only language that’s important. English is the only language that has capital.

That attitude has implications for Americans’ ability to interact in the global marketplace. But it also affects how Christians engage with others, both at home and abroad. Bryant says the cutbacks in foreign language programs have created an opportunity for Christian universities.

BRYANT: One margin of benefit that we have as Christian institutions is to be able to say that this aligns with the principles of reaching the world for the Lord Jesus Christ and having a diverse population and being prepared to engage in a global market with ethnically different others and to love the stranger in our own land. And those are all principles that we’re able to use and teach to in our classes.

That’s exactly how administrators at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, view cultural engagement. Donna Summerlin heads the school’s Department of Language and Literature.

SUMMERLIN: We feel like we live in a global society and people to be truly educated need to know something about the world beyond their little corner of it. We do feel like language learning is at the heart of a liberal arts education. So we’re still committed to that.

All students in the Christian school’s bachelor of arts program are required to complete one year of intermediate language classes. And all students, even those in STEM fields, must fulfill a cross-cultural requirement that often involves spending time in another country.

While Lee remains committed to language study, the school has changed its course offerings to make them more practical. Classes in advanced conversation and translation are taking the place of literature studies.

Other schools, including Biola University, are making similar changes. Julianne Bryant hopes that will help convince students they can benefit from speaking a second language.

BRYANT: The amount of people who speak languages other than English is increasing in our country and the need for people who are bilingual is increasing, yet the programs are closing. So it doesn’t really make sense because we’re not meeting the needs of society.

The demand for bilingual professionals ended up working in Julia Villaseñor’s favor. After leaving Malone, she went back to grad school to get a degree in translation.

She’s better equipped to return to teaching now, but she’s not sure she wants to. The need for translators is just too great.

Reporting for WORLD Radio, I’m Leigh Jones.

(Photo/Creative Commons)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “Flagging interest in foreign languages

  1. Paula Garcia says:

    Learning other languages has lots of benefits: communicating with others, sympathizing with non-English speakers, employment opportunities, etc. But students have long complained about requirements for English Classes, whether Grammar, Composition, or Speech classes. After all, “When will I ever use it?!”

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