During the Cold War, Russian was the popular choice for students interested in learning a language deemed vital for American foreign policy interests. Those who wish to do the same today are increasingly looking to Chinese and Arabic as the languages of choice.
Enrollment in Arabic and Chinese has skyrocketed in the last five years as students become increasingly aware of the importance of those languages in policymaking and business. Hindi is being offered for the third consecutive year at the University and Swahili for the fifth.
Of the 17 languages currently being taught at the University, students choose to study some in order to better position themselves in a changing economic and diplomatic climate. Others are drawn to these languages by their desire to study non-Western literature and culture.
The relationship between current events and language study is particularly clear in the case of Arabic. The immediate increase in enrollment in fall 2001 illustrates students' attentiveness to the languages of politics.
Near Eastern Studies professor Nancy Coffin linked the popularity of Arabic with the political significance of the Middle East. "Traditionally, something would happen, and you would get a little tick up [in enrollment]," she said. She added that she doesn't anticipate any decrease in the language's popularity since, "unfortunately, the U.S. is now deeply embroiled in the Middle East."
"I think Arabic is the new Russian," she said.
Slavic languages and literature chair Caryl Emerson said that enrollment in Russian classes has halved since the end of the Cold War.
"In the U.S., students like to take languages [of places] that we're going to bomb," she said.
Chinese is the best example of a language whose popularity has increased in tandem with a country's growing economic and political power on the global stage.
Enrollment in Chinese language classes has increased every year for the last two decades except for in fall 1989, following the Tiananmen Square protests.
"In protest, I guess," East Asian Linguistics Project director Chih-p'ing Chou said, "a lot of students decided not to study Chinese."
Though the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages still labels Chinese a "less commonly taught language," it is one of the University's four most popular languages — along with French, Spanish and Italian — that account for two-thirds of the language students at Princeton.
"In the past, most students taking Chinese were interested in academic pursuits," Chou said. "Most were interested in the humanities."
Chou, who has been at the University since the 1970s, explained that Chinese used to have a reputation as an exotic language, and few Princeton students focused their studies on contemporary China.
But, he said, over the last two decades, demand for courses on Chinese language, culture and politics has steadily increased. He added that the surge in popularity was for reasons of "economy more than politics."
"The developments of the Chinese economy [have made the language more popular]," Chou said. "China's visibility is pretty good, and it does have a tremendous market value."
There was a large jump in CHI 101: Elementary Chinese I enrollment for the 2006 fall semester, with about 300 students enrolling in the introductory class, compared to 200 in the fall of 2005.
As enrollment has grown, so has the diversity of students interested in learning Mandarin, which is the dialect taught at the University. Art history majors, Wilson School majors and engineers can be found enrolled in Chinese, though most, Chou said, do not take Chinese to fulfill the language requirement. Rather, they have "a utilitarian motivation" in studying the official language of a country with more than 1.3 billion people.
Enrollment in ARA 101: Elementary Arabic I shot up in the fall of 2001. On Sept. 12, 10 students were enrolled in Arabic 101. By the end of that term, 19 students were in the class. There was a single lecturer and section for the class.
"When I first came, enrollment was small, but it didn't change until September 11, but then, suddenly, everyone switched into Arabic," Coffin said.
Now, there are 114 students in firstthrough fourth-year Arabic classes and five lecturers teaching the language.
Before the expansion of the department, there were more heritage speakers — those who have a family background in the language — enrolled in the classes, but the number has since dropped.
Coffin said students studying Arabic at Princeton have a variety of interests in the language. "There's a mixture of a few [students] interested in history and culture," she said, also pointing to comparative literature majors, Wilson School concentrators and those interested in national security.
In addition to the growth in established languages, Princeton has also added further options among the non-European languages which have garnered larger enrollments than they expected.
Student demand led to the development of a Hindi curriculum for the fall of 2004. There were 15 students in the first HIN 101: Introductory Hindi I class, and all of those students continued on to second-year Hindi.
Their work has continued at a quick pace, Hindi professor Mekhala Natavar said. "My second-year second semester has completed the syllabus, and we are using third-year materials."
Of the students taking Hindi at Princeton, about half are heritage learners, and a few are using it to fulfill their language requirement.
Natavar attributes the interest in Hindi to a wider interest in India. "I think it's different from Chinese, although business is growing," she said. "I don't think learning Hindi is necessary for business."
As for the future of the Hindi program, Natavar sees it as continuing to grow due to student interest. "I would like to see it taken to the next level," she said. "We would [need to] get another faculty member so that the students [can] have higher level culture and literature class[es]."
In the fall of 2002, when the University first offered SWA 101: Elementary Swahili I, four students enrolled in the class.
By last fall, 20 students were in Elementary Swahili and five were in Swahili 200. Students have continued on beyond the requirement level, necessitating the hiring of an additional professor. The program also added four 200-level classes on literature and culture.
Mahiri Mwita, a lecturer in Swahili, said students "want to apply their Swahili to their major." Most of the students studying Swahili are taking it in African study abroad programs, and fewer than a quarter are using the language to fulfill requirements.
Some want to pursue healthcare professions and then work in Africa, while others plan to study policy or literature.
Mwita said that the program has attracted "the kind of students who are not just doing Swahili for the language requirement but are looking to investigate the culture."