The study of foreign languages in the United States is transforming, with college students increasingly opting to study Middle Eastern, African and Asian languages rather than European ones, according to a major new survey by a group that has tracked such statistics for nearly 50 years.
The study of Arabic, in particular, has skyrocketed by more than 300 percent in the past decade - more than four times the pace of its closest competitor, Chinese.
A study by the Modern Language Association released Tuesday offers a snapshot of student interest in the fall of 2006 at all post-secondary schools in the country. The previous survey had been released in 2002.
In the past four years, total enrollment in all language courses has grown 12.9 percent. Spanish still remains by far the most popular language studied at U.S. colleges and universities, the study found. But more than 200 less-common tongues - everything from Nepali to the Native American language of Ojibwe - are now taught on college campuses.
For reasons ranging from Sept. 11 to the Internet and the globalization of the American economy, the largest increases in interest were in Middle Eastern and African languages, where enrollments grew by 55.9 percent, and in Asian and Pacific languages, which reported a 24.6 percent increase.
Adam Hudson, 19, switched from Spanish to Arabic upon entering Stanford University. "Sept. 11 was the spark of my interest, then I learned more about the Iraq war and Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said the international relations major from Pittsburg.
Prior to 2002, more students studied ancient Greek than Arabic.
"Americans are, above all, pragmatic language learners," said Karin Ryding, a member of the language association's Committee on Foreign Languages and a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University.
"If they see a vital need in terms of national interest or professional opportunity, they will invest the time and energy to study those languages," Ryding said at a news conference Tuesday.
Enrollment in Arabic studies jumped 126.5 percent between 2002 and 2006. The number of colleges and universities offering Arabic has also nearly doubled: Researchers received reports from 466 Arabic programs in 2006 vs. 264 in 2002.
And with the rise of Asia as a global economic and political player, steadily growing numbers of American students are learning Chinese and Korean. Enrollments in those languages climbed by 51 and 37 percent, respectively, during the four-year period.
Some of these students are what researchers call "heritage learners," who seek to reconnect with their native culture and the language of their parents and grandparents.
The traditional favorites aren't dead yet. Almost three-quarters of all students continue to study Spanish, French and German.
Yet as a percentage of total language enrollment, all three have lost ground in the past four decades.
French, the traditional language of diplomats, was students' first choice in the 1960s. It has since slipped to second, with 204,000 enrolled. German (94,000 enrolled) is third in popularity - and dropping.
Spanish has fared the best among the three. Enrollments have expanded by 10.3 percent, continuing a record of uninterrupted growth begun in 1980. With an overall enrollment of 823,000 college and university students, it remains the most-taught language in the United States.
By comparison, only 24,000 students nationwide are enrolled in Arabic.
Analysts say the rapid rise in Spanish instruction may reflect a type of linguistic nationalism - students are training themselves to communicate with the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.
"There was a time when German, French and Spanish had a monopoly on enrollment. That is not the case any more," said Dorian Bell, a postdoctoral fellow and French teacher at Stanford. "People naturally migrate from one to another for all kinds of topical and geopolitical reasons. And there are more and more languages to choose from."
Russian and Hebrew are barely holding ground, the study found.
"But none of the languages seem to be retreating. Some are growing more than others," said Bell, who serves on the association's executive council.
Rather than majoring in a language, many students are linking language studies to other disciplines, such as politics or business, Bell said.
The nation's shifting linguistic interests are mirrored at Stanford and the University of California, according to the association's data.
The University of California-Berkeley reports waiting lists for classes in Arabic and Chinese, with most of the demand coming from students whose families have no ties to those cultures.
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