For the first time, Arabic has made it into the list of the top 10 most-studied languages at U.S. colleges and universities, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association of America.
Enrollment in college and university language courses in 2006:
% of total language course enrollments Number of students % up since 2002:
Spanish 52.2% 822,985 10.3%
French 13.1% 206,426 2.2%
German 6.0% 94,264 3.5%
ASL 5.0% 78,828 29.7%
Italian 5.0% 78,368 22.6%
Japanese 4.2% 66,605 27.5%
Chinese 3.3% 51,582 51.0%
Latin 2.0% 32,191 7.9%
Russian 1.6% 24,845 3.9%
Arabic 1.5% 23,974 126.5%
Source: Modern Language Association
USA Today reports that Karin Ryding, a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., says she doesn't believe the heightened interest in Arabic is temporary.
"Young people today understand that the world is truly smaller, and they're coming to Arabic with specific interests."
Those interests include desires to work with international organizations, the diplomatic corps, human rights groups, security firms and the media, Riding says.
Spanish is most popular, getting 52% of all foreign-language students.
French is second with 13%, and German is third with 6%. American Sign Language and Italian are now tied with 5% of enrollments, followed by Japanese, Chinese, Latin, Russian and Arabic.
USA Today reports that since the last MLA survey four years ago, Arabic is up 126%, Chinese 51%, American Sign Language 30% and Japanese 27%. That's compared with increases of 10% for Spanish, 2% for French and 3.5% for German.
The report, a snapshot of language enrollment at 2,795 institutions of higher learning, is based on fall 2006 enrollments. MLA has collected such data since 1958.
USA Today notes that language study has fallen significantly since the 1960s. In the fall of 2006, about 8.6% of college and university students took a language class. In 1965, that figure was 16.5%, according to the MLA. That's in part because the language requirement, almost universal in the 1960s and '70s, disappeared in many programs beginning in the 1970s and '80s. However, it's now making a comeback, says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA.
Historically, Americans have been "pragmatic" when it comes to learning languages.
"If they see a vital language need in terms of national interest or in terms of professional career opportunity, then they will invest the time to learn that language," she says.