Students have always appreciated language classes as a way to understand a different culture, but Hong Li, a lecturer in the Department of Modern Languages at Ithaca College, said China's development as a world power makes understanding that culture more important than ever.
"In order for Americans to continue their superpower track, it's up to the younger generation to know about a rising power, which is China," Li said.
At the college, student enrollment in foreign language classes has continued to increase. This year, 57 students in the graduating class are majoring in a foreign language, compared with 42 in 2007 and 48 in 2006. There are also 146 students with a foreign language minor, which is almost 50 percent more than the number of students with language minors in the fall semesters in 2005 and 2006. About 1,193 students are taking modern language classes, compared with 1,189 in Fall of 2005 and 1,230 in Fall 2006.
According to the Modern Language Association Survey, enrollment in foreign language classes among students at two- and four-year institutions of higher education increased by 13 percent. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of students studying Arabic increased by 126.5 percent, from 10,584 to 23,974, and the number of students studying Chinese increased by 50 percent, from 34,153 to 51,842.
The Modern Languages department at the college began offering classes in Arabic and Chinese in the fall of 2005 and enrollment in each has been steadily rising. In the 2005–06 academic year, 20 students took Arabic classes and 20 students took Chinese classes. This year, there are 28 students taking Arabic and 23 students
Gladys Varona-Lacey, professor and chair of the Department of Modern Languages, said the college only offers courses in Arabic and Chinese through the intermediate level but said eventually the program will assess whether or not it could establish a major in either language.
"I would like to see growth in both our Arabic and Chinese offerings," she said. "The Department of Modern Languages hopes to have minors in these two languages in the near future."
Students who wish to pursue studies in Arabic and Chinese beyond the intermediate level must take courses at Cornell University through the Ithaca College-Cornell Exchange Program. This semester, three students are taking language classes at Cornell.
Muna Aghawani, a professor of modern languages who teaches Arabic at the college and at Cornell, said the college is looking to hire a new Arabic professor. She said student interest could affect change.
"If there will be a demand to add more classes and different types of classes, like literature and translation, they will," she said. "So I actually do have faith in Ithaca College responding to students' needs. It's just a matter of building the program and having that right number of students to be in a class and so on."
Junior William Sterbenz said he was interested in taking Chinese because of China's rise as a world power.
"If I did government work or something, I could be able to talk to Chinese officials or something or do research in China," he said. "It would make things easier and would make me a worthwhile investment for a company or for some job."
He said he is applying for the Ithaca College-Cornell Exchange Program to study the language at Cornell, but even if he doesn't get in he will still start the program at Ithaca College.
"Hopefully I can master the language or come close to it," he said.
While sophomore Jon Hirschberg said that he would not apply for Cornell courses, partly because "commuting to Cornell would be a hassle," he said studying Chinese is important, especially because of China's prominence. He said there are also social benefits to learning a different language.
"You can get by on English, but knowing the other language helps your own mind sort of work it out, learn something new," he said. "And … if you're a man or a lady who knows another language, you're damn sexy."
Junior Daniel St. George takes Japanese classes at Cornell because they are not offered at the college. He said he would prefer to take classes on campus because of the inconvenient commute.
"It's a little expensive just because I have to use a paid parking lot, a parking meter," he said. "I mean, it's a quick drive across town, but other than that, it's not a big deal. It adds up after a while."
Varona-Lacey said more people are realizing how important knowing other languages is.
"I think people are more aware of the importance of foreign languages in other cultures, given geopolitical and economic realities," she said. "Also, students know that having knowledge of other cultures or languages enhances their marketability."