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Rethinking the decline of language education

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A few weeks ago, I attended a lecture by Dr. Brandon King ’05 on the parallels between legalism and contemporary education. Dr. King graduated with a Chinese major from Swarthmore, and in his year, 19 students graduated with a Chinese major or a minor. Given my drill section for “First-Year Chinese” had only six students, the enrollment statistics in previous years surprised me: why was the enrollment abnormally low? Before 2016, the first-year Chinese class always had more than 20 students. In 2016, the number dropped to eight. In 2017, it increased slightly to ten. According to conversations I have had with some professors, other modern language classes experience similar decreases in enrollment. What exactly is happening to language enrollment?

Let’s take a look at some enrollment statistics to answer our question. According to the Common Data Set of the class of 2017, the number of students majoring in natural science and engineering division has risen steadily since 2010. Swarthmore students normally four credits of classes per semester, and since the number of classes students can take are limited that more students study S.T.E.M. equate fewer studying Humanities. Figure 1 demonstrates this trend. The percentage of students majoring in S.T.E.M. rises from 30 percent in 2010 to 44 percent in 2017, whereas that in humanities drops from 25 percent in 2010 to 16 percent in 2017. In contrast to the other divisions, the social science division grants more or less the same number of majors throughout the years. The enrollment in Modern Language and Literatures suffers as well. According to Figure 2, the percentage of students majoring in M.L.L. has dropped since 1995.

It is necessary to recognize that the percentage of majors granted does not necessarily indicate the number of students enrolled across different divisions. A student who majors in biology, for instance, may have taken some philosophy classes. Nevertheless, these percentages can reflect to some extent the interests of students across different class years. Overall, these statistics suggest that an increasing number of S.T.E.M. majors accounts for the enrollment decline in M.L.L. and humanities.

What drives the decline of foreign language enrollment? One possible explanation is that Swarthmore students are less interested in learning new languages. This claim holds some truth to a certain extent. After all, students are encouraged to take classes that are the most engaging and relevant to them. However, there are many reasons to doubt that the decline of interest in languages explains the entire situation. Language opens many opportunities and enriches one’s life. Those who know more languages can communicate with more people and understand how they think. As a student who learns English as a second language, I am grateful for my decision to immerse myself in English during high school. Had I not learnt English, I would not have received an opportunity to study in the U.S. and interact with many brilliant minds at Swarthmore. Similar benefits apply when one learns any other languages.  Considering how interconnected today’s world is and how quickly countries that do not speak English fluently are growing, Swarthmore students should want to learn more, not fewer, languages.

The intensity of language classes at Swarthmore provides further reason to learn new languages. Without sufficient reinforcement and daily practice, new language learners can easily forget what they have previously learnt. When I started learning English, I was not attending an international school. Every week, I was exposed to only two hours of English classes. That those classes had over 50 students meant it was extremely difficult for students to make any significant progress. Had I not spent an hour reading English newspapers every day, my English would never have improved enough so that I can study in the U.S. Taking language classes at Swarthmore, therefore, is effective: the small class sizes allow professors to interact with students and better reinforce language skills. Were Swarthmore to have introductory classes where students meet only twice or thrice every week, students may take language classes for years without making any significant progress. Moreover, once Swarthmore students graduate, they will have to spend a large amount of time working, attending graduate schools, and so on, which means they will not be able to commit to learning languages as much as when they are still at Swarthmore.

In essence, languages are useful, and one of the best times for Swarthmore students to learn them is at Swarthmore. The more plausible explanation for the decline of language enrollment is that students do not feel they can commit or do not have the availability to commit to learning languages.

To begin with, learning a language is a huge commitment. Most introductory language classes at Swarthmore have 1.5 credits: students are required to meet as well as complete homework on a daily basis. To receive any credits, students must take two semesters of that language; otherwise, they receive none. The opportunity cost faced by students learning any new languages is that they will not have much opportunity to explore classes. Speaking from experience, several friends of mine decided not to take language classes merely because they are afraid of committing two hours every day for an entire year to learn the languages.

That more Swarthmore students take S.T.E.M. classes creates scheduling problems as well. Unlike most humanities classes, S.T.E.M. classes have stringent prerequisites: unless students follow through certain series of classes, they cannot progress to the more advanced class and thus have to wait for the next semester or an academic entire year. Take computer science for instance. Swarthmore’s computer science department offers introductory classes: CS 21, CS 31, and CS 35. Unless students take CS 21, they cannot take CS31 and CS 35. Unless they take CS 35, they cannot take most upper-level courses. In many semesters, only one section of CS 31 and CS 35 are offered. Should those classes conflict with the language classes, students will face a dilemma of choosing between taking gateway classes in their prospective majors and the language classes.

The fact that Swarthmore does not have a strong language requirement also worsens this problem. Compared to other similar liberal arts institution, Swarthmore is laissez-faire on this issue. At Middlebury, for instance, students majoring in International and Global Studies are required to become proficient in some language other than English. At Carleton, students must take four or five trimesters of languages to place out of the language requirement. At Swarthmore, students can pass the language requirement by taking three years of language classes in high school, taking Advanced Placement Exams, or taking only one year of language class at Swarthmore. Because Swarthmore does not have a strong language requirement, students can graduate in virtually every major even if they have not fully developed their proficiency in any languages other than English.

Painful though they are, these two problems create the last problem: the lack of tenure-track faculty in M.L.L. departments. Many M.L.L. departments at Swarthmore have only one tenured professor. As the number of professors in any department depends upon the demand of classes in that department, a department which does not have high enrollment will not be able to hire more or offer more tenure tracks to professors. As a result, they cannot offer more sections to cater to the different tastes of students and also prevent students from continuously progressing in the language they enjoy. Realizing these facts, some students may choose not to study the language for fear their language is discontinued. The decline in M.L.L. enrollment is extremely problematic because the reasons for such decline all reinforce one another. With less demand for language education, there is less supply. Without less supply of language education, there is less demand.

Swarthmore should make an effort to solve this problem. The institution should conduct some college-wide surveys or public forums to better understand why students do or do not choose to take a language. Better class scheduling should also be implemented. If most introductory classes in the morning conflict with the language classes, language may increase their enrollment by switching some of their sections to the afternoon to cater to students’ availability. Language education is crucial to a liberal arts education. To combat the decline of language enrollment, we need to think critically about what the root causes of such decline rather than make presumptuous claims that students are simply not interested in language anymore.

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