Languages Change in Popularity Over the Years

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Languages change in importance over time—it wasn’t all that long ago that the global lingua franca was, well, French. As this first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, Spanish is on its way to becoming a native language to the United States, and Chinese and Arabic have found themselves near the top of the international relevance scale. The languages that Swarthmore students study, to a certain extent, follow these trends: record numbers of students are showing interest in Arabic and Chinese, while only a few choose to pursue Russian.

The number of students enrolled in introductory French, German, and Japanese during the fall semester is consistent with the numbers from previous years, but the Chinese program is growing. Introductory Chinese now has seventeen students and is for the first time has been split into two sections. Third year Chinese is also an unprecedented size, with 33 students. “This tells us that students are placing into intermediate courses after studying the language in high school and other students are sticking with the language they began. I don’t know if this is the product of the growth of the Chinese language worldwide or thanks to our wonderful instructors!” said Russian professor Sibelan Forrester, head of the Modern Language and Literatures Department.

Provost Constance Hungerford agrees. “There is a lot of unevenness in enrollment patterns,” she said. “It’s hard to know if an internal factor is affecting the number of students taking a class or if the data is representative of a larger trend.”

Arabic is another burgeoning language at Swarthmore. New lecturers have been added to the teaching staff and there are multiple introductory classes to accommodate the 35 first year students, the largest number in any introductory level class. Alaina Brown ’13, a first-year Arabic student, said she was motivated to learn the language out of a desire to “understand first-hand the culture of the Middle East.” Professor Forrester responded to her comment, saying “I think a lot of students at Swarthmore want to make the world a better place. The Middle East is an area of conflict and Arabic is a useful tool to people interested in resolving cultural issues.”

Russian in the eighties was in about the same situation as Arabic is now, experiencing increasing popularity. After the end of the Cold War, however, many Russian programs began shutting down. “It was a statement of victory. We won the war, so we don’t need to bother with that language,” Forrester said. This fall, seven students are enrolled in beginning Russian, and there are three probable Russian majors across the sophomore, junior, and senior classes.

“I took Russian during my gap year,” Russian major Julia Soper ’10 said. “I wanted to do something new, far from home, and challenging.” When asked what she planned to do with her major Soper replied, “I think I will end up working as a translator, but after you study Russian for a while you get job offers from the CIA and NSA.” According to Soper, Russian apparently has not lost its relevance to the political sphere.

“Languages like Chinese and Arabic might potentially fade from American curriculums, but Spanish is no longer a foreign language,” Forrester said. Spanish, unlike Chinese, Arabic and Russian, is offered in most high schools. Many Swarthmore students have had the opportunity to take Spanish before, but this year’s beginning level class has eighteen students, a larger number than previous years. Forrester notes that, “Students are choosing Spanish because of its pervasiveness at home. It is a practical language.”

While an increasing number of students are drawn to languages with perceived growing relevance in the world, a steady number of students still gravitate towards languages not used in “practical transactions.” Chairperson and Professor of the Classics Department Rosaria Munson said, “We have a steady rate of students studying Latin and Greek, and a large portion of our majors go onto graduate school.” For languages not spoken in the modern world, maintaining steady interest is perhaps no mean feat.

Despite the recent fluctuations in language enrollment there are no plans to either add or drop a language from the Swarthmore curriculum. It is in part up to student interest to decide which languages will continue to grow.

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