A growing number of college students are studying foreign languages, a trend propelled by greater interest in Arabic, a broader palette of languages being taught and more crowded language classes at community colleges, a new study finds.
But despite the strong interest, experts warn that foreign language study on campuses is in peril because of budget cuts and a dwindling number of graduate students who form the foundation of future college language faculties.
The latest figures from the Modern Language Association, released Wednesday, show that enrollment in foreign language courses grew 6.6 percent between 2006 and 2009, achieving a high mark since the study began in 1960.
While advocates of language study say any growth is good, things have slowed down since the group's previous report, which showed 12.9 percent growth between 2002 and 2006.
"This is a vulnerable time for language study," said Rosemary Feal, the association's executive director and a Spanish professor at the University of Buffalo. "While interest in language study remains strong and students are increasingly interested in studying a wide range of languages, opportunities to study languages may be threatened by program cuts at many colleges and universities."
Spanish remained the most popular language, with 864,986 students enrolled in classes, a 5 percent increase from 2006. Other European standbys such as French, German and Italian gained, too, but not as fast as other languages.
The biggest gainer was Arabic, which jumped to No. 8 from No. 10 on the list of most-studied languages.
Interest in languages often rise with world events, but many experts say Arabic is not a passing fad considering the long-term importance of U.S. relations with the Muslim world.
Enrollments in Arabic courses grew 46 percent, to 35,083. Other languages that saw double-digit enrollment gains include Korean (up 19 percent), Chinese (18.2 percent), American Sign Language (16.4 percent), Portuguese (10.8 percent) and Japanese (10.3 percent).
More than 244 less-commonly taught languages saw enrollment growth of more than 20 percent in total. More than 35 languages were being taught that were not in classrooms in 2006, including several Native American languages.
Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University, cites a variety of reasons for the growth of foreign language study: career opportunities, students motivated by their heritage, the rise of globalization and the importance of foreign languages as a cornerstone of a liberal arts education.
The report also shines a light on significant growth of language studies at two-year colleges — 14 percent between 2006 and 2009. Community colleges see more students in general during down economic times. But Feal also said more students see the job training perks to speaking another language.
"If a student is going into health care, it might be important to learn Vietnamese or Korean if it's spoken in the community," she said.
More disturbing to supporters of foreign language education is the 6.7 percent decline in graduate enrollments in foreign languages. While Feal said there are more qualified PhD holders than tenure-track positions in languages, the decrease "may limit avenues of study for a generation or more."
A thorough accounting of the foreign-language cutbacks at colleges is hard to come by. Robert Peckham, a professor of French at the University of Tennessee at Martin who has been sounding the alarm about the trend, said 70 programs at 39 institutions have either been eliminated or threatened in the last 30 months alone.
In Louisiana, some foreign-language students took part in a mock jazz funeral for the humanities after officials announced the elimination of majors in German and Latin and basic classes in other languages because of state budget cuts.
The similarly budget-challenged State University of New York announced this fall it would no longer let students major in French, Italian and Russian, citing the relatively low number of majors, among other factors.
"It's perplexing given the increased student demand," said Berman, of Stanford. "It's also perplexing given a decade or more of discussion about globalization and the need for Americans to become more aware of the world around them."
(This version CORRECTS the last name of Robert Peckham.)