Foreign language majors small in number but not on the decline

The idea that foreign language is one of the fields in decline may be a misconception.

At St. Edward’s University, Spanish, the only language major the university offers, is one of the majors with the fewest number of students. As of the fall 2010 enrollment numbers, 11 students were listed as Spanish majors, according to the St. Edward’s 2010-2011 Fact Book, released by the Office of Institutional Research.

Jann Randle, a professor of Spanish and Linguistics, said there [may actually be] as many students as in other years taking languages other than English. However, graduate school enrollments and undergraduate majors have been dropping in many languages.

Professor of English Writing and Rhetoric Mary Rist said Louisiana State University, for example, is eliminating its graduate French program, but not its undergraduate program.

“Graduate programs in languages have been declining,” she said.

However, Randle said the idea that the languages are in decline, especially at the undergraduate level, is a common misconception.

“It is true that university administrators and local school boards find languages easy to dispense with … because—supposedly—everybody speaks English both here and abroad,” Randle said. “The truth is that the U.S. has never had a more urgent need for its citizens to be able to speak other languages—in our hospitals, police forces, schools, [and] local governments and businesses at home and abroad,” she said.

Randle said one of the reasons languages seem to be in decline is that many students have opted to double major in a foreign language and another major.

“Nowadays at [St. Edward’s] many of our majors in Spanish, and probably in the future in our new French major, take a double major,” Randle said. “These students show up in the records as Communications, Global Studies, International Business, English Writing or other majors since they often choose that major first and then realize that facility in another language will be a definite asset to them after graduation.”

In addition, Randle said that 20 years ago, Spanish professor Miguel Niño developed a degree plan called Spanish/International Business that had much success. The number of Spanish majors began to decline 10 years later, once the School of Business introduced its own major in International Business, which had a strong focus on Spanish.

Randle said there is a need to devote more time to understanding and appreciating the culture of countries where other languages are spoken.

“This is a special challenge,” she said, “since three hours per week barely provides contact time for language development.”

The recent addition of a French major at St. Edward’s has shown that language may not be in decline, but perhaps is even an expanding field at the university.

Some students have voiced concerns that it is difficult to enroll in classes that fulfill major requirements for the smaller majors, such as the languages. For example, a Feb. 9 article published in Hilltop Views reported that Lesli Simms voiced her concern at a Student Government Association senate meeting that she found it difficult to enroll in classes to fulfill her English Literature major, a major with 46 students enrolled as of fall 2010.

However, Rist said this may not be the case.

“I think [classes for less populated majors] are offered in the right rotations,” she said.

Although the languages are among the smaller of the majors at St. Edward’s, the Spanish major has consistently had between seven to 11 students who have enrolled since fall 2002.

Other fields have been steadily increasing in enrollment numbers. Psychology, for example, which has been the most popular major since fall 2005, has grown steadily over the years, from 179 students enrolled in fall 2002 to 357 students enrolled as of fall 2010. Communication, Biology, and, more recently, English Writing and Rhetoric closely follow Psychology as the most popular majors.