By Jenny Thai
For some Stanford students, taking a foreign language means more than fulfilling a graduation requirement
College enrollment in foreign language classes showed an aggregated gain of 6.6 percent between 2006 and 2009, according to the Modern Language Association (MLA) 2009 Enrollment Survey. The trend is not surprising to some at Stanford, where undergraduates are not just learning new languages, but driving new trends.
“The recent MLA study shows that there has been growth in all of the top 10 most studied languages,” said Russell Berman, professor of German studies and comparative literature. “I believe this is because students recognize the opportunities in the global economy.”
Stanford had already placed tremendous value on the importance of foreign-language learning, as exemplified in a mandatory, one-year foreign-language requirement for graduation, according to Elizabeth Bernhardt, director of the Language Center and professor of German studies.
“A unique feature about Stanford is that the language program, which encompasses all the foreign language departments, is the largest sector of the undergraduate program, despite our ‘techie’ culture,” Bernhardt said.
While Stanford shares this rising enrollment trend with many other colleges, the popularity of less traditional languages, such as Chinese and Arabic, makes Stanford distinct from its peers.
“Our most enrolled language, of course, is Spanish,” Bernhardt said, “then followed by Chinese, which doesn’t happen at most universities.”
French, Arabic, Japanese and Italian enrollments are tied behind Chinese–a trend, Bernhardt notes, that also separates Stanford from other universities.
“If you went east of the Mississippi, you’d see a different pattern of enrollment,” Bernhardt said. “You’d see a growing enrollment in Chinese, but not to the extent we have here. You’d also see larger enrollment in German and Russian.”
The motivations of students enrolling in foreign languages are as varied as the languages themselves. Although most students take at least one year of foreign language to complete the graduation requirement, the reasons behind their drive to learn a language are often multi-faceted.
“I took a year of Arabic my freshman year,” said Will Monroe ’13. “I was also looking for a language to fulfill the requirement. Arabic seemed useful as it was important in world affairs. I also wasn’t interested in testing out of the language requirement, which I could have done with Spanish.”
Other students have found their first-year language experiences so satisfying that they choose to continue to take intermediate and advanced series, solely out of intellectual interest.
“I find Russian interesting because it’s not a Romance language, nor is it character-based like Japanese or Chinese,” said Rachel Fenichel ’13, who is currently taking third-year Russian. “It’s also very challenging grammatically.”
Part of the enthusiasm students acquire while taking advanced courses comes from seeing language in its original context.
“I like knowing there’s so much literature out there in Russian,” Fenichel said. “I’ve read short stories by great Russian authors. It’s exciting to read stuff that was not written specifically for class but for the people to really read.”
Other students have found that their study-abroad experiences escalated their interest in and appreciation for language.
“To me, studying Italian isn’t just learning the language,” said Michael Crayne ’12, who studied in Italy. “It’s also about learning about the Italian culture and history. Early on, and especially during my time studying in Florence, I discovered how rich the history of Italy is and how fascinating of a culture it is, rooted deeply in the past yet also very modern.”
While many students still choose to meet only the minimum language requirement, either by testing out or taking an introductory sequence, Bernhardt is confident students will continue to find reasons to further their foreign-language study.
Stanford students “understand and have a commitment to the Stanford tradition,” Bernhardt said, “which is to take the knowledge they have here and take [it] out to use in the world, no matter what kind of knowledge or skills they may be.”