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Language classes see drop in enrollment

Students’ academic interests in STEM fields may affect decisions to study foreign languages

Neel Virdy ’17 didn’t tell his parents when he decided to take Hindi during his first semester at Brown. Both his parents were born in India, and his mother speaks the language, so they were both delighted when Virdy came home for break and surprised them by stringing together sentences in the language.

“They were happy I was taking (Hindi),” said Virdy, a member of The Herald’s web staff. “And that’s more motivation to keep taking it.”

But while some students revel in their new language skills, many others are choosing not to take language classes. Around 200 fewer students enrolled in foreign language courses at Brown this year than last, said Elissavet Amanatidou, senior lecturer in language studies and classics and director of the Center for Language Studies. This decline follows several years of fairly steady enrollment.

“Enrollments in languages have always been subject to the vicissitudes of financial considerations (and) trends in academic interests,” she said, adding that this year’s language enrollment drop may not reflect a decline in interest in foreign languages, but rather an increase in interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This expanded interest in STEM fields is evidenced by the top three indicated concentrations for the class of 2018, which were engineering, biology and computer science, The Herald previously reported.

“Many of our students who embark on a STEM concentration, they have a very, very heavy schedule,” she said, “and that leaves them with very little room to take any language in their four years here.”

Another factor contributing to the decline may be the University’s arrangement to provide community members with free access to Rosetta Stone language learning software for the first time this year, Amanatidou said, though she added that there in no conclusive evidence to support this linkage.

But Rosetta Stone cannot promise the educational quality of language courses:“With the exception of immersion in the society of the target language, there is no substitute for the classroom,” Amanatidou wrote in a follow-up email.

Though overall language enrollment numbers are down this year, certain languages — such as Arabic and Chinese — have seen rising interest over the last several years, Amanatidou said.

Senior Lecturer in East Asian Studies Yang Wang, who has taught Chinese at Brown since 2005, said enrollment in the program is in line with national trends in Chinese learning. From 2005 to 2010, enrollment in Chinese courses rose “steadily,” she said, and after dropping slightly, it seems to have leveled off.

A combination of factors influences enrollment trends in a particular language, Amanatidou said.

For example, many students “study Chinese because they think it’s good for their career,” Wang said.

While languages commonly taught in high schools, like French and Spanish, have maintained relatively steady enrollments, those that “do not seem to be tied to a more general program of study” have not attracted many students recently, Amanatidou said, adding that Catalan, for example, is not being offered this year due to a lack of interest.

Another potential explanation for the declining enrollment may lie in the daily classroom commitment required by introductory language courses, which may dissuade students from launching study of a new language in college, Amanatidou said, adding that “foreign language classes at the lower level require daily engagement and daily commitment, and sometimes our classes really cut through the schedule.”

The introductory Hindi course, for example, meets five days a week for an hour per session and requires a year-long commitment.

“You have to commit to a full year of it, and you know you won’t learn enough in one year to just stop,” Virdy said of Hindi. “I think that’s true in a lot of languages here.”

The inverse of this holds true for more commonly taught languages, with enrollment holding steady because many students “already come with language skills” and can place into higher levels that require less of an in-class commitment, Amanatidou said. For example, students with prior experience can test into FREN 0600: “Writing and Speaking French II,”  which only meets for three hours a week.

Vibrant study abroad programs also incentivize students to take advanced courses in these more common languages, Amanatidou said, as many of these programs require French and Spanish.


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