Foreign-language enrollments are a bit like hemlines: They zip up and down with the social and economic trends that swirl around them.
And in the United States today, interest in some traditional European languages has fallen near the floor. Between 1990 and 1998, enrollment in French language classes at US institutions of higher learning dropped 27 percent, while German enrollments fell 33 percent.
Spanish, on the other hand, has jumped by 23 percent -a gain that some foreign-language enthusiasts fret may be too large. "Spanish is huge and threatens to block out the others," says Michael Katz, dean of languages and international studies at Middlebury (Vt.) College.
But, he adds, ebb and flow in language popularity is nothing new. German was the first language school opened by Middlebury in 1914 in response to World War I. World War II spurred the opening of the Russian school in 1945, and peace efforts in the Middle East brought about the Arabic school in 1982.
In 2000, "Russian is still declining, but less rapidly," says Professor Katz. "Chinese is going steadily up although we saw a tremendous drop-off after Tiananmen Square. Japanese was doing well until the Asian economic crisis. Arabic is doing very well and will probably boom with a settlement between Palestine and Israel."
But some attractions defy both logic and politics. After some years of decline, enrollment in Italian language classes nationwide jumped 12.6 percent between 1995 and 1998. As far as Katz can tell, the reasons for the growth have nothing to do with economics or strategy. "Italy is fun," he points out. "People like going there."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society