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Foreign frenzy

Foreign language study becomes increasingly important for students in globalized world

January 20, 2011

It was Dan Redford’s third summer studying in China, but this time, his skills were being put to the test at the global level.

Redford worked as a student ambassador at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai, helping to coordinate Chinese officials’ visits to the U.S. Pavilion, a building used during the expo to showcase American innovations. It was an exhibit that attracted nearly 50,000 visitors a day as part of a record-setting fair. And Redford said it was difficult to describe how busy the exhibit became.

“It’s really unimaginable how packed it was,” he said.

More than 73 million people visited the site during six months to peruse arenas from countries around the world.

Redford was responsible for coordinating visits to the U.S. building from Chinese party leaders and government officials and had the chance to give a tour of the expo to Derek Fisher from the Los Angeles Lakers.

But one of his favorite parts was seeing just how surprised the Chinese visitors were that he could speak their language — and fluently, at that.

“They were almost always surprised — it was really cool,” said Redford, a 2010 alumnus who graduated with a degree in international relations and Chinese. “A lot of the other countries didn’t have in-house native people that could speak Chinese.”

Foreign craze
Redford is one of a growing number of undergraduate students studying foreign languages outside of the traditional norms.

Although the number of undergraduate students taking foreign language classes at universities nationwide stayed steady from 2006-09, the variety of languages they studied continued to climb, and Chinese is growing at one of the highest rates, according to a December 2010 survey by the Modern Language Association of America.

Redford’s interest in the language came after studying globalization during his freshman year in James Madison College.

When his friend signed up for a Chinese course sophomore year, he decided to join.

“Everywhere across the world, everyone has to learn a second language,” Redford said. “It’s a way of learning how the world works that America unfortunately has not been exposed to.”

According to the MLA survey, students studying Chinese jumped 18.2 percent from 2006-09 among undergraduates in the U.S. The numbers are second only to Arabic, which posted gains of more than 46 percent. Spanish and French — the two languages that have the highest numbers of enrolled students — both grew about 5 percent, continuing to show their popularity.

“The figures of Chinese students coming here are huge,” Redford said. “The task of our generation is about learning those languages.”

Job asset
Although some students stray from majoring in a foreign language because the degrees immediately don’t lead to high-paying jobs, knowing another language can serve as a support skill for many different professions, said Tom Lovik, chair of the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages.

“Students are getting the message that languages are important for future occupations, and the majors on campus are recognizing the value of languages,” he said.

When applying for positions in companies in the southern U.S., fluency in Spanish can be a big boost, said Kelley Bishop, executive director of Career Services. Worldwide, in areas with rising economies, such as South America and China, knowing a foreign language also can give students a big leg up with businesses that have a presence there, Bishop said.

Besides the speaking skills themselves, learning a foreign language gives students a respect for other cultures they might not gain otherwise, he said.

“Employers have been telling us this loud and clear: If you’re not interculturally competent, we’re not going to be able to hire you,” Bishop said.

Most employers will not turn a graduate away who is not fluent in another language, but some recruiters and government agencies come to campus specifically to find students with unique language abilities — especially ones studying less commonly taught languages, or LCTLs, Bishop said.

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The number of students in LCTL programs grew by 24 percent from the fall of 2006 to the fall of 2010, said LCTL Coordinator Danielle Steider. The variety of languages also increased from 11 to 15 during that time, now including Korean, Hindi, Indonesian, Thai, Persian, Turkish and a variety of African languages, she said.

There are many motivations for students to study these languages: Some have a personal or academic interest in a country; others want to pursue government or military careers; and some like the small class size and individual attention available for the languages, Steider said.

Government funding for these more obscure languages also has increased, giving universities the ability to offer more LCTLs, she said.

“With the increase in publicity about the language crisis the country is facing, more students are thinking about other languages as options,” Steider said in an e-mail.

Middle Eastern interest
Students studying Arabic also have seen a boom at MSU, tripling from 59 students studying Arabic in 1999 to more than 193 students last semester, said Anne Baker, assistant director of the MSU Arabic Language Flagship Instruction program.

The surge began after Sept. 11 and the media storm that followed when the U.S. government realized it did not have enough members who spoke critical languages, including Arabic, Baker said.

“It’s clearly related to national security, but there are a lot of other benefits related to economics and global competitiveness that come with learning Arabic,” she said.

The Flagship program was designed in 2007 to teach students to speak Arabic at the professional level and currently has about 40 students enrolled, Baker said.

Before completion, the program requires students to study and intern for a fall and spring semester in Alexandria, Egypt, she said.

“A lot of students reach proficiency after four years, but it’s a big jump to go from the advanced level to the superior level,” Baker said. “Students really need that experience overseas.”

Rakeena Barnes, a sophomore interdisciplinary studies in social science and international studies, joined the program her freshman year, excited about the specialized, smaller classes and getting the chance to study a language outside of the Latin script.

Although the Arabic letters look very different than what Americans are used to and Barnes didn’t have a Middle Eastern background, she said the language is a lot like math: There are rules for everything — they just have to be followed.

“The exclusivity I’d say makes it more exciting,” Barnes said. “When it comes to one culture that most Americans don’t really know or misunderstands, (it’s) Arabs.”

Barnes said she hopes to spend time overseas after she graduates and possibly teach English as a second language later on.

The U.S. is militarily involved in the Middle East, and more people are becoming interested in learning Arabic — but for now, Barnes said she still feels like she’s part of a small group.

“I feel like I’m one in a million,” she said.

Spanish going strong
Though Arabic studies might be on the rise, enrollments in Spanish nationwide still top all other languages combined, said Emily Spinelli, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.

College students studying Portuguese also are climbing, primarily, because Brazil’s economy is one of the top 10 in the world, she said.

Dominique Sanchez, a Spanish and human biology junior, said she decided to study Spanish after studying it all throughout high school.

“I know Spanish will be really helpful in my future career as a doctor… if I have patients who only speak Spanish or need to travel to Spanish-speaking countries for work,” she said.

Foreign languages go in and out of popularity, Spinelli said. In 1900, the most popular language to study was Latin. The economy and national security all play a role in what languages college students decide to study, she said.

“If you listen to what’s happening in Washington, D.C., as well as at the state level, there are an increasing number of people talking about the importance of learning a foreign language in the 21st century,” Spinelli said. “Whether or not they put money behind it is another question.”

Colleges and universities across the country have been faced with foreign language department cuts, closings and mergers in recent years, according to the MLA.

At MSU, the Department of Spanish and Portuguese merged with the Department of French, Classics and Italian earlier this year, forming the Department of Romance and Classical Studies. The two departments originally had been one before 2003, but administrators decided to bring the departments back together last year, citing reasons including reducing administrative costs and increasing collaboration.

“It was a noble experiment that … didn’t work as hoped,” said Provost Kim Wilcox at an October meeting of the Executive Committee of Academic Council.

Once the Wells Hall addition is complete, the department will move there, close to the Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African Languages.

MSU’s commitment to foreign language continues to be strong, emphasized by its leading status in study abroad programs nationwide, Lovik said.

“Our approach to teaching is more practical and has helped to avoid some of the wrenching closures other institutions have had to take,” he said.

Using the language
MSU also receives a growing number of students from abroad. The number of students from the Middle East grew from 165 in 2007 to 309 in 2010, and students from Asia grew even further, from 2,829 in 2007 to nearly 4,200 in 2010.

It’s numbers such as those that have kept Redford in the Lansing area, putting his Chinese degree to good use.

He now serves as the director of the China Creative Space for the Gillespie Group, working on plans to create a Chinese community center near Chandler Crossings. The space will serve to help Chinese students meet professionals in the area and become more integrated in the community, he said. Over time, he hopes it will grow into a “living village,” complete with a Chinese market, grocery store and restaurant.

“People in the Lansing area are just like anyone else — they want to become more global,” Redford said.


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