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Language diversity in schools increases

Oct. 5, 2005

by TIFFANIE BLACKMON,staff writer

Across the country, students are becoming more interested in learning languages other than Spanish, which has become the second most popular dialect in North America as the Latin American demographic continues to grow nationally.

In Texas, the prominence of Spanish is changing the way school boards across the state are approaching foreign language education.

The Dallas Independent School District is requiring all administrators to become fluent in Spanish. It has erected several schools with a significant number of Spanish-speaking teachers to better educate children and their parents who communicate using Spanish as a primary language, according to officials in the DISD administration.

Despite that kindergartners are now learning Spanish as part of their daily curriculum to prepare them for the changing face of language in the state of Texas, other languages are emerging nationwide as the world's current events shift attention to other nations with very different foreign languages.

At Baylor, foreign languages have remained stable in terms of enrollment across various dialects, but what is apparent is the growth of the less commonly popular languages such as Arabic, Swahili and many of the Asian dialects.

"Since I arrived five years ago, the Arabic program enrollment has doubled," said Professor William G. Baker, Director of Asian & African Languages and lecturer in Arabic and Middle East Studies.

"Last year, we admitted 60 students to the program, which was too large, and this year, I had to turn students away."

Baker is the only lecturer available to conduct courses in the Arabic language.

"With this amount of growth, I think its time for Baylor to consider hiring a second professor due to the interest in the program," he said.

Baker believed Arabic's growing popularity was due to students' awareness of world events and trends as whole.

"At the beginning of the semester I ask students why they are taking Arabic," Baker said. "And I get all kinds of answers from (students) wanting to help (the United States) combat terrorism to wanting to be missionaries to wanting to be in business in the Arab world."

Dr. Michael Thomas, professor and director of the division of Spanish and Portuguese in the department of Modern Foreign Languages, was in agreement.

Baker's students' choice to take up learning an Arabic language was a reflection of the shift in students' interest away from traditional romance languages such as French and Spanish.

"It's true that there is an increase in Arabic languages because of the situation in the Middle East," Thomas said. "But Japan is considered to be of interest because of the economic growth there."

Judy Bowen, senior lecturer of economics, estimated China's growth at "approximately 90 percent in recent years and over the last 25 years."

Bowen described the "rapid rising middle class" and "the several million in the urban centers rising above adjunct poverty."

"Japan grew rapidly after World War II and that growth has slowed down now," Bowen said, "but (Japan's) economic growth is second only to the US in terms of (gross domestic product)."

According to Bowen, China, Japan and East Asia share a significant role in world economics, which is important to the U.S. because it has more trade with Asian countries than European countries.

"China and the U.S. are always strategically important to each other because of the bi-lateral relationship they share economically," said Xin Wang, Interdisciplinary Core professor and assistant professor of Chinese.

"In today's globalized society, its important for students to understand the working environment between the two nations with a future in multi-cultural and multi-lingual relations."

Because of the strong economic ties and a promising future in business and trade between the U.S. and Asian countries was surprised at how few of his students were business and economics-related majors.

"Many of my students are pre-med, pre-law, or from the BIC program," Wang said.

According to Wang, there used to be just one section of beginning level Chinese offered once during the course of the school year in the fall. There are now two sections.

"Lots of students have expressed interest in learning the language and the culture," Wang said. "And Baylor is making accommodations towards that trend with new programs like Baylor in China, which will begin in Beijing next summer."

Wang noted the College Board, which sponsors the Scholastic Aptitude Test administered to graduating high schools students each year, now offers a subject test on Chinese. This means a significant number of high schools across the country are now teaching the language and are offering it as an Advanced Placement course which qualifies for college credit on students' transcripts.

Dr. Manuel J. Ortuno, department chair of Modern Foreign Languages, said that despite growing numbers of enrollment in less commonly taught languages such as Arabic and Chinese, traditional languages such as Spanish and French have remained relatively stable.

"Spanish has the highest enrollment in the total department," Ortuno said. "Half of the students and faculty in the (Foreign Languages) department are in Spanish."

Over the last five years, the Spanish department has remained stable at about 1600 to 1700 students enrolled in related courses each year and French courses have enrolled an average of 500 students for several years now.

"German (courses) are probably suffering more than others," Ortuno said. "Because, there, we've lost some students."

German language course enrollment has decreased from about 250 students to between 175 and 200 students currently enrolled in such courses.

"The interest in these languages has to do with things going on in the world," said Baker. "People are realizing we aren't just in a little bubble here by ourselves and we have to prepare ourselves for that kind of a future."