The Shifting Experience of Self   /   Spring 2011   /    Essays And Short Takes

The Language Deficit

From the Editors

Study Abroad Program, Costa Rica; flickr.

The September 11, 2001, attacks, followed by the military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, spurred an important debate over the “language deficit” in the United States—our inability to communicate with or understand crucial areas of the world. The Modern Language Association (MLA), for example, commissioned and published a study calling for curricular reform in higher education that would address the need for increased language instruction that also fully incorporates cultural and historical reflection. 

In December, the MLA released a new study of U.S. colleges and universities that shows that the study of languages other than English is both growing and diversifying. 

The three most studied languages remain Spanish, the overwhelming favorite, followed by French and German. While each of these grew in enrollments since the last report in 2006, the largest percentage increases came elsewhere. Enrollment in Arabic language courses grew by 46.3 percent after a 126.5 percent increase between 2002 and 2006. Arabic is now the 8th most studied language. Enrollments in Korean grew 19.1 percent (14th most studied), Chinese grew 18.2 percent (7th most studied) and American Sign Language grew 16.4 percent (4th most studied). 

These statistics are certainly good news: student interest in language learning is rising. In terms of the MLA’s other goal, of situating language study within cultural and historical frames, the picture is less rosy. In most university language departments, literature and culture are not typically an integral part of the language sequence but are the topics of upperlevel courses and taken by far fewer students. Budget cuts at universities, which have led to the closing or shrinking of some language departments, suggest we shouldn't expect this to change any time soon.

See the MLA report at http://www.mla. org/2009_enrollmentsurvey.

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