Saturday, April 20, 2024

Fewer students studying languages

The Washington Post recently released a report by the Modern Language Association that said fewer college students are enrolling in foreign language courses in college.

The Post article said this might be because of a larger variety of courses, such as computer science, that provide alternatives that wouldn’t have existed years ago when foreign language courses were more popular.

However, Plattsburgh State Associate Spanish Professor Fernando Iturburu said proficiency in a foreign language is not only a humanistic tradition, but it is also a practical need.

“The ideal situation, for me, would be that everybody here goes out and speaks — at least, to an intermediate level — (another) language, whether it be French or Spanish,” Iturburu said, “because you will be much better equipped to get that job.”

Iturburu said that because high schools have integrated foreign languages into their curricula, some college students are no longer obligated to take a foreign language.

“Roughly 100,000 fewer students took language classes in 2013 than did in 2009, the last time the association surveyed students,” the article said.

According to the MLA, 70,000 fewer students are currently taking Spanish classes.

Some may find this troubling.

Iturburu, who is from Ecuador, said 20 to 25 percent of the American population is Hispanic or of Hispanic origin.

“We walk the same streets. We breathe the same air,” he said. “We try to live in the same places, same cities, same neighborhoods, and so on. We are part of society. We are included in the economic life.”

Regardless of current trends, however, some still have a sense for foreign language.

PSUC Adjunct Lecturer of Communication Thomas Montanaro speaks, in order of proficiency: English, Spanish, French, Mandarin Chinese, Italian, Portuguese, German, Russian, Arabic and Anglo-Saxon, commonly known as Old English.

Montanaro said there are many benefits of graduating with a degree in language.

“With language, one of the primary purposes that we recognize is it’s a medium for communication,” Montanaro said. “Every language that I learned opens the door to more people I can converse with. At a personal level, you can either make friends or connections with more people of different backgrounds.”

Montanaro, who attended PSUC and obtained his bachelor’s degree in French and his master’s in Adolescence Education, said studying language helps with cultural awareness as well, as some of his closest friends speak a language other than English as their native languages. He also said a lot of companies look for foreign-language proficiency.

“It can be something as small as being one of those telemarketers, or receiving phone calls for human resources or customer service, to working at the UN,” Montanaro said. “Any job that is available now can be enhanced with second-language proficiency.”

However, Montanaro said a class in a foreign language is not simply about learning a language — students also learn about that language’s culture.

“You develop a bit of an appreciation, as well as a better understanding, of different cultures and countries and different values that people may have from different parts of the world,” he said. “Having that cultural awareness is very beneficial.”

According to a Dec. 3, 2010 article by the New York Times, SUNY Albany “has suspended French as a major,” due to “sweeping cutbacks in state aid.”

“The university announced this fall that it would stop letting new students major in French, Italian, Russian and the classics,” the Times reported.

Montanaro said some long-term consequences of cutting foreign language programs are a lack of multicultural awareness.

“We’re meeting people from different parts of the world,” Montanaro said, “and it’s a very strong disadvantage not to know a foreign language in this day and age.”

“Quite frankly, it makes us look very bad as a country too, that we kind of expect everyone to learn English, and if they don’t, they should stay in their country. That is not a mentality we should have as such a large country that the U.S. is.”

Nicole Novoa, a PSUC international business major with a French minor, is a native Spanish speaker. She said she believes people sometimes become intimidated by learning another language.

Novoa studied abroad in Paris and recalled having a friend who was integrating herself in the culture.

“In France, a girl was trying to talk in French and her English accent started coming out,” she said, “so she was really embarrassed.”

She encouraged those who might be on the fence to study foreign language.

“If you’re a good asset to your company, I’m sure they will pay for you to go to school,” Novoa said. “You just have to be committed and dedicated.”

Novoa said aspiring foreign-language learners shouldn’t be afraid of getting the accents down right away.
“It takes time,” she said.

Email Timothy Lyman at

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