The Harvard language department reports a similar but more sustained interest in Arabic and Chinese, with more students both beginning and continuing their linguistic studies.
According to the MLA, nationwide enrollment in Arabic-language courses has more than doubled, rising 126 percent from 2002 to 2006, while enrollment in Chinese-language courses has increased by 50 percent.
Harvard, during the same time period, has seen the number of students taking either language rise by more than 50 percent, according to data compiled from the Harvard Registrar.
Increased interest in China and the Arabic-speaking countries has contributed to the recent trend.
“Islam as a global issue is more of an interest to students,” said Arabic professor William Granara, connecting this interest to political developments in the Middle East. “More and more kids are interested in Arabic as a language, where there is high media interest.”
The participation in Harvard’s Arabic introductory classes has more than doubled, from 41 students beginning Arabic A in ’01-’02 to 91 starting the same class in ’05-’06. Over the same period, enrollment in introductory-level Chinese increased more modestly from 99 to 117 students.
In general, more people study a language in areas of economic growth, said C. Rose Cortese, Language Program Coordinator in the Department of East Asian Languages and Civilizations. She noted an increased interest in Japanese during the earlier period of Japanese economic growth.
Nationwide, many students appear to be dipping into Arabic and Chinese, but not continuing their studies. According to the MLA report, the ratio between introductory level and upper-level enrollments is still dramatic, citing an 8 to 1 ratio for Arabic and a 9 to 2 ratio for Chinese.
At Harvard, by contrast, the ratio between introductory-level and upper-level students is roughly 2 to 1, Cortese said.
Overall, the study of foreign languages has been viewed as an advantage for students.
“Students often see the study of language as a way to bridge from their native culture to the culture of others,” said Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA. “Many students also hope to use the languages they study in their careers.” However, she also noted that students might discontinue a language after fulfilling requirements, or be discouraged by its difficulty.