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Russia: American Students Say 'Nyet' To Russian Language Study

  • Julie Moffett

Washington, 14 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- A report published in the United States says American university students are dramatically less interested in studying the Russian language than just five years ago.

The annual report, published last week by the Modern Language Association of America, says Chinese and Arabic are the fastest-growing foreign languages in the United States, while enrollment in Russian, German and French classes is dropping. The results are based on data for the year 1995 and were collected from nearly 3,000 American institutions of higher education.

In a similar 1990 study, the Russian language held a strong sixth place, having surged in popularity during the 1980s.

But with the end of the Cold War, interest in Russian apparently waned and the figures for enrollment in Russian courses began to steadily decline.

The 1995 figures for the study of the Russian language relegated it to a distant 11th place, even lower than such languages as Ancient Greek and Latin. The drop in enrollment was far more drastic than any other language, a 44.6 percent decrease since 1990.

"We see a general tie between international developments and American students' interest, including Russian," Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the association, told RFE/RL.

"For a long time, the study of Russian had been tied to security issues, and the American government had identified it as a language of critical need," she added. "With the conclusion of the Cold War, that need declined."

Spanish, with more than 600,000 students enrolled, remains the most popular foreign language in the United States. French and German remain in second and third place, respectively, as they have for years, despite significant decreases in enrollment over the past few years.

Franklin says heightened interest in the Middle East is a major factor luring students away from the traditionally popular languages and enticing them to learn Arabic and Hebrew.

"We see a definite connection between international developments and a burst of interest in a particular language," Franklin observed.

She also noted that economics seems to play a role in guiding American students to the language of their choice.

Statistics in the report indicate that the Chinese language is making a steady comeback in America. Interest in the language fell dramatically after the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy students in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Students want to learn Chinese now, Franklin says, primarily because many of them see China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore -- all places where Chinese is spoken -- as some of the fastest-growing economic markets in the world.

Franklin added that despite the apparent apathy of American students today toward the Russian language, she is confident interest will surge again.

"Russian is too important a language for it not to make a comeback," she said. "Far too important."

The report covered only the 12 most popular languages in the United States, the 12th category being all "other languages." The latest report is the 18th in an series of reports that have been conducted since 1958. They are funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Education.

The Modern Language Association of America is an organization of 31,000 university instructors and scholars that encourages the study of languages.