Stanford undergraduates take languages for interest, not requirement

Feb. 1, 2013, 1:40 a.m.

Stanford undergraduates continue to take language courses out of interest rather than to fulfill a language requirement, according to the latest annual report from Stanford University Language Center.

Elizabeth Bernhardt, the director of the Language Center, attributes this trend to two main factors: better preparation in secondary school programs and students’ choice to “extend their linguistic repertoire” in a new language.

Spanish and French remain the two languages most commonly used to fulfill general and major requirements, while Chinese is the primary language studied out of interest.

The annual report also showed that students majoring in the social sciences, humanities and engineering have increasingly been studying Asian languages at the second-year level.

Chaofen Sun, coordinator of the Chinese language program coordinator, describes the program as having “a very balanced composition of composition of students,” not only in terms of majors but also in terms of levels and backgrounds.

While one big driving force behind this pattern is a changing global economy, there other factors. Bernhardt pointed out the increasing number of heritage speakers in the undergraduate student body who are interested in improving their pre-existing knowledge by honing their reading and writing skills.

“There is also a greater awareness of cultural ties, and a growing perception of California as a gateway to the Pacific Rim,” Bernhardt said. “We often don’t see ourselves that way, but that is an increasing vision among our undergraduates.”

According to Bernhardt, this would explain the growing interest in not only Japanese and Chinese, but also other lesser-spoken Asian languages such as Vietnamese and Korean.

Hee-Sun Kim, the Korean language program coordinator, noted the increasing incorporation of Korean elements into popular culture as a reason for the heightened interest in Korean language and studies. Most students enrolled in the department at Stanford begin studying the language from scratch.

Sun remembered Chinese being a less commonly taught language when he came to Stanford in 1991. The whole program had only 60 students at the time, while there are currently 400 students enrolled.

“Before, students wanted to learn Chinese because of the career opportunities,” Sun said. “Today, they are interested in learning both the language and the culture.”

He emphasized that learning a language is only the first step towards understanding a culture, and referenced newly introduced freshman seminars and strengthened higher-level Chinese courses as efforts on the part of the Chinese language program to sustain and increase interest in higher-level Chinese.

“The language program at Stanford is very well-structured and flexible, and so it is possible for us to quickly adapt to changes in student interest,” Sun said. “We get a lot of support from the University, and so expanding isn’t a problem.”

Bernhard noted that there seems to be increasing student demand for lesser known languages, and a lot of effort goes into channeling department budgets towards languages with high student interest.

Because of increased student demand, the Language Center has filled new full-time positions in Arabic, Hindi, French, and Portuguese. Vietnamese became so popular in the recent years that last quarter, different levels of Vietnamese language classes were offered.

Although this year has also seen changes in the language requirements for the Madrid program, Bernhardt said the basic principle concerning language requirements remains unchanged.

“Students understand that to stay competitive for BOSP programs they must take as much language as possible and not just the minimal amount,” Bernhardt said.

Bernhard stated that the Language Centre feels “blessed” to witness such a continued growth in enrollment.

“We are the largest sector of the undergraduate curriculum and that trend does not seem to be stopping, which we think is wonderful and a real tribute to how Stanford students think about the world and their role in it,” Bernhardt said.

In the future, the Language Center aims to offer a greater number of immersion programs and literature courses taught in the language in the view of developing and sustaining student proficiency, according to Bernhardt.

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