Spanish makes up nearly 55 percent of all language classes
Erika Philbrick, The Oklahoma Daily
The OU Department of Modern Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics is the largest department on campus with 54 teachers, almost 5,000 students and 40,000 credits hours a year.
It serves students from those fulfilling a language requirement to those learning a new culture, department chair Pamela Genova said.
“We’re really trying to highlight the visibility of all our languages,” Genova said. “Having a second language — no matter what — is always valuable.”
Although some students choose to major in a language, the majority enroll for language requirements.
In Spanish classes, the latter makes up 80 percent of students, Spanish professor Shawn Gralla said.
“You had two years of Spanish in high school, and (when) you arrive at OU, you have to take 13 hours of language total. What are you going to chose?” Gralla said.
Oklahoma’s Spanish-speakers are 5.2 percent of the total population compared to 34.6 percent in Texas, according to a 2004 survey by the American Community Survey.
“Spanish language increased dramatically these last years,” Gralla said. “Twenty-five years ago, there were no Spanish radio or newspapers in the U.S. Nowadays, in any type of business, you are going to use Spanish at some point in your career, 100-percent sure.”
With around 100 Spanish majors and 500 Spanish minors, a lot of students don’t take time to study Spanish in depth but choose it because it saves time and money, Gralla said.
However, learning rare languages can be an asset and make students look smart and unique, Russian professor Emily Johnson said.
“Sometimes, making the unusual choices will take you to a wonderful place,” Johnson said.
In smaller language programs, students know each other better, and teachers can offer more personalized guidance, Johnson said. Often, they are really passionate about the language.
Gralla said he agrees.
“I have a feeling that the ones who choose the more complex languages — Arabic, Russian, Japanese and Chinese — do more of a pro-active choice because they have to learn not only a new language but also an entirely new alphabet,” he said.
These students are more involved in their languages as well.
“Eighty percent of our majors are doing double majors, and 80 to 90 percent of our students go abroad,” Johnson said. “Half of our majors will use Russian professionally, and that is a pretty high number.”
More and more students are starting to choose to study Arabic and Chinese, which are high priority of the American government.
The OU Confucius Institute, established in 2006, promotes the development of Chinese language programs for Oklahoma elementary, secondary and higher education schools, according to its website.
“China is paying to send professors to the U.S., and currently 8,000 students in Oklahoma in the K-12 are studying Chinese,” Genova said. “When they’ll arrive to college in a few years, the number of students taking Chinese will explode.”
The Arabic Language Flagship Partner Program by the College of International Studies also promotes the learning of a new language.
But what is a must-learn language right now may change in the future, Johnson said.
“Ten years ago, Japanese was the language to learn, and even before it was Russian, so I would say it’s cyclical,” Johnson said.
Whereas Spanish attracts the most people, Hebrew attracts less than 1 percent of language students at OU.
Some, like French senior Kyle Carlock, study it for personal reasons.
He has always liked languages and was intrigued by Hebrew having so much culture in it, Carlock said.
Although the number of Americans speaking a second language has increased by 15 million since 1990, but only about 20 percent of Americans regularly spoke a foreign language in 2000, according to the Census Bureau.
Americans may have a mindset they do not need to know foreign languages.
“Historically, it didn’t matter if it was the Roman Empire, the English Empire or the Spanish Empire,” Gralla said. “When you’re in an Empire, you don’t want to learn other countries’ languages because you’re the most powerful, and people have to learn your language. Currently, we’re in the American Empire — why would [Americans] learn other languages?”
But this mindset is what the languages department, with all its professors, students and courses, is trying to fight.
“That’s why we have to keep trying,” Genova said. “It’s too important not to.”