Spanish booms in U.S. universities


Habla Espanol? More people do these days.

Driven by a complex of demographic and economic factors and changing preferences in education, Spanish, the first European language established in North America, is reasserting itself.

"It's pretty much crucial in today's world," said Neha Vapiwala, 19, a pre-med major at the Johns Hopkins University who also majors in Spanish. "I know one of my professors whose niece is a doctor, and she got an incredible job in Chicago because she could work with kids in a neighborhood that is primarily Spanish-speaking and underrepresented in doctors."

Ashley Cranmer, a 19-year-old sophomore at Loyola College, said: "The up-and-coming field here is to have an international business major with a minor in Spanish. Spanish helps you in your own country as well as abroad."

Juliet Bodinez, 28, a Spanish major from Towson State University, is job hunting. But her aim is not to have an academic career, a frequent path for many language majors. "I plan to visit Spanish language television stations in Washington and video producers," she said.

Spanish has been the most commonly studied foreign language in high schools and univer- sities in this country for decades. But recently there has been an explosion of interest in the language.

The Johns Hopkins University reports nearly a 100 percent rise in undergraduates studying Spanish from 1987 to 1994. Randy Donaldson, chairman of the Department of Modern Languages at Loyola, said: "We have seen a 20 percent increase over the last three years in students opting for Spanish." And the University of Maryland at College Park had a 30 percent increase in Spanish majors in the past decade.

The story is the same across the country. Harriet Turner, head of modern languages at the University of Nebraska, at Lincoln, said that half the 6,000 students in language courses there are studying Spanish. Many freshmen are in advanced courses, which reflects the language's popularity in high schools, she said.

With about 18 million speakers, Spanish is already this country's unofficial second language, its use more widespread than that of French in Canada. The bilingualism once characteristic of the Southwest and West, Florida and parts of New York City has spread to small towns in Delaware, into the Midwest and South, even to East Baltimore.

At the expense of French

The advance of Spanish in the universities has been made mostly at the expense of French, which, according to figures published by the Modern Language Association of America (MLA), declined in terms of student interest by nearly 30 percent between 1968 and 1990.

Spanish has even made significant advances in regions with strong French cultural influence. For instance, at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, where French is widely spoken, Spanish surpassed French in the number of students studying it at the college level over the past five years.

The trend is evident even beyond the United States. Pauline Frixione, at English-speaking McGill University in Canada's Quebec Province, said: "Everybody here wants to learn Spanish."

While Spanish has been advancing for a long time, the fastest-growing foreign language on U.S. campuses is Japanese, which recorded a 957 percent increase in the number students between 1968 and 1990, according to the MLA. Numerically, however, it is not impressive: Only 45,717 students were studying Japanese in 1990.

By contrast, the number of college students taking Spanish tripled between 1960 and 1990 to a record 533,944 -- half of all those studying a foreign language at the college level, according to the MLA.

Demographic factor

The most obvious factor behind the surge toward Spanish is the increase in the number of Hispanics born in or coming into this country. The U.S. Bureau of the Census estimates that they will account for more than 20 percent of the population in the next 55 years.

Hispanic students are increasingly studying the language of their parents. Roberta Lavine of the Spanish department at the University of Maryland College Park described courses about Latino culture as a "growth area."

Students also increasingly believe that Spanish is the most practical second language a North American can learn. And French and German are no longer considered elite languages in academia.

According to Dr. Norris Lacy of Washington University, in St. Louis, French may also have been diminished by changing social attitudes: "French profited for a long time from the perception it was some kind of elite language when compared to Spanish, but more recently with the change in the political or educational climate, a greater democratization of education, French has suffered from that -- being elite, belonging to high culture -- where Spanish was seen as having a broader base in practical use."

In 1970, Spanish assumed first place at the college level nationally. (It had been in first place in public high schools since 1948.)

Robert L. Nicholas, head of the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (where Spanish is "going through the roof"), said: "I talk to dozens of students who, for their future, say they need Spanish."

Edward Benson, 21, a Hopkins senior with a double major in computer engineering and Spanish, thinks, with many of his fellow students, that the language might help him get a job. "Since Spanish is becoming more and more important here in America, there definitely will be companies interested in having bilingual engineers," he said.

His expectation is not unrealistic. Last year, KPMG Peat Marwick, an international consulting firm, published a survey of 936 top executives of U.S. businesses. They were asked if they intended to hire people fluent in Spanish in response to Mexico's inclusion in the North American Free Trade Agreement. About 40 percent said they already had or were planning to.

Dr. Turner of Nebraska sees the Peat Marwick survey as confirmation of a trend familiar to her. "Our people understand that if they are lawyers or doctors or social workers, or if they are in international business, they are going to speak Spanish," she said.

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