Declining interest in foreign languages blamed on internet


You can't blame the internet for everything.

An article published in the Globe and Mail this summer says the internet has imposed a predominately anglo-centric format upon the wired world and, as a result, the study of foreign languages is in decline.

However Gabriele Erasmi, chair of the modern languages department, notes that English has become the accepted language in international relations, trade and finance. “It's not surprising that the internet is English-based,” he says.

Daniel Woolf, dean of humanities, would agree. “I don't think that the predominance of English on the internet is the cause of a decline in the study of foreign languages. But I do believe it will accelerate that decline.”

According to Erasmi, students appear not to be as interested in studying foreign languages as in the past. But he maintains the problem is directly related to a reduction in support for the modern languages departments at Canada's universities. “Administrations are paring down the languages faculty – and this is happening at McMaster.”

For example, there used to be seven full-time professors of German at McMaster a few years ago. Now there is only one full-time lecturer; courses are taught by professors from the linguistics and comparative literature fields. The department has cancelled its MA program and has no full-time German professor on staff.

Dean Woolf admits there has been a decline in administrative support for the department, but he says that those decisions are related to declining enrolment. “We have to put our limited funds towards the areas of student demand,” he comments.

Students are certainly interested in studying other cultures – as is demonstrated by the great success of the Faculty's comparative literature program. Since its courses are all in English, students don't have a need to study the original language, Woolf says. This may be another reason that enrolment in foreign language studies has fallen off.

At the same time, Woolf makes it clear that languages are highly valued within the Faculty. “A language department is an indispensable part of a Faculty of Humanities.”

Statistics provided by the registrar's office show a slight decline in the number of students taking full-time (day) language courses between 1994 and 1999. Last year, 2,636 students were enrolled in French, German, Greek, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Latin and Russian. In 1994, the total was 2,742.

German has experienced the most dramatic drop in both enrolment and classes offered. In 1994, over 370 students were enrolled in a total of 16 first- to fourth-year courses; by 1999, the total was 197 spread over 11 courses. Alternatively, although the total number taking French has declined slightly during the same period, the University offered 35 French classes in 1999, compared with 32 in 1994.

Woolf thinks that one reason for the lack of interest in German may be the increasing dominance of Germany on the political and economic scene, areas in which English is typically the language used.

In their discussion of the problem, both Erasmi and Woolf acknowledge an obvious quandary. When enrolments decline, courses are cancelled. When fewer courses are offered, there may be a perception that the University is not committed to language studies – resulting in lower enrolments.

Still another reason for the lack of interest in foreign languages may be the decline in language instruction at the high school level, Erasmi says, both in foreign languages and in English grammar. “Students have no experience of learning a foreign language. They don't have the skills.”

Because of this, he says many first-year university students will enrol in a Spanish or German course but become discouraged. Ontario high school students are required to take one foreign language credit in French and most elect to take the course in Grade 9.

The Humanities and Social Sciences Federation of Canada has established a task force to examine the affects in general of budget cuts to these faculties over the past few years.

Woolf notes that it has been easy for governments to target the humanities in the belief that its courses are not job-oriented. More recently, he says, businesses, associations and corporations have been touting the benefits of hiring humanities graduates because of their language, history, philosophy and communications skills.