French and German Get Axed—Are Any Languages Thriving?

April 09, 2009 11:30 AM
by Haley A. Lovett
As Winona State University looks to get rid of its French and German language programs, and as French is used less and less in international politics, some languages flourish.

Winona State Cuts French and German, More Students Nationwide Study Arabic, Chinese

As Universities and colleges across the nation look for ways to trim down budgets, Winona State University has found one way to eliminate expenses—by cutting its French and German programs.

The university, which currently has only 24 students majoring in the two areas of study combined, will still offer beginning level courses in those languages. Winona State decided to make cuts to the program to conform to a shrinking budget, and because of the decline in the popularity of French and German, according Peter Henderson, the dean of liberal arts at Winona State. Henderson told the Rochester Post-Bulletin, “The future, as I’ve said for the last 20 years, has not been in European languages other than Spanish.”

In the most recent MLA survey on foreign language study in higher education, Arabic and Chinese were the languages with the greatest increases in study. The survey showed that the study of Arabic had increased more than 125 percent, and the study of Chinese had increased more than 50 percent from 2002 to 2006. Enrollments in the less commonly taught languages, and the number of uncommon languages taught increased during this period as well. Although the raw number of students studying foreign languages has increased, the percentage of college students studying foreign languages is only about half of what it was in the 1960s. Spanish maintains its status as the most popular language, accounting for about 50 percent of language study.

Background: English pushes out French in many arenas, France tries to intervene

Winona State University’s dropping of the French major is not the first blow to the French language in recent history.

In New York, the United Nations has seen an increase in the choice of English or Spanish as the working language of diplomats, rather than French. Most of the European countries, former Soviet republics and Arab countries chose to use English as the language they are addressed with at the UN. According to The New York Times, “Factoring in China and India, with over a third of the world’s people, leads to the conclusion that 97 percent of the global population (or rather the elite of those countries) choose English as their international link language.” 

The European Union has also seen a move toward English dominance. In 2004, English muscled out French as the common language among diplomats in the EU. English is used to write all financial and economic documents in the EU, reports the Telegraph, and more than 50 percent of all of the EU documents are written in English rather than in French or German (the other two main languages of the Union).

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In Africa, English may take over French as the secondary language of many of the people. With much of Africa having been colonized by the French in the late 1800s, the move represents a shift in the language of the global economy, anger in parts of Africa with the history of France colonization, and in some war-torn areas a need to be able to speak with members of the UN (who mostly speak English) in order to stay safe. 

France has developed organizations within its borders and beyond to try and preserve the language. The French government has a Commission de Terminologie that regulates the language and protects it from foreign word intrusion, and the Académie française, an elite group of academics in France that publishes the official dictionary of French, acts as the authority of the language.

There are also organizations designed to promote the use of French around the world, such as the Alliance Français and the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie; more than 110 million people speak French worldwide.

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