More college students are studying foreign languages than ever before, with Japanese, Russian and Spanish showing the greatest growth in enrollment, according to a survey by the Modern Language Association of America.
The survey, released in late September, studied enrollment figures for a period from 1986 to 1990. It said that nearly 1.2 million students enrolled in language courses other than English last fall, an increase of 18 percent since 1986.
The survey, conducted by the MLA and funded by the Department of Education, was distributed to all two-year and four-year colleges and universities; 98.2 percent of the 2,797 schools responded.
The study of foreign languages has been growing steadily since 1980, but for the first time since 1965 the percentage of students studying languages has increased markedly in relation to the percentage of students attending college, according to Phyllis Franklin, executive director of the MLA.
Since 1980, the number of college students studying languages has increased 30 percent while the number of students attending college has increased 15 percent, she said.
The survey found that Spanish, French and German maintained their ranking as the three most popular foreign languages, in that order, but that the number of students studying French declined by 1 percent, from 275,328 in 1986 to 272,555 in 1990. Enrollments in Ancient Greek and Hebrew also declined.
The MLA's survey included culture and literature courses that were taught in a foreign language.
The enrollment in Japanese classes nearly doubled, the survey found. It said the number of students studying Japanese in the fall of 1990 was 45,717, compared with 23,454 in 1986. The survey said 44,384 students were studying Russian in 1990, a 30 percent increase over 1986.
Together, Japanese and Russian accounted for about 8 percent of the 1990 enrollment in foreign language courses. Spanish had the highest number of students, 533,609, and the highest overall percentage, 45 percent. Its growth in enrollment from 1986 to 1990 was nearly 30 percent.
In the MLA's last survey, which studied enrollment figures from 1983 to 1986, Japanese showed the highest percentage increase, followed by Chinese, Portuguese and Russian.
Directors of foreign-language groups were encouraged by the surge in enrollment.
"We think it is probably a response to the widespread national statements by members of Congress and the business community about the importance of foreign languages to maintain the national economic competitiveness," said Ms. Franklin.
Helene Zimmer-Loew, president of the Joint National Committee for Languages, which represents 41 language associations, said: thrilled to see this. It is very heartening to all of us in the field."
She said that the increase in students taking language courses probably reflects interest in countries that are economic powers or hotbeds of political activity.
"I don't think this reflects thousands and thousands of language majors or people who are going to be language teachers, although we always hope they will choose it," Ms. Zimmer-Loew said. "I think many are majoring in business and they see a second language as an absolute necessity because of a shrinking global economy."
The study does not reveal what level of language the students are studying. Richard D. Lambert, director of the National Foreign Language Center, which also tracks foreign-language study, said that while the findings were encouraging, more information was needed on what types of students were studying languages and whether they continued with the languages to advanced levels.
"The question," he said, "is are we still working with a limited set of students from the arts and sciences? Are we lengthening as well as broadening? In terms of national policy, I think that's an important question."
The enrollment decline for French classes concerned Dr. Fred M. Jenkins, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of French, who said the popularity of Spanish was taking away students who might otherwise pursue French.
"We are not happy, and we are undertaking a drive of our own to make students, particularly on the secondary-school level, more aware of French and what it stands for," Dr. Jenkins said.
"The beauty of the language had been a selling point in the past. Now we're looking at more practical aspects, like trying to sell the business exchange between the two countries."
The popularity of Spanish is attributed partly to the influx of Hispanic people into the United States and partly to the fact that students find Spanish a useful language in this country.
"It is here; its time has come," said Dr. James R. Chatham, executive director of the American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese. "Our society is becoming more Hispanic."
Meanwhile, the secondary-school level is also showing growth in foreign-language study, according to an unpublished study by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
The council found that in the 1990-1991 academic year, approximately 30 percent of public school students in grades seven to 12 were studying foreign languages, a 5 percent increase over 1985, the last time the council conducted a survey.
"The best news as far as we're concerned is this has been a period of some sustained growth," said C. Edward Scebold, president of the 6,000-member organization.
Sen. Paul Simon, D-Ill., a longtime proponent of language study and a member of the Carter administration's 1978 Commission on Foreign Language and International Studies, said the MLA study was good news.
But he added: "We still have a long way to go. What is encouraging is there really is growing interest and awareness of foreign languages. What is important to me is that is an indication that there is a growing interest in the rest of the world."
The MLA will publish a summary of its survey in its winter newsletter, in December, and a more detailed report in its spring 1992 bulletin.