Rainy April! This is Babbel On, our monthly roundup of articles for amateur linguists and language lovers.
In a recent study by the Modern Language Association that looked at enrollment in college-level language classes between 2013 and 2016, researchers found that overall enrollment has gone down 9.2 percent. Of the 15 most common languages taught in the United States, almost all of them have fewer students, with the steepest losses being in Italian, Portuguese, ancient Greek, and Biblical and modern Hebrew. The only two languages that showed modest increases in interest were Japanese and Korean, which does provide some hope for the future. This stands in contrast to the study done on enrollment between 2006 and 2009, which showed growth across the board. The MLA is wary about what this means for the future of language learning in the United States, but has yet to embrace full-blown pessimism.
Despite the recent fall in foreign-language class enrollment, a recent article from the BBC argues that now is possibly “the best time in history to learn languages.” In a 2011 study, it was found that 77 percent of European millennials speak a second language, and the older the age group, the less likely they are to know another language. Similarly in the United States, 65.5 million people speak another language at home, and a large part of that growth is caused by US-born children. The article points to technology’s ability to teach languages and connect people from all around the world as one of the main causes of the current trend. The article goes on to argue that this could mean people going into college could soon be speaking upwards of six languages, though this polyglot utopia seems pretty distant considering the United States is still overwhelmingly monolingual.
Up until recently, Whole Foods had a rule that required their employees to speak English “if [they] speak English and are in the presence of customers” and “any time [they] are on the clock and discussing work-related tasks or subjects.” The company has revised the rules, however, after facing a boycott over two employees who claim to have been suspended because they were speaking Spanish in the store. Whole Foods’ co-CEO Walter Robb says the employees were suspended for inappropriate behavior unrelated to language, but it still called attention to the wording of the employee contracts. The new rules state that employees should be mindful of the languages spoken by those around them. The League of United Latin American Citizens argued that both the old rules and the new ones show a deeper problem of diversity at the company, and that Whole Foods should be encouraging multilingualism.
You probably haven’t heard of International Francophonie Day, but the holiday was celebrated on March 20. To mark the occasion, French President Emmanuel Macron unveiled 30 measures designed to promote the French language around the world. Though there are only 275 million French speakers in existence right now, Macron said he hopes to get the number to 700 million by the middle of the century. A major part of the plan is promoting French within the European Union. Even with the United Kingdom leaving, however, it will likely be hard to oust English as the lingua franca. The other major part of the French push focuses on Africa; France is hoping population growth in former French colonies will lead to more French speakers. This has already been called out by major thinkers as a neo-colonialist move, though, as it seems to privilege the spread of French over the protection of indigenous African languages.
Sports are often an important part of national identity. The United States has football, India has cricket and the indigenous people of the Americas have pelota mixteca. The New York Times took a look at this centuries-old sport and found that it plays a major role in indigenous identity, especially in parts of Mexico where speaking indigenous languages is frowned upon. The sport has some fairly informal tournaments, but for the most part, it’s played casually among friends and neighbors. It’s worth reading the whole story to find out more about the history and the culture of the sport.