Geoff Pullum at Language Log is encouraged, and so am I, by the news that “based on Fall 2002 enrollments in courses as compared to Fall 1998 all languages shot up, especially the less commonly taught ones, and some are up by very substantial factors indeed.” He gives percentages ranging from American Sign Language (432%) to Spanish (14%) and adds “It’s true that Russian was hardly up at all (half a percent); but every language was up, and the aggregate percentage enrollment increase was 17%.” Good news indeed.


  1. aldiboronti says

    That’s a huge percentage rise in ASL. Any explanation for it?

  2. Good question. And then, how many sign languages are there? Why the adjective “American?” Does that mean a signing Mosotho cannot converse with a signing American?

  3. Rethabile,
    I’m no kind of expert on sign languages, but my answer is “lots”. (Most of my information comes from a PhD student at Sydney University who was a fluent but non-native signer of Auslan, working on the language for his thesis.) For example, Australian signers, who sign a variant of British Sign Language, are using a totally different language from American Sign Language.
    Nicaraguan Sign Language, which developed in the 1970s at Nicaragua’s first school for the Deaf, (note on the capitalisation: I believe this is the correct way to refer to deaf people who are part of the signing culture?) grew among the children at their school and was taught to some of their children as a first language — I know even less about the evolution of sign languages, but was told they first grew up as community and possibly native languages when urbanisation brought small communities of deaf people into existance for the first time. (What about smaller places with a number of congentially deaf residents? Don’t know.)

  4. Michael Farris says

    I spent several years studying Polish Sign Language. ASL users couldn’t understand tapes of PSL at all (the few times they thought they could they were wrong).
    The main differences between natural sign languages (as opposed to sign systems based on spoken languages like SEE or Signed Polish) is vocabulary. The structures of all recorded natural sign languages seem to be pretty similar, differing more in details than in structural principles. As a kind of (very) rough analogy, the grammatical differences between ASL, Japanese Sign Language and Polish Sign Language are similar to the grammatical differences between Russian, Polish and Czech. But again, the vocabulary differences are much wider.

  5. dungbeattle says

    The secret services doth need language skills in all fields. The cold war froze out the Linguas of yester year, and as the world is in commerce it only needs saxonated “you buy I sell” and is now painfully brainwashed in anglo mish, only to find out that the hoi poi like to talk in front of the Intelligensia in native sounds only, smiling to the listener and saying those wonderful local idiomatic ways of mentioning biological impossibles. [ p.s. nice piece in the Economist on on finding work with travel agencies in exotic middle eastern lands and the shortage of ‘aurences of shiekdoms]

  6. I like it when Languagehat provides a discussion forum for Language Log entries.
    On page 10 of the PDF, in figure 3a, there’s a huge spike in 1968 in the French enrollees. I am guessing this has something to do with the student revolution.

  7. joe tomei says

    I think the big increase in ASL enrollment is the growing trend to allow ASL courses to count as foreign language requirements. Been a lot of discussion on LinguistList, and a number of linguistics profs, notably Sherman Wilcox of U of New Mexico, have taken up the cause.
    Vietnamese is probably up because of the opening of the country, and it is an accessible SE Asian language because it has a roman script.
    Navajo might be because of the Nick Cage movie, Windtalkers, which came out in 2002. With a language with a small base, it is obviously much easier to get a big % swing. As an aside, when Cage was touring Japan, it emerged that he had spent a year at a Japanese immersion school (or something like that) and in filming Windtalkers and hearing japanese, some of the language came back to him.
    Was pleasantly surprised by Lakota being the 4th place.

  8. I wonder about enrollment in linguistics courses: I hope it’s seeing comparable improvement!

  9. This is excellent news. Is there any information on whether it’s the students’ initiative to study, or if colleges and universities have changed language requirements?
    On a completely anecdotal note, the first year Russian class at my university was the largest it ever was last year, which has translated to the largest second-year class ever this year.

  10. When I took a course in ASL a long time ago, several of us students attended a big banquet hosted by local ASL signers for a visiting group of Japanese Deaf people whose vocabulary of signs was so different that we Hearing signers didn’t feel too much less articulate than the ASL and JSL signers felt toward each other. Except we couldn’t say much to anyone, having been scattered around at different tables. At least the two groups of real signers could talk to each other–even while eating. (They could talk with their hands full, i.e., make two-handed signs while using one hand to eat.)
    One coincidental match, it turns out, was the morph indicating English Fri-(day) and Japanese KIN-(youbi) ‘Friday’. It’s the F-hand in the ASL signed alphabet, but the ‘gold coin’ (= KIN) hand in JSL.
    The JSL signed syllabary seems related to either ASL or its French SL antecedent, so that, IIRC, /a/ is A, /ka/ is K, /ma/ is M, and so on, but JSL users can also ‘spell out’ many kanji by writing them out large in the air. I’m not sure whether the kanji are oriented toward the signer or the viewer. (I didn’t notice people writing kanji in their palms, the way some people do, but maybe some JSLers also do that when they’re not signing before a large audience.)

  11. Margaret S. says

    A list of sign languages around the world:
    Gives 3-letter code for each; clicking on the country name leads to further information for some of the sign langues.

  12. There’s roughly one sign language per country, and two for Canada. Belgium has only one sign language, but they like to pretend that one of them is “Flemish” sign language and the other “Waloon”. I watch the news on Belgian French TV with the sign language interpreter. It’s very entertaining. Belgian sign language is very unlike the ASL, wich might be classed as a dialect of French sign language. The Belgians draw heavily on mime-like overplayed facial expressions. I’m told that French sign language and Belgian sign language represent two very different early sign languages and that many of the world’s sign languages can be classified as decendents of the one or the other.
    The ADA has raised demand for ASL “speakers” enormously, and increasingly small underfunded public colleges may only teach ASL and Spanish in their language departments.

  13. joe tomei says

    There’s also the strong possibility that there are sign languages as yet un’discovered’. Hawaiian sign language just got in the Ethnologue about 15 years ago when a deaf driver got in a car accident and the ASL signer they brought in couldn’t understand what she was signing. Sadly, ASL has supplanted it, and there are only a few elderly signers left.

  14. I wonder where Ms. Welles got her data on Russian enrollments. My sense from SEELANGS and other places is that enrollments in the language are way up. They certainly are in Russian — we had 17 start first-year Russian at Knox this year, which is the largest number I’ve seen in four years here. We also have a record number going to Krasnodar and an increasing number of majors after a short dip.

  15. I find it unfortunate that there is no breakdown of Chinese into Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Shanghainese, etc. Actually, I don’t even know whether any Chinese beyond Mandarin and Cantonese is taught in the US.
    As for Vietnames possibly being popular because it has a romanized alphabet, perhaps the alphabet helps, but it is still challenging to match the sounds my Vietnamese friends make with the Vietnamese written words they are pronouncing.

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