Foreign-Language Enrollments Drop After Years of Increases

February 11, 2015

Enrollments in foreign-language courses at American colleges have declined after nearly 20 years of growth, falling 6.7 percent from the fall of 2009 to the fall of 2013, according to a report released on Wednesday by the Modern Language Association.

Rosemary G. Feal, the association’s executive director, speculated that several factors could have played a role in the decline, including rising student interest in career-oriented subjects such as business in the wake of the recession. Those studies leave less time for language classes, Ms. Feal said.

The MLA’s report was based on a survey of 2,435 American colleges and universities that offer programs in languages other than English. The report compares foreign-language enrollment data from two- and four-year institutions, as well as graduate programs, from 2009 to 2013.

Enrollments in language courses at two-year, four-year, and graduate programs all dropped over that four-year period. Graduate enrollments suffered their second such decline, falling further after a drop between the fall of 2006 and the fall of 2009. All but five of the commonly taught languages at this level experienced double-digit losses.

Across all institution levels, Spanish and French continued to be the two most-studied foreign languages, with Spanish posting higher enrollment numbers than all other languages combined. However, the new data are significant because they reflect the first decline in Spanish enrollments at every institutional level in the history of the survey, with the numbers falling 8 percent over four years.

Ms. Feal attributed the decline to the rising number of other languages being offered in both high school and college, and she added that colleges are doing a better job of promoting other languages. The new survey covered 34 languages that were not included in the previous one.

On the Rise: American Sign Language

One language that bucked the downward trend was American Sign Language, which continued its fast rise, eclipsing German as the third-most-studied language over all. At the graduate level, ASL enrollments increased by 216 percent. At two-year institutions, it was the second-most-studied language.

The MLA said the increase could be attributed in part to a shift in how it now counts American Sign Language enrollments, which were first counted in the 1990 survey. The survey now counts all courses­—such as French history—that are taught in the language, instead of only those that are formally structured around the language.

Ms. Feal said ASL had seen such increases because more students are being exposed to the language through classes like linguistics or psychology, where learning it is integral to the subject.

For many students, Ms. Feal said, learning the language is "a totally different experience—one that intrigues them, that interests them—and they think they can use the language in their work."

Among the top 15 most-studied languages, Korean experienced the highest percentage change: From 2009 to 2013, enrollments increased by 44.7 percent. The report notes, however, that overall enrollments in Korean were modest compared with other popular languages.

Whenever there is a "hot spot" country mentioned in the national news, interest in the associated language often follows, said Ms. Feal. Interest in the political situation in North Korea, coupled with the growing population of Koreans in the United States, has ignited interest in learning the language.

Ms. Feal said she was more pleased with the long-term growth of enrollments in the languages. For her, the minor decrease in graduate enrollment is not concerning, as it’s still higher than it was 10 years ago. And instead of focusing on the overall decline of foreign-language enrollments, she was excited about how high that number still was. The numbers reflect "the cultural pulse of an entire nation of students," she said, and tell us how to build on that pulse.