The latest MLA report, published this month, highlights a drastic drop in foreign language studies: around 100,000 fewer students took language courses in 2013 than in 2009, the last time the association interviewed students. Even enrollment in Spanish courses, which has been rising for decades and accounts for more than half of all enrolment, fell over the period – by around 70,000 students – marking the first time this has happened since at least least 1958, when the MLA began tracking registration.
The drop is a pretty disheartening sign (for those who cherish foreign languages, anyway) given that over the same period the number of students enrolled in the university has increased by more than 150,000. rate at which students in the United States choose to study foreign languages fell from 8.7 per 100 students to 8.1, the largest drop since 1995. The rate was 9.1 per 100 students in 2006. trend is pronounced, but perhaps not quite austere enough to draw firm conclusions about the future.
What is happening? Some things.
First, and perhaps most importantly, it appears that the prioritization of more practical, or at least immediately useful, courses among students is hurting enrollment in language courses. It’s probably no coincidence that the recent drop in the rate at which college students study foreign languages follows the financial downturn. It’s also no coincidence that business management is currently the most popular subject across the country.
But the decline in language enrollment also appears to be the result of a general increase in course offerings.
“While we have seen phenomenal growth in enrollment over the decades, we are also seeing students enrolling in many other fields besides languages,” said Rosemary Feal, executive director of MLA. “Many colleges and universities are under financial pressure and have, as a result, reduced their program offerings.”
Enrolling in language courses was much more common in the 1960s because majors in several research fields, including technology, digital arts, and software, did not exist. Students, Feal explained, simply have many more options today than before, and the presence of those options has diluted how often students choose to study a language in college.
It is also possible that more college students are forgoing language studies in college because elementary and secondary schools increasingly offer a greater variety of languages. Spanish, Feal said, is no longer the only language these schools teach.
Whatever the cause, the national slowdown in foreign language courses at the college level appears to be affecting some languages more than others. German, French and Russian, for example, have all had great success over the past 20 years. The number of institutions teaching each fell by 21%, 13% and 30%, respectively, between 1990 and 2013. All three represent the smallest percentage of total language enrollment since MLA began tracking data.
Chinese, Arabic, Korean, and American Sign Language, meanwhile, have seen the exact opposite happen. The number of schools teaching each language increased by 110%, 330%, 208% and more than 3,100% respectively. And all four represent a higher percentage of total language enrollment than ever before.