MLA: Total foreign language enrollment falls 6.7%, but some subjects see major growth

Enrollment in Korean classes jumps 44.7%

Fewer students in the U.S. are enrolling in foreign languages at the collegiate level overall, but select subjects saw participation numbers increase—even through advanced levels, according to a report by the Modern Language Association of America (MLA).

The survey examined fall 2013 undergraduate and graduate enrollments in non-English language classes at 2,616 higher education institutions. MLA officials contacted school representatives by mail, email, and telephone, and also analyzed information from the National Center for Education Statistics and other sources.

Although total enrollment in languages other than English dropped by 6.7% from 2009 to 2013, it is still higher than that of the 2006 MLA survey.

"Even though we have been seeing a decline, and we are concerned about that, we're also aware that, looking just a few years back, these enrollment figures are very much in keeping with the highs that we've reached," says Rosemary Feal, MLA's executive director.

Spanish and French remained the most-studied languages, but for the first time since the survey began, Spanish enrollment numbers fell, dropping 8.2%. French numbers decreased as well, by 8.1%. This suggests that U.S. classrooms are offering more diverse language options than before, according to Feal.

Among languages experiencing growth:

  • Korean enrollment increased the most, jumping 44.7%;
  • ASL enrollment grew by 19%, replacing German as the third most-studied language;
  • Portuguese enrollment jumped 10.1%; and
  • Chinese enrollment rose 2%.

"At a time when so many language programs are facing financial constraints, it's inspiring to see how some programs are thriving," says Feal, adding, "We need to document what successful programs are doing and advocate these models."

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Additionally, more students persisted through higher levels of languages, up to third- and fourth-year courses. From 2006 to 2013, enrollment in advanced classes grew for Chinese, Biblical Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, ASL, Arabic, and Japanese. More recently, from 2009 to 2013, enrollment in advanced classes also grew in Russian, Spanish, and Ancient Greek.

Feal acknowledges that the enrollment decline may have been caused by students feeling more pressure to enter programs—like STEM fields—that they believe will lead to high-paying jobs.

But she argues against what she sees as a national narrative that language classes are not a path to a good job. "The qualities, skills and knowledge that come through studying the humanities are actually what employers say they want... people that write well; communicate well orally; can analyze, summarize, and present findings; can do research; and attend work in a setting of different cultures, with different people and groups," says Feal (Summers, Education News, 2/15; Morris, Diverse Education, 2/12; MLA release, 2/11).

The takeaway: Total foreign language enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities fell from 2009 to 2013 but remained higher than 2006's levels—and some subjects saw significant growth.

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