Stay in the loop! Subscribe to our mailing list

US: Foreign language enrolments grow and diversify, yet challenges remain

On 8 December, the Modern Language Association (MLA) in the United States released the 22nd iteration of it comprehensive nationwide report on language enrolments in that country. Enrolments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009, builds on an effort initiated in 1958 to capture data about the study of languages in US higher education. The newest figures show that course enrolments in languages other than English were 6.6% higher in fall 2009 than in 2006, when the MLA last completed this survey. This builds on robust growth registered in the period 2002-2006, when non-English language enrolments grew by 12.9%. Other important developments indicated by the survey include increasing student interest in Arabic—which registered a 46.3% growth in enrolment since 2006. Double-digit percentage increases in enrolment were also seen for Korean (19.1%), Chinese (18.2%), American Sign Language (16.4%), Portuguese (10.8%), and Japanese (10.3%).

The MLA’s report counts fall 2009 graduate and undergraduate enrolments in languages other than English at 2 514 degree-granting institutions in the United States—ranging from community colleges to research-intensive universities. This effort covers a full 99% of all higher education institutions in the country offering language courses. Among the 15 languages enjoying the highest levels of enrolment, Spanish, French and German have long stood in first, second, and third place, respectively. All three languages continue to show signs of increased enrolment, albeit at lower levels than some other languages. Less commonly taught languages (LCTLs)—i.e., those outside the top 15—saw enrolment expand by 20.8% since 2006 while the overall number of LCTLs also grew by 19.2% in this period. As of fall 2009, 217 LCTLs were offered for study, up 35 from 2006.

While the MLA and other foreign language study champions are encouraged by these results, they are sobered by other developments. The overall ratio of enrolments in non-English language courses to overall college and university student enrolments remains unchanged from 2006 levels, at 8.6 per 100 total enrolments. Graduate level enrolments are down 6.7%, creating questions about the ‘pipeline’ of future postsecondary teachers of foreign languages. And tendencies to implement cost-cutting strategies that preserve introductory courses at the expense of advanced language training may have negative longer-term effects when it comes to producing graduates with real foreign language expertise. So, too, some argue, may the failure to more effectively deliver foreign language instruction in primary and secondary education in the United States.

Modern Language Association (MLA)