[lg policy] Foreign-Language Enrollments Drop After Years of Increases

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at gmail.com
Wed Feb 11 16:09:37 UTC 2015


Overall enrollments fell 6.7 percent from the fall of 2009 to the fall of
2013, the latest survey by the Modern Language Association finds.

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 February 11, 2015
Foreign-Language Enrollments Drop After Years of Increases

By Maddy Berner

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
<http://www.mla.org/enrollments_surveys> 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.

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