Evolving Language Job Market

Outlook for English positions holds steady, while in foreign languages, Spanish loses some of its dominance.
December 22, 2006

The job market for modern languages appears to be holding steady, with slow growth in both the number of available positions and the number of new doctorates, according to an analysis released Thursday by the Modern Language Association.

The most notable change appears to be a diversifying of the foreign language positions. While more positions are open in Spanish than in any other language, the share of positions for Spanish is falling, while other languages are seeing growth.

The MLA analysis comes from postings by four-year colleges and universities in the association's Job Information List. While that list does not cover all positions at four-year colleges, it is a good measure of the job market in English and foreign languages.

Here are some of the numbers:

  • An estimated 1,720 English language positions will be advertised in the the MLA job list for 2006-7, up from 1,687 positions  last year. This reflects a 2.0 percent increase from last year and an 11.6% increase over the 2003-4 figures, the most recent low for open positions.
  • Foreign language position openings are expected to rise from 1,361 last year to 1,410 for this academic year, up 3.6 percent from last year and 9.7 percent from 2003-4.
  • The total number of individuals who earned their doctorate in English increased 2.8 percent in 2005, to 960, and the number of doctoral recipients in foreign languages was up 3.7 percent, to 609 recipients.
  • Of the available job positions, 65.6 percent of those in English in the October 2006 issue were full-time, tenure-track positions for assistant professors. Of the foreign language advertisements, 59.1 percent were for full-time, tenure-track positions.
  • British literature remains the English specialty area with the highest percentage of advertised positions, at 23.5 percent. It is followed as a subject area by rhetoric and composition, multiethnic literature, American literature, and creative writing.

While there are always fluctuations from year to year in specialty areas, the foreign language changes this year are notable. Spanish positions fell in a year from being 43 percent of all foreign language positions to 37 percent, their lowest share since 1993 and the first time Spanish didn't account for at least 40 percent of jobs since 1995. In 2000, Spanish jobs made up 50 percent of foreign language positions.

French positions -- which have been in decline for two decades and as recently as 1985 outnumbered those in Spanish -- showed a rebound. They increased to 14 percent, from 12 percent, of postings. And German increased to 9 percent of positions, from 7 percent. While the percentage of positions is quite small, openings in Arabic and Chinese were also up.

Postings on the MLA job list in October (which lists about one third of positions annually) show those increases. In Arabic, listings ranged from 1 to 5 positions from 1997 through 2004, jumped to 11 in 2005 and 13 this year. In Chinese, 18 positions were listed this year, compared to 6, 3, and 8 in the previous three years.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said she was very pleased by the trends in languages -- even though her field is Spanish. "I think there has been so much hiring in Spanish in the last 15 years that we are now seeing more of a balance," said Feal.

The MLA is currently conducting a study of foreign language enrollments and expects to see major increases in Middle Eastern and Asian languages, so she is pleased to see that hiring trends are consistent. She also said that there are encouraging trends in the kinds of positions being advertised. Historically, many colleges have relied on adjuncts to teach non-European languages, and Feal said that she is seeing many more tenure-track positions being created.

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