More Students, More Languages

New Modern Language Association survey finds dramatic increases in study of Arabic, Chinese, and less commonly taught languages like Persian, while enrollments also climbed in the staples.
November 14, 2007

Overall enrollments in languages other than English continue their steady climb, increasing by 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006, with the most dramatic growth seen in the study of Arabic (up 126.5 percent) and Chinese (up 51 percent), according to the Modern Language Association's survey on "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006."

“As a professor of French, I’m reassured that the traditional languages are holding their own. But I’m really impressed with the increased enrollment in languages we thought of as very difficult. They still are, but students are willing to put in the effort," Catherine Porter, second vice president of the MLA and professor emerita at the State University of New York at Cortland, said during a telephone press conference Tuesday about the results of the survey, which had a 99.8 percent return rate among 2,801 colleges and universities.

Against the backdrop of increasing government support for language programs post-September 11, the MLA, which has conducted its survey periodically (every four years, of late) since 1958, found gains in all of the 15 most widely taught languages save Biblical Hebrew, down 0.3 percent from 2002 to 2006. Enrollments in the less commonly taught languages also increased by 31.2 percent from 2002, fueled largely by a 55.9 percent growth in Middle Eastern and African languages (the most popular being Aramaic, Swahili and Persian). In all, 204 of the less commonly taught languages were in fact taught in 2006, an increase of 42 languages over 2002.

Enrollments in language courses have been steadily climbing since 1998 and language enrollments, in raw numbers, are at their highest since the MLA's 1960 survey. Yet, the report notes that the number of language course enrollments per 100 student enrollments is, at 8.6, about half the ratio in 1960 and 1965 (16.1 and 16.5, respectively).

Also, enrollments in language courses beyond the introductory level drop off dramatically. For advanced courses alone, the 2006 ratio falls to 1.4 language course enrollments per 100 students. This was the first time the MLA completed a breakdown of enrollments in introductory versus advanced courses, and Rosemary G. Feal, the MLA's executive director, cited the caveat that the numbers do not reflect students who take advanced-level languages during study abroad but not at their home campuses.

Among the most widely taught languages, Spanish remains the most popular by far with more than 50 percent of all language enrollments, and a 10.3 percent increase in enrollments from fall 2002 to 2006. Enrollments in French and German increased gradually, continuing a reversal of declines in the 1990s. Yet, as a share of total language course enrollments, the percentage studying Spanish, French and German declined from 74.4 percent in 2002 to 71.3 percent in 2006.

Enrollments in American sign language grew by 29.7 percent to put it right behind German at No. 4 -- a placement fueled in part by its much more astronomical 432.2 percent growth in enrollments from 1998 to 2002. Other languages with dramatic growths in enrollment over 2002 include, of course, Arabic and Chinese, as well as Japanese (up 27.5 percent) and Korean (up 37.1 percent).

Fall 1998, 2002 and 2006 Language Enrollments at U.S. Colleges

2006 Ranking and Language 1998 2002 % Change 98-02 2006 % Change 02-06
1. Spanish 656,590 746,267 +13.7% 822,985 +10.3%
2. French 199,064 201,979 +1.5% 206,426 +2.2%
3. German 89,020 91,100 +2.3% 94,264 +3.5%
4. American Sign Language 11,420 60,781 +432.2% 78,829 +29.7%
5. Italian 49,287 63,899 +29.6% 78,368 +22.6%
6. Japanese 43,141 52,238 +21.1% 66,605 +27.5%
7. Chinese 28,456 34,153 +20% 51,582 +51%
8. Latin 26,145 29,841 +14.1% 32,191 +7.9%
9. Russian 23,791 23,921 +0.5% 24,845 +3.9%
10. Arabic 5,505 10,584 +92.3% 23,974 +126.5%
11. Ancient Greek 16,402 20,376 +24.2% 22,849 +12.1%
12. Biblical Hebrew 9,099 14,183 +55.9% 14,140 -0.3%
13. Portuguese 6,926 8,385 +21.1% 10,267 +22.4%
14. Modern Hebrew 6,734 8,619 +28% 9,612 +11.5%
15. Korean 4,479 5,211 +16.3% 7,145 +37.1%
Other Languages 17,771 25,716 +44.7% 33,728 +31.2%
Total 1,193,830 1,397,253 +17% 1,577,810 +12.9%

Total enrollments at the four-year college and graduate level comprise the vast majority of enrollments, with about 1.2 million in total (about 41,000 of which are at the graduate level). Community colleges, by contrast, accounted for 366,282 of total language enrollments in 2006.

At the community college level, language enrollments grew by 4.6 percent from 2002 to 2006, compared to 15.9 percent among undergraduate enrollments at four-year colleges. At community colleges, American sign language enrollments grew by 14.2 percent (among four-year college undergraduates, American sign language is the seventh-most common language, while it is the second-most common at community colleges), and Arabic by 135.8 percent. Enrollments in Armenian, Chinese and Persian also grew dramatically at community colleges, with 53.8, 37.6 and 86 percent increases. Enrollments in Ancient Greek dropped sharply, by 79.6 percent, and enrollments in French, German and Latin fell, by 8.5, 1.5 and 16.4 percent.

Since 1986, enrollments in Vietnamese at the community college level have risen by 2,048.2 percent, and Arabic by 1,138.4 percent.

“I don’t think that this is just a temporary spike in enrollments. I think these figures indicate a real shift of interest on the part of American students,"
Karin Ryding, a member of the MLA Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages and a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University, said of increasing Arabic enrollments during Tuesday's press event.

“They’re coming to the study of Arabic and other languages with serious professional goals in mind, including -- and let me list some examples -- work with international organizations, diplomatic service, global environmental efforts, humanitarian relief efforts, security studies, international communications and media studies.”

While some of the growth has been fueled by heritage learners, “who are ready to reconnect with their culture and the language of their parents or grandparents," Ryding said, "also it has to do with a readiness of many students to tackle what have generally been considered more unfamiliar and more difficult languages.”


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