Getting Their Babel On

December 8, 2010

The rate at which undergraduate students took foreign language courses in 2009 remained constant compared to three years prior, while the variety of languages offered continued to set records, according to the findings of a survey conducted by the Modern Language Association of America to be released Wednesday.

In raw terms, the number of enrollments -- the metric used by the MLA to capture course participation rather than the number of students studying a language -- grew from 1.57 million in 2006 to 1.68 million in 2009, or 6.6 percent. That percentage growth was about half the one last reported, between 2002 and 2006. “I believe that the exciting takeaway from this report is that more students are studying more languages,” Russell A. Berman, first vice president of the MLA, and professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University, said during a Tuesday call with reporters.

But this growth took place during a period in which the total number of undergraduate students also increased. As a result, the ratio of enrollments in language courses compared to overall student enrollments remained at 2006 levels -- 8.6 per 100 total enrollments. While this level is lower than the high mark of 16.5 enrollments per 100 set in 1965, the current ratio still exceeds those since the early 1970s (except for 2006), and is above the low of 7.3 enrollments per 100 in 1980.

Similarly, the percentage of bachelor's degrees earned in foreign languages (1.16 for every 100 -- 70 percent of which are earned by women) has remained flat since 1980. This rate is also well below the high of 3 percent earned in 1968, according to MLA data. One historical reason for the drop cited by the report's authors, Nelly Furman, David Goldberg, and Natalia Lusin, is the move in the late 1960s away from prescribed core requirements. Distribution requirements, which replaced many core curriculums, have generally demanded less extensive coursework in foreign languages compared to past decades.

The release of the survey results comes amid trying times for foreign languages, with many departments facing cuts, closings, or mergers with other programs. Recently, administrators at the State University of New York at Albany announced that they wanted to close admissions to programs in French, Italian, and Russian. Majors in German and Russian also face extinction at Howard University. Berman described such cuts as “perplexing” given the increasing number of students seeking out such courses, coupled with a decade’s worth of public preoccupation with globalization and international connectedness. “Some administrators are just simply shortsighted,” he said. “It’s a problem of a lack of imagination in parts of higher education leadership.”

This year’s survey, the 22nd produced by the MLA since 1958, tracked undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages other than English in fall 2009 at 2,514 associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral-granting institutions nationwide. These institutions represent 99 percent of the higher education institutions that offer language courses in the U.S. The survey is so comprehensive that it captures not just the most popular languages (Spanish, French, German, and American Sign Language, in that order) but also the seven that had just one student enrolled at any level in 2009 (Albanian, Aymara, Javanese, Kana, Kyrgyz, Malay and Tswana, if you were curious). In all, 232 different languages were taught, which marks a record.

Arabic posted the most vigorous increase in popularity, with 46 percent more enrollments in 2009 than it had three years prior. The showing allowed Arabic to leapfrog from 10th place to 8th on the list of most popular languages. American Sign Language (16.4 percent), Japanese (10.3 percent) and Chinese (18.2 percent) also posted double-digit percent gains. Spanish remained far and away the most popular language, with nearly 865,000 enrollments. Its growth rate was 5.1 percent over 2006.

Top 10 Languages (by enrollment)

Language 2006 2009 % change
Spanish 822,985 864,986 5.1
French 206,426 216,419 4.8
German 94,264 96,349 2.2
American Sign Lang. 78,829 91,763 16.4
Italian 78,368 80,752 3.0
Japanese 66,605 73,434 10.3
Chinese 51,582 60,976 18.2
Arabic 23,974 35,083 46.3
Latin 32,191 32,606 1.3
Russian 24,845 26,883 8.2

The aggregate growth also disguised very different trends in language study among varying types of institutions. Community colleges witnessed the most robust increase, posting 14 percent more enrollments than they had in 2006. Hawaiian and Vietnamese were among the most popular languages at these institutions, though they were absent from the roster of highly subscribed courses at four-year colleges. Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said that the growth in language study among two-year colleges could reflect students’ interest in connecting to their heritage or becoming better-equipped to work in nearby communities, among other reasons. “Students are seeing language as an essential part of the toolkit for career readiness,” she said.

Total Language Enrollments

  2006 2009 % change
2-year 366,282 417,448 14.0%
4-year 1,170,558 1,226,481 4.8%
Graduate 40,970 38,237 -6.7%
All 1,577,810 1,682,166 6.6%

At four-year institutions, the growth was more steady, at 4.8 percent. Enrollment in graduate programs, on the other hand, fell 6.7 percent since 2006 -- a drop that caused experts to express worry about the future viability of programs at the college level. “There’s reason to be concerned that some students may be facing restricted access,” said Berman, adding that fewer people with doctorates in languages would translate, eventually, into fewer people to teach those programs. “I think we have to make sure this pipeline remains strong.”

Feal pointed to another troubling trend: colleges preserving more popular and highly subscribed introductory foreign language courses -- which allow students to satisfy core requirements -- while slashing advanced classes. “Four semesters give you a foundation,” which can help students build basic skills in a language, said Feal. The higher levels of language study open higher modes of thought and scholarship because that is where, she continued, “expertise and liberal learning, frankly, are in play.”

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