L'œuf ou la Poule?

MLA data show foreign language study is on the decline, but it's unclear what comes first: institutional disinvestment in language programs or waning student interest. In any case, some campuses -- generally those making investments in programs -- are bucking the trend.

March 19, 2018
 
Modern Language Association
Foreign language enrollments over time.

Even as institutions report accelerated, comprehensive internationalization efforts, graduate and undergraduate foreign language enrollments are on the decline, according to a recent report from the Modern Language Association. What’s driving that trend? The MLA isn’t sure yet -- a forthcoming report seeks to offer more analysis.

In the interim, MLA executive director Paula Krebs said that students continue to be interested in languages, “and when institutions support language instruction, students take language courses.”

Looking beyond the trend line, Krebs said, “Many institutions have had increases in enrollments.” And when MLA releases its full report, she said, it will highlight what’s “going right at the institutions with increased enrollments, so other colleges can see how to make strategic investments that will produce stronger enrollments.”

The last MLA report on foreign language enrollments, published in 2015 and concerning data from 2013, suggested trouble. For the first time since about 1995, and after a period of steady growth, it said, overall enrollments -- including those in major European languages such as Spanish -- were down, by 6.7 percent since 2009.

“We don’t know if we’re seeing a blip, and we don’t know if this will continue,” Rosemary Feal, then executive director of the MLA, said at the time.

Pointing out that the decline appeared to coincide with the Great Recession, Feal said, “We don’t know if what’s happened is part of the overall decrease in humanities enrollments. One pressure that I think a lot of students are feeling is to concentrate all their educational eggs in baskets that appear to be career ready.”

Not Just a ‘Blip’

The MLA’s new report says things have gotten worse. Between fall 2013 and fall 2016, U.S. enrollments in languages other than English fell 9.2 percent. That’s the second biggest drop in the history of MLA’s enrollment census; the biggest -- 12.6 percent -- was in the few years preceding 1972.

Enrollments do ebb and flow over time. Even so, the MLA report says that the last two censuses together do suggest the “beginning of a trend rather than a blip,” with a 15.3 percent total decline since 2009.

Of the most studied languages, only Japanese and Korean showed gains since 2013, of 3.1 percent (to 68,801 enrollments) and 13.7 percent (to 13,936), respectively. Some scholars have previously attributed the particularly impressive growth of Korean to the “Korean Wave” in popular culture -- think “Gangnam Style.” But it’s also an increasingly critical language as far as national security and even economic prosperity are concerned. (And it’s already part of the U.S. State Department’s Critical Language Scholarship Program, supported by the American Councils for International Education.)

Spanish saw a decline of about 10 percent but still claims about half of all foreign language enrollments, at 712,240 seats. It’s followed by French and American Sign Language, with respective enrollments over 100,000. German is now the fourth most studied language.

Japanese is now fifth, replacing Italian, which is now sixth. Korean “vaulted over” ancient Greek, biblical Hebrew and Portuguese to become the 11th most studied language, the MLA says.

Source: Modern Language Association

The total number of foreign language enrollments in relation to total number of students registered is an imperfect but nonetheless important indicator of student involvement in language study. That ratio, too, has declined, from 8.1 in 2013 to 7.5 in 2016, according to the MLA census.

The 2016 ratio is less than half of what it was in 1960 and approaches the lowest ratio recorded, 7.3, in 1980. Taking a long view, modern language enrollments have lagged far behind overall college and university enrollments since 1960.

Beginning in 2006, MLA’s census began to ask distinct questions about introductory (first- and second-year) course enrollments and advanced ones (third and fourth year). With the exception of Korean, the most commonly taught languages showed especially sharp declines in enrollments at the advanced level from 2013-16.

What Gives?

It’s unclear at this point whether the loss of upper-division enrollments is attributable to institutions cutting language programs -- limiting options for advanced study -- or to students not enrolling in courses offered.

Anecdotally, at least, many institutions do tend to cut foreign language offerings when facing financial difficulty. Donald L. Dyer, associate dean for faculty and academic affairs and former chair of modern languages at the University of Mississippi, said institutions will often combine multiple languages into a single department to save on administrative costs. Then some will look to cut majors to save on offering lower-enrollment upper-division courses.

“A lot of administrations will say, ‘If we need to cut somewhere, let’s cut certain things,’” namely languages and the humanities more broadly, Dyer said. “I’ve seen in our region a major de-emphasis on language teaching.”

Examples abound beyond the South. Just this month, for example, the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point said it plans to eliminate majors in all three of the foreign languages it offers.

By contrast, Dyer said, Ole Miss has become something of an unlikely destination for students who wish to obtain superior language proficiency. That’s thanks to its Chinese Language Flagship Program, funded in part by the National Security Education Program, along with an Arabic program that’s seeking flagship status and an overall institutional commitment to advanced language study.

With a few exceptions among Ole Miss’s 11-language department, Dyer said, “our enrollments in language classes are as high as they’ve ever been, and we’re continually adding sections of these languages over years.”

‘Strategic Investments’

He added, “We view these languages as something of a jewel of the university, and we want to get them right.” The university has increased contact time to six hours weekly in many language courses, for example, and the Chinese program employs graduate students who are native speakers to work with students on domain-specific proficiency.

Enrollments are capped at between 15 and 24 students per section and classes of six or seven students run no risk of cancellations, Dyer said, as “the closer the attention is, the fewer students in the class, the more successful you’re going to be.”

Beyond majors, Ole Miss requires undergraduates studying the liberal arts to take the equivalent of two years of foreign language instruction. Students who enroll with that level of proficiency, due to Advanced Placement credit, for example, may test out of the requirement. But Dyer said they’re strongly encouraged to take more advanced courses instead.

To that point, additional MLA data show the percentage of four-year colleges and universities requiring students to take courses in languages other than English dropped 17 percentage points between 1995 and 2010, to about half of all institutions. The association notes a related shift away from course requirements, toward choices within distribution requirements. Meanwhile, more institutions seem to be requiring foreign language study for acceptance: 21 percent of colleges and universities required high school study in 1995, compared to 25 percent in 2010.This may be changing, however. In Georgia, computer science in high school fulfills the language requirement for admission to public colleges and universities.

In recent years, MLA has advocated for more opportunities for heritage learners to study languages they may speak with their families. There are also ongoing discussions about how best to teach foreign languages: the American Academy of Arts and Sciences Commission on Language Learning, for example, has noted a gap between the progress made in early learning, such as immersion programs at the K-12 level, and advanced study at college or university.

Results of a survey of faculty members and students presented at last year’s annual meeting of the MLA also called on language departments to transform their curricula in ways that “situate language study in cultural, historical, geographic and cross-cultural frames.” Survey respondents also urged the end of a “two-tiered” instructional approach, in which adjuncts teach lower-level courses while tenured and tenure-track professors teach upper-level literature classes.

Dyer said another reason that foreign language departments may be targeted for cuts is that they don’t always do what they’re supposed to. Too many students graduate as majors without real proficiency, he said. And even high-performing departments don’t do enough to broadcast their successes, Dyer added. “You need to parade your successes -- you need to show people what students can do. If they speak Chinese, people need to see them speaking Chinese.”

The MLA’s newest enrollment report rules out the possibility that four-year institutions are reducing their language programs and sending students to nearby two-year colleges to take language courses, as there is no disproportionately high drop in enrollments at four-year compared to two-year campuses.

The association’s data come from a survey of 2,547 responding colleges, universities and seminaries. The preliminary report notes a loss of governmental funding for international education: combined funding for National Resource Centers, Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships, Title VI of the National Defense Education Act, and the Fulbright-Hays Program dropped from about 37 percent since 2010.

Krebs reiterated that MLA and other foreign language study advocates need “more research on what the strongest programs are doing well,” but noted that stable programs require “stable faculty.” That means “full-time faculty members who can develop the language and culture courses strong programs need,” she said.

Students get interested when language programs “commit to serious language and culture requirements, encourage dual majors that include languages, and encourage new forms of microcredentialing,” Krebs said. Colleges and universities that invest in creating strong language programs have spurred cultural and even economic growth in their regions, since employers want employees with language and cultural skills, she added.

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