Disappearing Language Offerings

Study documents decline in languages offered for instruction at American colleges over three-year period.

January 24, 2019
 
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A study by the Modern Language Association has found 651 instances in which, in fall 2016, a foreign language that had been offered in fall 2013 at a college was not offered.

The lost language offerings represent a 5.3 percent decline in language offerings in the period studied in American higher education.

The most common disappearances of offerings were in French (129), Spanish (118), German (86) and Italian (56). (Spanish is by far the most commonly taught foreign language in the United States.)

Of the 15 most commonly taught languages, only three saw an increase in the number of offerings: American Sign Language, biblical Hebrew and Korean.

While MLA officials are concerned about the trends, they noted that some colleges (particularly those with less commonly taught languages) may offer instruction in some years and not others, so all of these losses need not be permanent. The decrease represents offerings in a given semester, not academic departments. Some academic departments in languages have been eliminated during this period, but that was not tracked for this study.

Paula Krebs, executive director of the MLA, said that the organization was "naturally concerned" about the decline and was working with members at colleges all across the country to identify ways to reverse it.

The research explores the supply side of research the MLA has been doing for many years on enrollment trends in languages.

A study released by the MLA in March found that between fall 2013 and fall 2016, U.S. enrollments in languages other than English fell 9.2 percent. That was the second biggest drop in the history of MLA’s enrollment census; the biggest -- 12.6 percent -- was in the few years preceding 1972.

That MLA report, combined with an earlier study, documented a 15.3 percent total decline since 2009.

Of the most studied languages, only Japanese and Korean showed enrollment gains since 2013, of 3.1 percent (to 68,801 enrollments) and 13.7 percent (to 13,936), respectively.

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.

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