The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are beginning to lose their love for foreign languages

College kids aren't studying foreign languages as often as they used to. (Photo by Brandon Dill/For The Washington Post)
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Ever since 1958, The Modern Language Association (MLA) has been tracking the number of college students who study a language other than English. Every few years, the organization publishes its findings in a lengthy report. Sometimes enrollment goes up; sometimes enrollment goes down. But lately America's love for foreign languages appears to be wavering.

The MLA's newest report, released this month, highlights a drastic fallout in foreign language studies: roughly 100,000 fewer students took language classes in 2013 than did in 2009, the last time the association surveyed students. Even enrollment in Spanish language classes, which have been climbing for decades and account for more than half of all enrollments, fell off over the period—by roughly 70,000 students—marking the first time that's happened since at least 1958, when the MLA started tracking enrollment.

The drop off is a pretty discouraging sign (for those who cherish foreign languages, anyway) considering that over the same period the number of students enrolled in college rose by well over 150,000. The rate at which students in the United States are opting to study foreign languages fell from 8.7 per 100 students to 8.1, the largest drop since 1995. The rate was 9.1 for every 100 students in 2006. The trend is pronounced, though perhaps not quite stark enough to draw any firm conclusions about the future.

What's going on? A few things.

Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, it seems that a prioritization of more practical, or at least immediately useful, courses among students is hurting language course enrollments. It's likely of little coincidence that the recent drop in rate at which college kids are studying foreign languages comes on the heels of the financial recession. Neither is it a coincidence that business management is currently the most popular subject major across the country.

But the drop in language enrollment also appears to be the result of a general uptick in course offerings.

"While we have tremendous growth in enrollments over the decades, we also observe that students are enrolling in many other areas in addition to languages," said Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA. "Many colleges and universities are experiencing financial pressures and have, as a result, narrowed their curricular offerings."

Enrollment in language classes was much more common in the 1960s, because majors in several research areas, including technology, digital arts, and software didn't exist. Students, Feal explained, simply have far more options today than they did in the past, and the presence of those options has diluted the frequency with which students choose to study a language in college.

It's also possible that more college students are foregoing language studies in college because elementary and secondary schools are increasingly offering a wider variety of languages. Spanish, Feal said, is no longer the only language these schools are teaching.

No matter the cause, the national downturn in college-level foreign language courses appears to be affecting some languages more than others. German, French, and Russian, for instance, have all taken big hits over the past 20-plus years. The number of institutions teaching each fell by 21 percent, 13 percent, and 30 percent, respectively, between 1990 and 2013. All three account for a smallest percentage of total language enrollments that they have since MLA started tracking the data.

Chinese, Arabic, Korean, and American Sign Language, meanwhile, have seen just the opposite happen. The number of institutions teaching each language has grown by 110 percent, 330 percent, 208 percent, and more than 3,100 percent, respectively. And all four account for a larger percentage of total language enrollments than ever before.