U.S. college language enrollments

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There's a fact-and-graph-packed post over at Pinyin News on "US post-secondary enrollments in foreign languages and the position of Mandarin". The post's "basic points up front":

  • Spanish has more enrollments than all other foreign languages put together.
  • By far the biggest enrollment boom since 1990 has not been for Mandarin but for American Sign Language.
  • The boom in enrollments in Arabic also surpasses that for Mandarin.
  • Mandarin is indeed growing in popularity — but in recent years only at the undergraduate level.
  • Japanese continues to be more popular than Mandarin, though by an ever-smaller margin.
  • Mandarin is the seventh most studied foreign language in U.S. post-secondary schools, behind Spanish (which leads Mandarin by a ratio of 16:1), French, German, American Sign Language, Italian, and Japanese.
  • Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago.

Read the whole thing! You may also be interested in this older post, "Results of US AP exams: first year for Mandarin, Japanese", 2/14/2008.


  1. Polly Glot said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 2:51 pm

    I don't see any mention of Norwegian.

  2. Justin L said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:09 pm

    I'm not too surprised about ASL. My highschool began offering ASL the year before I got there (late 90s), and by the time I was a sophomore, they had to hire a second teacher because there were so many interested students. It ended up displacing Japanese by the time I graduated.

    The dominance of Spanish I think is pretty understandable. It's probably the only foreign language taught at virtually every high school in the country, and so people who have taken a couple years of Spanish to get into college and need to take just a semester or so to fulfill a language requirement just repeat third or fourth semester Spanish. Also, most European languages require less time to achieve "proficiency"- my undergrad graduation requirement was four semesters of languages like Spanish and Russian, but five for Korean and Hindi and six for Chinese and Japanese. That would be up to an extra year of committment if one was starting from the beginning.

    The story at the end of that link highlights a serious problem with the AP language testing system, which is one reason I'm glad my high school had International Baccalaureate. Comparing first and second language users on the same test is not particularly fair. 18 year olds who started learning Chinese three or four years ago really shouldn't be judged in comparison with native speakers. IB's A and B language system, where native and learned languages are tested separately, is probably a better measure of how second language learners are doing in that non-native language.

  3. Matthew Stuckwisch said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:17 pm

    Part of the lowering enrollment for foreign language I'm sure has to do with lower requirements at Universities. When my dad went to grad school he didn't just need moderate reading fluency in a foreign language, he needed to have near perfect reading/writing skills. Nowadays, most universities seem to think that two introductory semesters is enough IF that (there are a lot of undergrad and grad programs now that dont ever require it). I had 3 hours to translate a 500 word block of text to English with 80% accuracy with a dictionary (doctoral students have the same exam, sans dictionary).

    At my undergrad school, while a foreign language was technically required, you could do a computer science sequence instead … wouldn't be so bad if it taught a programming language (similar thought processes would be involved) but rather it was "This is how you use Micro$oft Offi¢e". And this is a school that had a critical languages department!

    I think our first step is to require four semesters of foreign language to get a bachelors. Since many people who do a high school program with 4-5 semesters of Spanish tend to be at a similar level in college placement, then we should be able to equate it with calculus which is an equivalent number of semesters in HS. If they can require calculus, they should require that much foreign language. For a graduate degree you should have full reading and writing of a foreign language related to your field and for doctoral programs I would hope that speaking the language to a moderate level would also be included. I don't think that would be unreasonable at all.

  4. Morgan said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 3:41 pm

    Foreign language was required to a certain level at my stint in US university, and I believe both my parents were required to take two foreign languages (though only a semester of the second) in the 70s. Am I to understand that it's possible to get a higher degree in the US without taking a foreign language at *all*?

    It seems increasingly ridiculous in the modern world, but maybe that's because I'm in Europe now, where my foreign language repertoire compares poorly with most middle school students' (whereas in America I was always at the top of the class in that arena). My partner is fluent in Swedish, Finnish, and English, and functionally competent in German as well, and aside from her degree of fluency this is not unusual in Europe.

  5. Anna said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 5:40 pm

    The popularity of Spanish may have a lot to do with the fact that for many students, it's not a foreign language at all. About 10% of students in public schools are what the feds call "limited English proficient"; of those, 75% are native Spanish speakers. Add to those the number of fluent Spanish-English bilinguals (who go uncounted), and that's a reasonable chunk of the college-entering pool (although probably an underrepresented chunk in actual college enrollments).

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Morgan: Am I to understand that it's possible to get a higher degree in the US without taking a foreign language at *all*?

    In some programs at some schools, yes.

    More information is here.

  7. Rubrick said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 6:38 pm

    While I rue the monolinguality of most of the U.S., and my own in particular, I don't really think incredulity and outrage at the idea that one can earn a degree without them is warranted. There are plenty of fields for which knowing a second language is unnecessary.

    While I don't think the notion of the "well-rounded" student is obsolete, I think it sometimes smacks of snobbery. If we require mastery of a foreign language in order to consider a student "cultured" enough to earn a degree, perhaps we should also demand they study ballroom dance.

  8. Doc Rock said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 6:43 pm

    Let's not forget the National Defense Foreign Language (NDFL /
    TITLE 50 > CHAPTER 37 > § 1902) scholarships/fellowships and National Defense Education Act (NDEA) Language Centers that were well-funded after Sputnik and have faded into the background since old folks like me took advantage in the 60's and learned several languages.

  9. Stephen Jones said,

    August 21, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

    Pretty well the only degree subject you need a foreign language in in a British Universities is Foreign Languages.

    I've never understood this strange American obsession with degree requirements including courses in entirely irrelevant fields.

  10. Mark P said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 12:24 am

    "Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago."

    I presume this is relative to the total of university enrolments. In which case it is a meaningless whinge. Why should language enrolments increase because, say, computer science and accountancy enrolments increase?

    The absolute number of enrolments for languages is up (even excluding ASL). Even allowing for population increase there is no drop off in take-up of languages.

  11. Polly Glot said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 2:34 am

    @ Stephen Jones,

    The whole sequence is different. In England most people get a pretty good grounding in at least one foreign language (I got up to O-level Latin, Russian and French without even being in a language A-level set), whereas in the US they compensate at college level, which seems to me to be much better-rounded (the liberal arts idea, at least) than is a B.A. course in Great Britain.

  12. Mark Liberman said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 5:03 am

    Mark P: Why should language enrolments increase because, say, computer science and accountancy enrolments increase?

    The drop in modern language course enrollments in the U.S. took place between 1965 and 1980. Since then, the relative level has remained fairly stable or risen slightly. As I understand the history, the drop was mostly due to changes in requirements, not to changes in the distribution of students by subjects.

    In any case, the whole point of the graph was to look at changes over time in the rate of college language study, and in particular in the (lack of) change in that quantity in the past seven years or so. If you're actually interested in changes over time in the total number of students enrolled in modern language courses, as opposed to making random irrelevant objections, you could go to the original source of statistics (cited in the Pinyin News article) and make your own graph.

  13. Nick Lamb said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 6:26 am

    The excerpted chart would be better if it didn't distort time by taking arbitrary sample points (arbitrary time-wise, presumably they were chosen because data was available only for these points, but the reader can't know if that's the case) and evenly spacing them on the horizontal axis. Five years and two years are not similar lengths of time so any apparent trend (other than the simplest "this value has increased and decreased over time" trend) is actually a deceit.

    I studied in the UK, and definitely wouldn't agree with the idea of making a second language (or any other specific discipline) a requirement for degree courses. Despite Heinlein's famous claim to the contrary, specialisation has been our recipe for success. A continuing adult education program is the right place for people to taste new areas at an introductory level, not higher education – what a waste of an expert in Law, or Spanish, or Chemistry, to have them teach people who don't know the first thing about it!

    I took some French (which I seem to have retained well enough to actually communicate, to my surprise, although better in text than with the spoken word) as well as Greek, Latin and German (from which I retain very little) but those were all in grammar school (age 11-14). Somewhere along the way I took a few days of Japanese. But I was more than happy at 19 to put everything else aside for three years and just study the thing I was most interested in.

    The British university I attended offered "with a Modern Language" variants of their degrees, in which you would take extra modules in your first year and then subsequently replace optional modules from the main course with the specially adapted modules from the appropriate language taught by the language faculty. But I met very few people taking such an option, I'm glad it was there, but it shouldn't be compulsory.

  14. David Marjanović said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 7:33 am

    I've never understood this strange American obsession with degree requirements including courses in entirely irrelevant fields.

    What Polly Glot said, and what Mark Twain wrote about Germany — other countries simply provide the same "well-rounded education" earlier. In Austria, for example, you come out of "highschool" with two to four foreign languages, not to mention things like a solid grounding in chemistry and physics up to the fundamentals of quantum theory… so once you enter university, you can specialize.

  15. David Marjanović said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 7:35 am

    Incidentally, the American way is the original medieval one. Seven Free Arts and all that stuff. But starting earlier to learn languages makes it easier.

  16. Mark Liberman said,

    August 22, 2008 @ 7:41 am

    I wonder which (if any) of the commenters on this post have bothered to read the Pinyin News article. Certainly no one is engaging the issue that it raised in its first sentence:

    From the way the U.S. media talk about the boom in Mandarin classes, it’s easy to get the impression that Mandarin is about to become the most studied language in the United States. So I offer the following overdue reality check.

    I'm disappointed in you folks — the point of comments, at least on this blog, is to have a sensible conversation, not to pop off in an uninformed way about the first thing that comes into your head.

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