Dramatically declining enrollments in Chinese studies

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The number of students enrolled in a given foreign language is a good index of public perceptions of the importance of that language for global politics, economics, and cultural influence.  When I came to Penn in 1979, interest in all things Russian was soaring.  The Slavicists occupied quite a bit of real estate in Williams Hall, which houses language studies at Penn.  They had a number of institutes, research centers, libraries, and so forth, and they were extremely well funded.  A decade later, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Russian juggernaut at Penn began to fall apart, to the extent that it lost nearly all of its space and researchers, and they were tossing whole libraries into dumpsters.  As an ardent bibliophile, it pained me greatly to see precious books being thrown into the trash.  I rescued as many of them as I could stuff into my Volkswagen Beetle and cart away, including an enormous, old, and undoubtedly historically important encyclopedia that still sits in the enclosed porch of my home.

Such are the waxing and waning fortunes of language and culture studies in academia.  Now we seem to be seeing the same thing happening with Chinese.  After a prolonged period of sustained growth in the post Nixon-Deng era, in recent years the trend has taken a sharp downward turn.

The topic of declining enrollment / interest in Chinese / China came up again during a talk Ian Johnson gave a few days ago in Berlin.  Among many other points, he noted that, at the study abroad program where he taught in Beijing, the numbers went from something like 120 in 2010 to 30 in 2018. This shocked all the policy people and journalists in the audience who assumed there would be a burgeoning field of Zhongnanhai-ology, and thus they asked why?

It would be interesting to quantify this enrollment drop, and to try and figure out why this is happening (difficulty, lack of soft power, Chinese cultural solipsism, CCP fears, etc.)?  What, if anything, can be done to turn this trend around?

There may be exceptions to the falling numbers of students taking Chinese that I hear about from colleagues at many programs across the country, but the overall trajectory should serve as a kind of wake-up call to everyone in Chinese language and culture studies.


Selected readings


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:01 am

    The MLA website has a database that purports to give the total numbers of US undergraduate college students studying particular foreign languages as of various dates (usually they collect data every 3 to 5 years) going back to 1958. Click through to "Language Enrollment Database" from here: https://www.mla.org/Resources/Research/Surveys-Reports-and-Other-Documents/Teaching-Enrollments-and-Programs/Enrollments-in-Languages-Other-Than-English-in-United-States-Institutions-of-Higher-Education

    The most recent info is from 2016, which, using the end of the Cold War as a baseline, shows Chinese (presumably meaning just Mandarin) up significantly from 1990 (approximately 19K students enrolled up to 53K) and Russian down significantly (approximately 44k down to 20K over same time period), but Arabic up even more dramatically (from under 4K to over 30K). Notably, however, both Chinese and Arabic were as of 2016 down a bit from their respective peak enrollments in 2013 and 2009 respectively. And maybe Chinese is already down significantly from 2016 and the next round of comprehensive data collection will show that.

    Somewhat to my surprise, Japanese (which had already had a vogue in the U.S. during the 1980's before the Chinese economy had fully opened up) has continued to increase over the same time period (around 46K up to around 69K, with a peak at 72K in 2009). Very much not to my surprise, the "old-line" foreign language of German has continued to decline (down from 134K in 1990 to 81K in 2016, after an all-time peak in 1968). It's been a long time since you couldn't be a serious linguistics scholar without being able to read scholarly articles in German, and the same is true for many other disciplines.

    You can see more comparative data (back to 1960) presented in colorful charts and graphs here: https://www.mla.org/content/download/110154/2406932/2016-Enrollments-Final-Report.pdf

  2. J.W. BREWER said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:04 am

    You can also review colorful charts and graphs with data back to 1960 as part of the 2016 report, found here: https://www.mla.org/content/download/110154/2406932/2016-Enrollments-Final-Report.pdf

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:33 am

    Finally, you can go through table 8 in the back of the report I linked to in my prior content and see statistics (2016 back to 2009) for enrollment in over 300 lesser-taught (in the U.S.) languages, from which you can learn interesting things like how few U.S. students are studying Hindi (or any other South Asian language) in proportion to how many speakers the major South Asian languages have (and ditto for Bahasa Indonesia). I was separately distressed to see Old Irish allegedly down to zero and Old Norse down nationwide to 13 undergraduates, which may be fewer than the enrollment of my own (single-campus!) Old Norse class back in 1986.

  4. Michael Dukakis’ Strong Foreign Policy said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:45 am

    [forgive the rambling nature of this, I am on a hike and felt compelled to write]

    The truth of the matter is that Area Studies have failed us. The U.S. government spends incredible amounts of cash to train Mandarins (haha) who can help shape policy in ways that advance our geopolitical interests. At the least, we should create a group of confident commercial types who will increase our national wealth in ways that don’t run against our professed values.

    Is this what we find in these departments? I hardly think so. I won’t even mention those woebegone departments that have accepted Confucius Institute funding. (As an aside… thank god that Penn refused). We have produced a generation of doves who enable McKinsey to help the Middle Kingdom grow at the West’s expense.

    This reorientation is healthy, in my humble opinion. Enough of this view that talking to people and understanding them better will help us make peace with the world. Combating structural forces require realpolitik and a certain self knowledge. Yes, very nice you can play the erhu, but how will you help defend democracy?

    The world would be better served with fewer Percy Cradocks and more Chris Pattens.

    We need to invest in tactical Chinese language acquisition at the foot soldier and intelligence officer levels. Augmenting this with technology will be incredibly useful and scalable.

    Leave the poetry to the few elites. Culture is a seductive mistress and a healthy distance will help us. The very idea of America needs to be protected against “soft” power influence. Lest we end up with embarrassments like this:


  5. Wanda said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 11:50 am

    @J.W.Brewer: When I was in college in the very early 2000s, interest in fulfilling the language requirement with Japanese was strong. On my campus, it was driven from a desire to understand anime and other Japanese cultural products, which are often poorly translated.

  6. Arthur waldron said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 12:18 pm

    Enrollments in all things Chinese are plummeting. Fifty years ago (!) I left Harvard silently in the evening, after a big wedding of which I had been a part (he is now an Episcopal Bishop and a bit silly) taking Trailways to Middlebury, Vt. I arrived in the wee hours, at the smallest dormitory, where I was greeted by flies noisily buzzing around a bare fluorescent bulb a metal bed frame and long plastic mattress.

    China was not yet remotely fashionable. My teachers Jamie Pusey (1941-2019) Perry Link (1944-) i would meet the following day. Pioneers.

    In the half century since I learned the language and settled in Academia. Chinese-American relations soared, enrollments reached records, and then it all crashed, for the second time in a century, shattering decades of dreams.

    In some ways things are worse now than then. We are more entangled and corrupted.

    Would I take the bus again? I think so. I did not expect much. I found much more. I do feel some disappointment. Not so much as Chinese, however, whose vast expectations have collapsed.

  7. Vanya said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 1:05 pm

    The global spread of English is only accelerating. People perceive very few practical reasons to learn a foreign language other than English and the situation is only getting worse.

  8. Minivet said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 1:57 pm

    If I were an undergrad right now I would be extremely put off the idea of studying in China by what they're doing in XUAR.

    And anime's popularity seems to continue to increase, surprisingly enough.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 2:37 pm

    It may be worth noting that in recent decades there has (or at least had?) been a quite dramatic increase in Mandarin (generally sub nom. "Chinese") instruction in K-12 schools in the U.S. According to the 2017 survey I'll link to below, national enrollment as of whenever that survey was collecting its data was around 227K for Chinese among pre-college students, compared to e.g. around 68K for Japanese, 26K for Arabic, and 15K for Russian. Chinese had become per the survey the fourth-most-commonly-taught language in K-12 schools, behind Spanish/French/German and slightly ahead of Latin, and was in third place (leapfrogging German) in many individual states. Indeed, the school district where I myself live has recently added Mandarin to the curriculum, and the long-standing Latin instruction program has regrettably fallen apart. The rate and even direction of changes over time in enrollment may be quite different for a given language at the K-12 level than at the university level, although if Chinese has now already peaked and started to decline at the K-12 level (as Russian did some decades ago …) that would be interesting. https://www.americancouncils.org/sites/default/files/FLE-report-June17.pdf

    To Vanya's point, the lack of practical reasons for most Anglophones to learn another language has not necessarily decreased the percentage of American high school students who feel obligated to go through the motions of doing so, either because their school (whether based on policy set at the school, district, or state level) requires it or because they think they will look like a weak candidate for admission to college if they don't. Obviously many/most of them check the box by taking a couple years of pretty unrigorous instruction in Spanish, so the position of all other foreign languages classes (perceived as more difficult than Spanish through a self-reinforcing cycle whereby only more motivated-than-average students are likely to sign up for them) remains precarious.

  10. jin defang said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 2:40 pm

    we are believers in the market, folks. Students go where job opportunities are likely to be. Interest in Russian studies plummeted after the disintegration of the USSR: Japanese studies after the bubble economy burst; Vietnamese studies with the end of the war there. What's surprising, however, is that the decline of Chinese studies hasn't occurred b/c China has disintegrated and its economy, many predictions to the contrary, hasn't imploded. Another example of Chinese exceptionalism?

  11. cliff arroyo said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 4:39 pm

    Isn't a big part of it a lack of socio-cultural appeal caused by the current government? Maybe the perceived economic benefits are outweighted by crushing democracy in Hong Kong, social credit, covid, Uyghur detention camps, missing billionaires and athletes that fall afoul of the regime, jingoistic rhetoric toward Taiwan etc etc

    In Poland, Korean has gained a lot in popularity vis a vis Chinese and Japanese both, partly due to the appeal of current S Korean popular culture, from movies, tv series and k pop….

  12. AntC said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 6:17 pm

    The topic of declining enrollment / interest in Chinese

    This is a worry (if true). The democracies need culturally informed China-watchers, given China's dominance as the world's factory, and Xi Jinping's ambitions for territorial expansion.

    Repugnant as are the CCP's actions at home and abroad, "jaw, jaw, jaw is better than war, war, war."

  13. Chester Draws said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 7:05 pm

    What's surprising, however, is that the decline of Chinese studies hasn't occurred b/c China has disintegrated and its economy, many predictions to the contrary, hasn't imploded.

    Well China says its economy hasn't faltered. Many think they are simply lying.

  14. Mark Metcalf said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 9:15 pm

    I think one of the reasons is that Chinese studies departments don't know how to 'sell' their programs to students who are increasingly concerned about post-graduation employment. While faculty members have relevant insights regarding how best to prepare for an academic (i.e. post-graduate school) career, few have any 'real world' business experience and have difficulty applying what they teach to the commercial or government careers. To their credit, departments are beginning to reach out to former students who have landed such positions for advice, bringing them in to talk to student groups about where their language skills may be valued.

    More specifically, a commerce school colleague (with an MBA and a couple of decades of experience in financial media) who was a Chinese language undergraduate has spoken to Chinese language students. And (at my encouragement) a former student and recent grad (2018) who worked for a Chinese company in the PRC and now works for a think tank, contacted the department chair about speaking to students – she did and he enthusiastically agreed. In addition, undergraduates are becoming more savvy about selecting interdisciplinary electives that will contribute to non-academic career paths. In fact, a couple of Asian studies students were in my Chinese business class last semester and, not only did their non-commerce perspectives enhance the quality of the discussions, but they proved to themselves that they could hold their own in a non-Chinese-studies world.

    I also share my convoluted career experiences beginning as an undergraduate Chinese major (Navy->engineer->academic) with them, but that only seems to scare them. :-)

  15. Mark S. said,

    November 27, 2021 @ 9:48 pm

    The MLA's figures in links in the comments above undercount (in most years by about 2 percent) the real number of students in Mandarin classes, a problem the MLA has promised to fix in its next report.

    I've been following the numbers in Mandarin enrollments for more than a decade. Below are links to some of my posts of possible interest.


    This one was picked up on LL, but I can't seem to find it here now:



  16. David Morris said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 2:28 am

    Is declining enrolments limited to Chinese, or is it affecting all languages?

  17. Philip Taylor said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 9:59 am

    "This one was picked up on LL, but I can't seem to find it here now:
    Cited here. Found using Google Search with search expression "us-post-secondary-enrollments-in-foreign-languages-and-the-position-of-mandarin +site:languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu".</p

  18. Coby Lubliner said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 11:19 am

    It isn't clear to me, either from the post or from the comments, whether the numbers bandied about refer to total enrollment (including elective) in language classes or to language-study majors. Which is it?

  19. Hamish D said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 1:02 pm

    I did undergraduate studies in Manadarin nearly 40 years ago, in Canada and (for a semester) in China. Just as now, the 'stakes' were high then for such a decision: a very significant period of rote/repetitive study, a necessary immersion in and commitment to participation in a broad social/cultural and political system of thought (whether in China, Taiwan or elsewhere) which is profoundly different from our Western orientations, and, most practically: the financial costs. Then, as now, it was a crapshoot whether all that investment of time, effort and money was going to lead directly to a satisfying career, making use of those skills and knowledge. For students whose parents, families and social connections had the situational means to grease the wheels (and more importantly, to effortlessly re-direct to other paths as necessary), it was not perhaps such a challenge. But for the rest of us? Even with aptitude, drive, and academic savvy, pursuit of Mandarin proficiency (incl Han zi) is a slog. And the realization that I was ever to be (literally) a red-haired foreign devil in China, no matter how well I echoed native speech, made a difficult decision easier. Four decades later, students (and those who fund their education) are doing similar cost-benefit analyses–nothing new there. Many more capable minds are deciding, once again, "nah…"

  20. Victor Mair said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 1:12 pm

    Total numbers.

    The number of majors would be far fewer.

  21. Avi said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 1:52 pm

    We encouraged our daughter to take Mandarin in high school, 2014-2018, in hopes of a lot of choices both commercial and academic, and she did well and enjoyed it very much. But she decided that China has become so authoritarian that she couldn't continue in university.

    Many her peers feel the same, that they don't want to have anything to do with such a repressive regime that they remember as being better. Maybe the next cohort will have lower expectations.

  22. cliff arroyo said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 4:58 pm


    More or less what I said. Ten years ago China had economic and social appeal (more the latter but there was some social appeal – I've known many who spent time there and were enthusiastic).
    I can't imagine any sane person finding the current mainland government appealing in any way at any level.
    Taiwan is another affair but questions of scale are also an issue.
    If a person had already made an investment I can imagine the sunk cost fallacy kicking in. But those whose investment was small will leave and few will be drawn.
    And… IINM the US government is not funding Mandarin majors the way it funded Russian during the cold war. Few in the US found Soviet ways interesting but the US government spent a lot of money to have people around who could understand things going on there. I'm not so sure if that's still happening….

  23. Calvin said,

    November 28, 2021 @ 5:38 pm

    China under CCP has always been authoritative. The more benign and enlightened period was during the start of the reform (1978) till the Tiananmen Square crackdown (1989). Heck, the US even sold arms to China during that time.

    With all the negativities about China on human rights, COVID origin, etc., Chinese language is seen as uncool and doesn't have much appeal to the prospective students.

    All these plus the harden stance toward PRC since the Trump administration, there has been a wave of closures of the Confucius Institutes in the US campuses. I don't know the significance of the impact, but it likely contributed to the declining enrollment in Chinese studies.

    The Confucius Institute program and its curriculums have been controversial, but at least they provide some funding and resources for universities to host Chinese language programs. CIA is creating a new China Mission Center, maybe they can help fill the gap.

  24. Thomas said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 12:30 am

    For me Chinese was never more than a hobby, but when I started learning it something like 10 years ago, I had the hope that China might open up and get more liberal over time. With baby steps of course, but the feeling was there that things were to improve. For some time now, learning Chinese has the aftertaste of learning German in the 1930s, especially if one visits the Confucius Institutes and their vapid courses. If I had to pinpoint a time when things started to tank, it was when the Pooh took over.

  25. Christopher Coulouris said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 1:05 pm

    Just read this article on Reuters


  26. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 29, 2021 @ 1:20 pm

    In isolation it seems entirely plausible that increasingly negative perceptions among American students regarding the CCP regime would lessen interest in learning the associated language, yet as the original post noted, enrollment in Russian-language courses in the U.S. boomed with the Cold War and then declined as the Russophone regime in Moscow seemed less and less threatening and thus its language less salient. That story makes perfect sense too – it's just that the two stories seem to contradict each other.

    As to how "learning German in the 1930s" might have felt, I don't have any anecdotal impression that the propensity of American college students to study the German language declined at all as a result of the wickedness of those in power in Berlin, but perhaps I'm wrong about that. Obviously it may have helped that quite a number of high-profile writers in German moved out of Germany in and after 1933 rather than live under the new regime, which made it easier for Anglophones to draw a distinction between the language (and associated culture) and the regime. Here's one list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exilliteratur#Exile_writers

  27. karl said,

    December 3, 2021 @ 5:17 am

    Although the growing dominance of English as an international language and a distaste for Chinese policies are factors behind the decline, the increasingly closed nature of the mainland Chinese ecosystem must also play a role. My impression since returning to live in Beijing in 2008 is that Chinese organizations have become increasingly unwelcoming toward hiring foreigners. Work visas are difficult to obtain. There has been no decline in the assumption that "foreigners are different" (even as, paradoxically, China tries to become more international). Whereas before foreigners were seen as rather mysterious and in possession of special powers, now they are more likely to be seen as curiosities who often come from forsaken lands. If asked, I would have been much more likely to encourage a young person to learn Chinese twenty years ago. Now I would ask what that person would like to accomplish. If the response is "China's economy is booming and there must be opportunities there," I tell them that every year hundreds of thousands of young Chinese return from studying abroad. Many of them are bright, hard-working, and have strong English skills. What kind of skills and attributes do you possess, other than non-fluent Chinese, that will help you to overcome cultural hesitancy, bureaucratic hurdles, and other difficulties involved in living, working, and thriving in China? Lastly, as a foreigner in China, you will forever be considered no more than a sojourner, no matter how long you've been here. Permanent residency is still rather difficult to obtain, and becoming a PRC citizenship is extremely rare by design. To top it off, of course, China has been virtually sealed to most non-citizens since spring of 2020. Even foreign students (with some exceptions) are not being let in.

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