Trends in Foreign Language enrollments

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Karin Fisher, "It’s a Bleak Climate for Foreign Languages as Enrollments Tumble", Chronicle of Higher Education 11/15/2023"

Enrollments in foreign-language courses tumbled nearly 17 percent between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2021, the largest decline in the six decades the Modern Language Association has been conducting its census of American colleges. […]

Since peaking in 2009, foreign-language enrollments have deteriorated by almost 30 percent, the MLA found. This is a stunning reversal: Over the previous 30 years, the number of students studying languages had been on a steady upward trajectory.

Ryan Quinn, "Foreign Language Enrollment Sees Steepest Decline on Record", Inside Higher Ed 11/16/2023:

While the COVID-19 crisis lowered enrollments generally, the new report notes that the overall number of students in U.S. colleges and universities only fell 8 percent between 2016 and 2021. While those aren’t directly comparable figures, the drop in enrollment in non-English-language classes was over twice as much — and the 2021 decline in language-taking continues a pre-pandemic trend.

You can find the underlying data here on the Modern Language Association's website: "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education". As the various panicked reactions note, the MLA's data shows strong rises for ASL and Korean, while the "old timers" decline:

An interactive plot of overall enrollments (source):

There's more to be said about why ASL and Korean are different — I'll leave that for a later post, though no doubt commenters will have things to tell us.

The overall decline in foreign-language enrollments is likely to continue in the short term, pushed by reduction in bottom-up student interest as a result of better machine translation for both text and speech, and also by reduction in top-down "foreign language" requirements at many administrative levels.

But over the last century, trends in U.S. foreign language enrollments have been driven to a large extent by responses at the federal level to geopolitical crises. See e.g. Deborah Cohn, "Fewer U.S. college students are studying a foreign language − and that spells trouble for national security", The Conversation 11/16/2023:

When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the first artificial Earth satellite, on Oct. 4, 1957, it did more than spark fears about America’s ability to compete technologically. It also raised concerns that the U.S. had a shortage of Russian speakers capable of monitoring Soviet scientific and military activities.

In 1958, the National Defense Education Act authorized funding to strengthen U.S. education in language instruction, in addition to math and science.

A generation before Sputnik, there was the massive response to WWII (about which more later — see here for a start), and more recently, the response to 9/11. And of course, there were broader societal reactions to all of these challenges. (And there are other social forces, including those behind the rising interest in ASL and Korean.)

Current geopolitical issues will surely affect trends in foreign language enrollments over the next decade, modulated by computer translation and teaching applications in ways that may be harder to predict than most people think. Again, more later…



  1. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 7:15 am

    Almost every week I hear horror stories about how once flourishing Chinese language programs at distinguished institutions of higher learning (e.g., Vassar, Seton Hall) are in shambles because so few students enroll in them. Perhaps a few counter examples can be cited, but the overall trend is clearly what I've been hearing for the last few years and as reported in the o.p. And, yes, Korean is a general exception.

  2. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 7:26 am

    Selected readings

    "Overall, why do Mandarin enrollments continue to decline?" (9/13/23) — also addresses the rise in Korean enrollments

    "Dramatically declining enrollments in Chinese studies" (11/27/21)

    "Is there no / any longer a reason / need to learn a foreign language?" (7/14/23)

  3. Victor Mair said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 7:31 am

    This phenomenon persists despite the fact that many of the programs whose enrollments are lagging are actually of high quality.

  4. ajay said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 9:41 am

    A few points come to mind:
    1. Overall number of students is down 8% since 2016. Language enrolment is down 16%. I wonder what subjects are declining less than 8% or even rising? Because there are (anecdotally) similar warnings about declining enrolment in English, in history…

    2. One very obvious answer to the question "why don't students at US universities want to learn a foreign language" might be "because they already speak one". The number of foreign students in US universities has almost doubled in the last 20 years. Some of them of course may be L1 English; most probably not. All, presumably, speak English to a fairly high level, because that's the language of instruction. Also, the number of children in the US who speak a language other than English at home has risen rapidly – the number who speak both English and something else is presumably even higher.

  5. Coby said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 9:43 am

    I am curious about trends in enrollments in non-English languages in non-English-speaking countries.

  6. Terry K. said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 10:53 am

    Two thoughts. The status of English as a lingua franca in most of the world may give some people less motive to study a foreign language. But also, availability of other ways to study a language probably means at least some people choose other ways to study a language who would have studied at a college or university in the past. Though, of course, it's not just a matter of if that happens, but whether it's enough of a factor to noticeably affect enrollment numbers.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 11:30 am

    @Coby: "I am curious about trends in enrollments in non-English languages in non-English-speaking countries."

    A few straws in the wind — here and here.

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    November 20, 2023 @ 5:12 pm

    I just earlier this month saw an article with stats on current undergraduate enrollment in language classes at my alma mater: ASL has moved up to third place, but there are otherwise some notable differences from the national stats in the contents and order of the top ten: in declining order of total-students enrolled, it's Spanish, "Chinese," ASL, French, Korean, Italian, Japanese, Indonesian, Arabic, and German.* Latin and Greek both outside the top ten, apparently.

    It's pretty widely accepted that the percentage of undergraduates majoring in humanities, including but not limited to foreign languages/literatures, has been in steep decline in recent decades. Other factors (which may be addressed somewhere in the voluminous MLA report) might be: a) decrease in percentage of undergraduates subject to requirements to take X foreign language classes as part of a general distributional requirement for their bachelor's degree even if it's not required by their specific major; b) increase in percentage of undergraduates who come out of high school with an AP test result or other credential that fulfills their college's foreign language requirement; and c) decrease in intensity of foreign language requirements even in traditionally language-focused majors.** More broadly, maybe the question is how many students ever took more foreign language classes than they "had to," given their basic choice of university and program within that university?*** Maybe changes over time in how many, if any, you "have to" the key driver here — in terms of total enrollment in all languages, of course, rather than which specific languages are in vogue or out of vogue?

    *The slide of German seems particularly notable. Two of my undergraduate classmates are tenured professors of German at other U.S. universities that still teach it. I wonder if they will be replaced when they retire.

    **The phenomenon of the embattled-but-still-existing Classics departments responding to declining numbers of majors by reducing if not eliminating the number of classes in which reading Latin and Greek texts in the original rather than in translation has attracted some attention, but it would not surprise me if there are more subtle but similar loosenings of requirements in other majors.

    ***Did I manage to count that one semester of Old Norse I took in fall 1986 for credit toward the linguistics major? Maybe? Memory is hazy.

  9. wanda said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 1:52 am

    I'll take the easy one. The increase in Korean enrollment is due to the spectacular rise of K-pop in general and, perhaps, BTS in particular as major cultural forces.

    Off topic but my friends were part of the small increase in Japanese enrollments in the mid-00s. They wanted to be able to watch anime in the original.

  10. Philip Taylor said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 5:16 am

    Wanda — "my friends were part of the small increase in Japanese enrollments in the mid-00s. They wanted to be able to watch anime in the original" — a (Chinese) friend taught himself Japanese in just six months purely by watching anime in the original. He now holds the highest qualification that a foreigner can achieve for speaking Japanese.

  11. Benjamin Ernest Orsatti said,

    November 21, 2023 @ 8:58 am

    I'd imagine the hardest thing about a Chinese person learning Japanese would be looking at the kan(han)ji(ja), having the Chinese reading immediately spring to mind, and then having to back up, 180-it, and go looking for the Japanese reading.

    It'd be (sort of) like an Anglophone looking at, "Quickいbrownキツネがlazyなdogをjびumps over." and not being able to pronounce any of those words that look just like honest-to-goodness English words, and instead having to read it as, "Subayai chairo no kitsune ga taidana inu o tobikoemasu.".

    Hell, I can't even think of bread in French without wincing a little.

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