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Wider Variety of Foreign Languages Now Studied at U.S. Colleges

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College students have been studying foreign languages at a fairly constant rate since 2006 but the variety of languages studied has increased, according to the results of a Modern Language Association of America (MLA) survey released on December 8, 2010.

More Foreign Languages Being Studied at Colleges than Ever Before

The study, Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009, was the 22nd produced by the MLA since 1958.

Between 1958 and 1965, surveys included only modern languages. Latin, Ancient Greek, and other classical languages were introduced in 1965. The 1965 survey was also the first to provide enrollments in less commonly taught languages by language name and by institution. The number of foreign languages studied in 2009 was a record-breaking two hundred and thirty-two.

The MLA documented foreign language course participation as opposed to the number of college students studying a particular language for the study. The number of enrollments in foreign language courses grew by 6.6 percent between 2006 and 2009, from 1.57 million to 1.68 million, but it’s important to realize that the growth took place during a time period in which the total number of undergraduate students also increased.

“I believe that the exciting takeaway from this report is that more students are studying more languages,” Russell A. Berman, first vice president of the MLA, and professor of German studies and comparative literature at Stanford University, told reporters.

Foreign Language Departments Facing Budget Cuts and Possible Extinction

Although foreign language study among college students reached an all-time high of 1,682,627 enrollments in 2009, the number of foreign language courses offered accounted for just 8.6 percent of all college classes, the same as in 2006. Comparatively, foreign language courses accounted for 16.5 of all college classes in 1965.

The MLA’s new study was issued at a time when foreign language departments at many colleges and universities across the nation are facing budget cuts, undergoing mergers with other programs or being closed outright.

According to Inside Higher Ed, administrators at the State University of New York at Albany recently announced that they wanted to close admissions to their programs in French, Italian, and Russian. Howard University in Washington, D.C. is also considering closing both German and Russian majors.

Berman’s thoughts?

“Some administrators are just simply shortsighted. It’s a problem of a lack of imagination in parts of higher education leadership,” he said.

The MLA reports that only about half of U.S. colleges now require foreign language study for graduation, down from about two-thirds 15 years ago.

Arabic and American Sign Language Enrollments on the Rise

The number of college students studying Spanish, French and German increased only modestly from 2006 to 2009 but enrollment in American Sign Language — the fourth most-popular language — increased more than 16 percent. The New York Times reports that many colleges have long waiting lists of students trying to get into introductory American Sign Language classes, many of them turning to sign language due to their previous difficulties learning European languages.

At the University of Rochester, where foreign language study is not a graduation requirement, sign-language enrollment has remained strong. “American Sign Language is our second-largest language. It gets almost 10 percent of our undergraduates, almost equal to Spanish,” said Ted Supalla, director of Rochester’s American Sign Langauge program.

“Some students take it because when they took Spanish or French in high school, it was horrific and they think this will be better,” said Amy Ruth McGraw, who teaches at the University of Iowa. Around 200 students study sign language at her school.

Spanish remained the most popular foreign language studied at colleges and universities with nearly 865,000 enrollments, a growth rate of 5.1 percent over 2006. The study of Arabic showed the biggest increase in popularity with 46 percent more enrollments in 2009 than in 2006. American Sign Language enrollment increased by 16.4 percent, Japanese enrollment increased by 10.3 percent and Chinese increased by 18.2 percent between 2006 and 2009.

Top 10 Foreign Languages by Enrollment, 2009

1. Spanish

2. French

3. German

4. American Sign Language

5. Italian

6. Japanese

7. Chinese

8. Arabic

9. Latin

10. Russian


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.

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