Nov 15, 2023 - Politics & Policy

College students bid adieu to foreign language classes

Change in fall course enrollments for languages other than English
Data: Modern Language Association; Note: Other includes less commonly taught languages, Biblical Hebrew, Russian, Ancient Greek and Japanese; Chart: Deena Zaidi/Axios Visuals

Enrollment in languages other than English at U.S. colleges and universities dropped 16.6% between the fall of 2016 and the fall of 2021, the Modern Language Association (MLA) reports.

  • The biggest declines were in German (-33.6%), Arabic (-27.4%) and Modern Hebrew (-26%).
  • The only three languages with enrollment gains were Korean (by a whopping 38.3%), Biblical Hebrew and American Sign Language (ASL).

Why it matters: Amid declining college enrollments, schools are trimming programs with fewer students (such as languages) as they bulk up more popular STEM programs — potentially to the permanent detriment of America's intellectual firepower.

  • "People who speak another language score higher on tests and think more creatively, have access to a wider variety of jobs, and can more fully enjoy and participate in other cultures or converse with people from diverse backgrounds," says the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Driving the news: Language study on college campuses peaked in 2009 and has been dropping ever since, the MLA found in its 26th census of language enrollments.

  • Some of the drop in enrollments can be tied to the overall decrease in college students, but the phenomenon also seems linked to the overall denigration of non-STEM fields on campus.
  • "The programs that are thriving are the ones that the schools are investing in," MLA executive director Paula Krebs tells Axios. "It's kind of a no-brainer."

By the numbers: Declines in language enrollments were steepest at two-year institutions: 24.2%, compared with 14.7% at four-year schools.

  • "This disparity has concerning implications for equity of and access to language study," the MLA said in a press release.
  • Some 961 language study programs disappeared during the five-year period examined: The MLA reports 10,773 college-level language programs in 2021, down from 11,734 in 2016.
  • "German declined by 172 programs, French by 164, Chinese by 105 and Arabic by 80," the MLA said in a 107-page report. "The number of institutions reporting ASL increased by 44, and the number for Korean increased by 29."

Between the lines: Student interest in K-pop and K-dramas is behind the growth of Korean language programs, Krebs said.

  • "That's a cultural interest that's driving that," she said. "That's not a bunch of scholars of 16th century Korean leading that charge," nor a surge in students of Korean heritage.

State of play: Among the campuses where language programs and majors are on the chopping block this fall: SUNY Potsdam and SUNY Brockport.

  • "I don't think language departments in this country need a wake-up call," Krebs said. "They all know what danger they're in."

Yes, but: Some language programs are thriving — particularly those that emphasize the cultural context of the tongue they're teaching and that give students real-world experience in speaking it, Krebs said. The MLA report described several success stories, including:

  • The University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, has seen its language program thrive in part by catering to the demand for translation services in the local community, particularly in Spanish.
  • UCLA's Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department attracts lots of local students who speak Turkish, Armenian and Hebrew at home.
  • The University of Georgia; the University of Hawai'i, Mānoa; and Boise State University invite native speakers from their areas to engage with language students.

What they're saying: "Being more articulate about the value of being multilingual, about the value of understanding how to look outside of your own culture — that's the stuff that language programs need to double-down on," Krebs said.

  • "This is not about studying a language so that you can read more Cervantes," she added. "It's about learning to read Cervantes as a way of learning to understand another culture."

The big picture: The humanities are under attack nationally amid a push for bottom-line, return-on-investment results in education — and a broader mistrust of institutions of higher learning.

  • West Virginia University's move to gut its world languages and liberal arts programs prompted national soul-searching over the value of a well-rounded education.
  • A recent front-page story in the New York Times reported on the withering of the humanities under budget cuts at many universities, with the provost of Miami University describing an "existential crisis" for faculty members.
  • In a sign of the times, Mississippi's state auditor released a report recommending a shift toward vocationally oriented degree programs like business and engineering, the Times reported.

The bottom line: While language apps and AI translation services are no substitute for the emotional richness that comes from learning another language, those who fight for multilingualism feel themselves increasingly tilting at windmills — like Cervantes' Don Quixote.

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