College Language Enrollments Down Ten Percent

A young woman sits alone on the steps.

Total enrollments in languages other than English declined by 9.2% between fall 2013 and fall 2016, but there were enrollment gains on nearly half of all language programs (45.5%), indicating that the institutions with well-constructed programs were attracting students, according to Modern Language Association’s (MLA’s) latest report on language course enrollments in colleges and universities in the U.S.

Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Final Report documents changes in enrollments in the fifteen most-studied languages as well as trends for less commonly studied languages.

More than half the programs in the following languages were stable or  increased in overall enrollments: Arabic (51.5%), American Sign Language (53.4%), Biblical Hebrew (53.8%), Japanese (57.4%), and Korean (75.0%). And the following languages had close to half their programs reporting stable or increased enrollments: Portuguese (40.5%), French (41.5%), Modern Hebrew (41.6%), German (47.1%), Latin (47.1%), Chinese (47.5%), Russian (48.6%), and Ancient Greek (48.9%).

One-third of the programs in Italian (33.2%) and Spanish (36.3%) reported stability or growth. In advanced undergraduate enrollments (courses in the fifth through eighth semesters), of the fifteen most commonly taught languages, all but Spanish showed stability or growth in more than half their programs. And in graduate enrollments, all fifteen languages showed stability or growth in more than half their programs.

Of particular concern is the 16% drop in enrollments at two-year institutions. The total number of language programs offered in fall 2016 was down by 651, or 5.3%, since 2013, whereas between 2009 and 2013 the number of offered programs declined by just one. This figure includes commonly taught languages such as French (which fell by 129 programs), Spanish (118), German (86), and Italian (56), as well as less commonly taught languages such as Hindi (which declined by 8), Yiddish (5), and Thai (3). Twenty-three Indigenous American languages that reported enrollments in 2009 or 2013 were not taught in fall 2016. Staffing for less commonly taught languages tends to depend on non-tenure-track hiring, which makes those languages especially vulnerable to budget changes.

The report concludes that investments are needed in language education, and features case studies of successful programs on which change can be modeled.


  1. Investments and an understanding of what is to be gained are both essential. I think we sometimes focus on getting a language credit out of the way. Instead, we should focus on the skills and information gained – including an ability to interact socially on a more compassionate and informed level. Languages lead us to comprehend culture in different ways than just through our eyes, especially as we see how the languages evolved over centuries. Knowing a language common to your area, especially an indigenous one, may help to reduce prejudice on both sides of the conversation. ASL opens doors to a rice culture that many of us do not know exists in our midst. Languages don’t have to be seen as something “foreign”, but may be seen as empowering.

Comments are closed.