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Finding Flaw and Disorder

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Report Highlights Language Study Shortfalls

MLA report shows investment needed to halt decline in language enrollments

Many language programs at US colleges and universities remain strong despite challenging national and local conditions, according to a comprehensive new report, Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2021, released last month by the Modern Language Association (MLA). While total enrollments in languages other than English continued the sustained decline that began after their historic peak in 2009, more than one-third of all language programs saw an increase in enrollments or remained stable, and several languages showed gains in overall enrollments.

Total language enrollments on US college campuses decreased by 16.6% between 2016 and 2021, marking the largest decline in the history of the census. From 1980 until 2009, the year immediately following the 2007–08 financial crisis, language enrollments at US colleges and universities saw strong growth, rising from 924,337 in 1980 to 1,673,566 in 2009. Enrollments now stand at approximately the same level as in 1998. Part, but not all, of this drop in language enrollments can be attributed to the overall decrease in the number of students enrolling in colleges and universities, as institutions have seen an 8.0% decline in enrollment since 2016.

The drop in enrollments was steepest at two-year institutions, falling by 24.2%; enrollments at four-year institutions declined by 14.7%. This disparity has concerning implications for equity of and access to language study; the two-year institutions whose programs are disproportionately at risk provide critical educational opportunities for underserved communities of students.

Despite these challenging conditions for language study, many language programs continue to flourish. Among all programs and for all languages, 38.3% increased or were stable. The percentage of programs that increased or were stable was even greater for advanced undergraduate study (50.0%) and graduate study (56.5%). Moreover, three of the 15 most commonly taught languages saw an overall increase in enrollments. Korean continued its remarkable growth, rising by 38.3%, followed by Biblical Hebrew (9.1%) and American Sign Language (0.8%).

The report includes case studies of ten institutions from across the country where language programs are thriving. Many of these institutions achieved remarkable growth over the past several years, and instructors and administrators share how their approaches to language learning have enabled their programs to flourish. What works? Access to robust institutional and financial support, the development of close ties between language programs and local communities, an emphasis on real-life language application and professional advancement, and courses that highlight the cultural component of language learning. “In a difficult time for language study, it is vital that we learn from these extraordinary success stories,” said Paula M. Krebs, the executive director of the MLA.

“These strong programs offer valuable strategies for institutions with struggling programs, and they speak to how transformative full-throated institutional support can be for language learning.” The most successful language programs had several key characteristics in common, including ample funding, support from administrative offices and other departments, a willingness to prioritize studying the cultural component of language, and a focus on applying language learning in real-life contexts.

Data from this census are also being added to the MLA Language Map, where visitors can view language programs and enrollments in the context of where languages are spoken in the US. For more information, visit www.mla.org/Resources/Guidelines-and-Data/Reports-and-Professional-Guidelines/Enrollments-in-Languages-Other-Than-English-in-United-States-Institutions-of-Higher-Education.

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