MLA Survey Shows Language Study Declining

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A report by the Modern Language Association of America (MLA) has found that the study of foreign languages is slowly declining.

“Enrollment in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education” was released by the (MLA), in which 26,000 members work in nearly 100 countries to strengthen the study and teaching of languages and literature. Even though total enrollments in languages other than English decreased since the last survey of MLA in 2009, several languages saw increasing enrollments, and especially in advanced language classes.

Total enrollment in language study on US college campuses decreased by 6.7% in between the years 2009 to 2013. But languages such as Korean, American Sign Language (ASL), Portuguese and Chinese showed that interest is rising. The sharpest percentage increase was in Korean, which rose at every institutional level between 2009 and 2013.

Advanced study such as third and fourth-year classes in ASL, Arabic, Chinese, Biblical Hebrew, Modern Hebrew and Japanese, increased from the years 2006 to 2013. The percentage also increased for Ancient Greek, Russian and Spanish.

Even though Spanish remains the most studied language, with total enrollment exceeding that of all other languages combined, for the first time in the history of the survey, Spanish study decreased at all levels, falling by 8.2% overall.

Rosemary G. Feal, the executive director of the MLA, explained the situation:

“This change suggests that students in US classrooms have more options than they had in the past. They may be coming from high school with knowledge of a language other than Spanish or French, and they are taking advantage of the impressive array of offerings at the college level.”

The data from this survey has been added to the MLA Language Map, where visitors can see language programs and enrollment in the context of where languages are spoken in the United States. Researchers who want to know more about enrollment and to search by state or institution can create custom reports using the Language Enrollment Database, 1958 – 2013.

The newest MLA survey counts Fall 2013 undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages other than English at 2,616 AA-, BA-, MA-, PhD- granting colleges and universities in the United States. The response rate of the survey was 98.3%, which was comprised of approximately one-third of responses from two- year colleges and two-thirds from four-year institutions.

The MLA contacted registrars and other school representatives by mail, telephone and e-mail to conduct this survey. The list of the institutions was supplemented with information from the National Center for Education Statistics, among other sources, to ensure than all the eligible institutions were accounted for.

The survey does not measure the number of students studying a language, but measures the course enrollments.