Enrollments in foreign-language classes at American colleges and universities have jumped 13 percent since 2002, with Arabic and Chinese showing the most dramatic increases, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Modern Language Association. The number of students studying Arabic soared 126.5 percent between 2002 and 2006, while the number studying Chinese grew by more than 50 percent. Korean also rose in popularity, with a 37.1 percent rise in enrollments.
"From the MLA's perspective, there's a lot of good news in the report," Rosemary G. Feal, the association's executive director, said during a telephone news conference on Tuesday. "Students who know a foreign language well are going to have a competitive edge in the world," she said, "and they're going to be better representatives of American culture, which is after all a culture of many languages."
Many of the survey's findings, Ms. Feal said, undercut the stereotype of "the tongue-tied American." "Heritage learners," or students who want to learn the language and culture of their parents and grandparents, account for some of the uptick in enrollments, according to Ms. Feal. Even more students have realized that being able to speak a language besides English opens the door to a range of professional opportunities in an era whose watchword is globalization.
Study-abroad opportunities have also sparked interest in language classes, while the Internet has given students access to virtual language communities that didn't exist a decade or two ago. The teaching of foreign languages has evolved, too, as more professors incorporate the everyday material of other cultures into language instruction (The Chronicle, November 9).
A Decade of Enrollment Gains
Based on enrollment data for the fall of 2006, collected from 2,795 American institutions of higher learning, the MLA survey documents an upward trend that has been evident for the past decade. In 1998 the MLA counted only 5,505 enrollments in Arabic at two and four-year institutions. By 2002 that number had swelled to 10,584. Last year it hit 23,974. Chinese had 28,456 registered enrollments in 1998, 34,153 in 2002, and 51,582 in 2006.
Although students are drawn to a broader range of languages than they were a decade ago, the big three— Spanish, French, and German— still account for about 70 percent of foreign-language enrollments, according to the report, "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006." Spanish continues to be the most-taught language in the country, with a combined total of 822,985 enrollments in 2006— an increase of more than 10 percent since 2002. It leads by what the report calls "a substantial margin" at two-year colleges as well as at four-year institutions.
French remains the second most-taught language but, with 206,426 registered enrollments last year, attracts far fewer students than Spanish does. German holds third place, with 94,264 enrollments.
With Arabic, Chinese, and an array of other languages showing significant increases in enrollment, however, the dominance of Spanish, French, and German "is slowly decreasing," the report said.
American Sign Language, or ASL, made a strong showing. It came in fourth over all, jumping from 60,781 enrollments five years ago to 78,829 last year— a growth rate of almost 30 percent. The report notes that ASL now holds second place, behind Spanish, at two-year colleges.
The gains extended to less commonly taught languages as well. The absolute number of students taking African and Middle Eastern languages other than Arabic remains small— 8,011 in 2002— but that figure represents a growth rate of 56 percent since 2002. Among less frequently taught Asian and Pacific languages, Vietnamese is the leader, with 2,485 enrollments in 2006— a rise of more than 11 percent over five years.
In less positive news, the survey found "dramatic" differences between enrollments in lower-level and upper-level courses, which has implications for how proficient today's language students are likely to become. The MLA has been collecting data on foreign-language enrollments since 1958, but the new survey represents its first attempt to compare numbers for introductory and higher-level courses. "For every eight enrollments in first and second-year Arabic," the survey found, "there is only one enrollment in an advanced Arabic course." For Chinese, the ratio was 9 to 2. Spanish and Japanese did better, with one enrollment in an upper-level course for every 5 at beginning levels.
"Retaining students in upper-level courses is a challenge many fields share," the report concluded, "and is made more acute by the growing curricular choices now offered to students in fields that did not exist a few decades ago."
Shortage of Teachers of Arabic
During Tuesday's news conference, Karin C. Ryding, a professor of Arabic at Georgetown University and a member of the MLA's Ad Hoc Committee on Foreign Languages, talked about how the supply of teachers hadn't kept pace with student demand. "This is a real challenge for Arabic," she said. More students are clamoring for courses, but "the number of people available to undertake teaching has remained basically the same."
The profession is taking steps to accelerate teacher preparation, she said. "It has been a strain on our small resources, but we're doing our very best."
Ms. Ryding expects to see enrollments continue to climb. "I don't think this is just a temporary spike," she said. "It indicates a real shift of interest on the part of American students. They're coming to Arabic and other languages with serious professional goals in mind."
Set the 2006 numbers against those of 40 years ago, however, and the overall picture looks less rosy. "Although there is growth in absolute numbers of enrollments in modern languages," the report states, "because of the phenomenal expansion of students attending institutions of higher learning, in 2006 enrollments in the most-taught languages have not reached the proportion they reached in 1960-65."
Since that high point, it continues, "enrollments in languages have fallen substantially in proportion to the expanding numbers of students."
To put it statistically, In 1965, for every 100 students, there were 16.5 enrollments in foreign-language courses, according to Ms. Feal. The 2006 figure was half that— about eight enrollments. Ms. Feal said that the MLA planned to do a study of colleges' language requirements and how those have shifted over time.
"Do I think that enough American students are studying foreign languages?" Ms. Feal responded when asked about the 1960 versus 2006 figures. "No. We do have a ways to go."