Language Course Enrollment in US Higher Education Hits New Lows

US Language Course Enrollment Declines

According to a report published in November 2023 by Natalia Lusin, Terri Peterson, Christine Sulewski, and Rizwana Zafer of the Modern Language Association of America, college and university enrollments in languages other than English fell by 16.6% from 2016 – 2021.

The report documents the number of programs offering a given language or not in fall 2021, as reported by the institutions themselves. If a language was not taught that semester, it is not necessarily representing program cuts.

Lower overall enrollment rates in two- and four-year programs indicate an 8.2% drop from 2016 to 2021: the total number of programs reporting enrollments fell by 961, from 11,734 to 10,773, indicates the report. Two-year colleges (granting associate degrees and certificates) had a larger percentage of enrollment decline (24.2%) than four-year institutions (granting bachelor’s degrees, 14.7%). 

The report also mentions that the decline in enrollments across language programs impacted both commonly taught languages, such as French (down 164 programs), German (down 172 programs), Chinese (down 105 programs), and Arabic (down 80 programs), and less commonly taught languages, with a decline in enrollment for 101 of those languages, including 20 Indigenous American languages that were not available in the fall of 2021.

Other data include the findings of the Modern Language Association’s twenty-sixth language enrollment census (fall 1921), which keeps track of course enrollments in languages other than English in US colleges and universities at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

Higher Enrollment in ASL and Korean

The report also specified growth in some languages, including 44 additional institutions teaching American Sign Language (ASL) and 29 teaching Korean in the same 2016-2021 period. Among less commonly taught languages, there was an increase in 113 languages.

Overall, 38.3% of programs and languages had no changes or showed increased enrollments, while 61.7% declined. More than 50% of specialized introductory language programs also showed stability or increased enrollments, such as ASL, Ancient Greek, Biblical Hebrew, Japanese, Korean, and languages in the less commonly taught group.

According to the report, some colleges offer students double majors that include a language and translation or interpreting coursework, among them the Emory and Henry College in Virginia (with about a quarter of students learning Spanish in 2021 with some also taking translation courses), the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley (650 enrollments in ASL in 2021 with many language students also studying spoken language interpreting), and the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay (1,400 enrollments in French, German, Japanese, Oneida, and Spanish, and many students taking translation courses as well).

Editor’s note: This article was updated on December 20, 2023 to reflect a request for corrections received from Anna Chang at the MLA.