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Indicator I-7 Language Course Enrollment in High Schools
NOTE TO READERS: Please include the following reference when citing data from this page: "American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Humanities Indicators,".
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Updated (8/5/2010).

See the
Note on Language Course Enrollment Data.

For almost a century, the Modern Language Association, followed by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL), has collected information about levels of LOTE course-taking in the nation’s public secondary schools. This rich data set reveals that between 1960 and 2000 the percentage of public high school students taking LOTE courses first dropped, reaching a low point in the late 1970s, but then rose steadily for a net increase of 17 percentage points over the four decades (Figure I-7a; see the Note on Language Course Enrollment Data).

Figure I-7a, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

The observed rise in LOTE enrollments since the late 1970s is almost entirely attributable to increased course-taking in one language: Spanish. Spanish enrollments more than doubled over the last two decades of the 20th century. By 2000, Spanish enrollments accounted for approximately 70% of all LOTE enrollments among public high school students.

The other languages traditionally taken by public high school students have not fared as well. German saw an increase in enrollments between 1960 and 1970 but then experienced a decline that by 2000 had brought enrollments back down near the 1960 level. French rebounded from a sharp dip in enrollments in the 1970s but then saw its numbers drop again throughout the 1990s. Latin enrollments, which dropped steadily between 1960 and the late 1970s, were stable over the next two decades, holding at approximately 1.5% of all high school students.

While enrollment data reveal how many students are receiving at least some formal language training, they do not indicate what level of fluency is being attained. Direct measures of young peoples’ competence in languages other than English do not exist, but data from NCES supply information as to the number of students pursuing advanced language study, a valuable indirect measure of their language achievement (Figure I-7b; the data presented in this figure are for all high school graduates, i.e., those who attended either public or private school, while the enrollment figures cited above are for public school students only1) These data indicate that the share of the nation’s students pursuing more advanced language study is increasing. In 2004, approximately 10% of graduates took a fourth-year LOTE course, up from 4.5% in 1982. The proportion of graduates who completed an AP LOTE course more than quadrupled over the same period. Still, only a small fraction of high school graduates, 5.4%, took such courses in 2004.

Figure I-7b, Full Size
Supporting Data Supporting Data

Foreign-language competence was the focus of a significant federal policy effort under the last presidential administration. In January of 2006, President George W. Bush launched the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) and sought $107.7 million from Congress in fiscal year (FY) 20072 to increase the number of advanced-level speakers of foreign languages, with an emphasis on “critical-need” languages (such as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Japanese, Korean, Persian, and Russian).

In introducing the initiative, the president stressed that “An essential component of U.S. national security in the post-9/11 world is the ability to engage foreign governments and peoples in critical regions . . . to do this we must be able to communicate in other languages, a challenge for which we are unprepared."3 The NSLI continues under the Obama administration. Two key components of NSLI that focus on the development of language proficiency in young people are NSLI for Youth and STARTALK.

The data on foreign-language enrollments in the nation’s high schools for the year 2000 (more current data are expected from ACTFL in fall of 2010) suggest that “critical need” languages are little studied by secondary students. Figure I-7c provides enrollment figures for those languages on which data were collected and indicates the states in which these languages were offered by public schools. Japanese was the most commonly studied of these languages, with approximately 51,000 public high school students enrolled and classes available in nearly every state. Just over 10,600 public high school students studied Russian, and, as with Japanese, these classes were offered to students in most states. A much smaller number of public high school students were enrolled in Arabic, Chinese, or Korean, and classes in these languages were offered in only a handful of states.

Figure I-7c, Full Size


1 The NCES estimates that private school students constituted approximately 9% of the total high school (9–12 grade) population in 2004.

2 The initiative was ultimately funded at a level of $65.5 million for FY 2007. The administration requested $114.4 million for FY 2008, and Congress appropriated $85.9 million. See NSLI Funding budget breakout (Graphic I-7a) for the amounts received by each of the four participating federal agencies. More current funding data will be available in the fall of 2010.

Graphic gI-7a, Full Size

3 U.S. Department of State, “National Security Language Initiative,” Fact Sheet (January 5, 2006); originally available at For more information about the Bush initiative, see the archived material located at

Note on Language Course Enrollment Data

School enrollments refer to students, while language course enrollments refer to class registrations. The collector of the data on which this indicator is based assumes that a one-to-one relationship exists between these units—that is, each student is taking only one language course—although this is not always the case. However, multiple course registrations are a rare enough phenomenon that the data collector feels it is appropriate to equate school enrollments with course enrollments for the purpose of its calculations.

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