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Indicator II-7 Postsecondary Course-Taking in Languages Other than English (OTE)

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 (4/20/12) with data from the Modern Language Association’s 2009 survey of postsecondary enrollments in languages other than English.

Because of regular, detailed surveys conducted by the MLA, data regarding the extent of OTE language course-taking in the postsecondary educational setting are plentiful. They reveal that, while the number of enrollments in such courses has more than doubled since 1960, the ratio for 2009 of these enrollments to the total number of postsecondary students was substantially lower than it was five decades prior (Figure II-7a).1 In 1965 this ratio, expressed as a percentage, was 16.5%, the greatest ever recorded by the MLA. By 1980, the figure had dropped to 7.3%,2 a level from which it has risen only slightly in subsequent years, reaching 8.6% in 2009.

Figure II-7a, Full Size
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That postsecondary OTE course enrollment did not decrease even more sharply as a percentage of the student population is due to the same phenomenon witnessed at the secondary level: a considerable increase in the number of enrollments in Spanish (see Indicator I-7, Language Course Enrollment in High Schools). Such enrollments more than quadrupled from 1960 to 2009, while enrollments in both French and German were lower in 2009 than in the middle of the previous century (although enrollment in these two languages did increase somewhat from 2006 to 2009; Figure II-7b). Enrollments in Italian and American Sign Language (ASL) experienced even greater percentages of growth than Spanish, but the numbers of enrollments in Italian and ASL were far smaller than those for Spanish over the time period. Figure II-7c highlights the growing popularity of Spanish. In 1960, enrollments in Spanish were only 42% as numerous as the enrollments in all other modern OTE languages combined. But by 1995, enrollments in Spanish exceeded the total for the other languages. In 2009, enrollments in Spanish were 13% higher than the combined total for all other modern languages (excluding English).

Figure II-7b, Full Size
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Figure II-7c, Full Size
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Though once the foundation of a liberal arts education, ancient Greek and Latin were much less frequently studied in recent decades than French, German, and Spanish, the most commonly taken modern OTE languages in American institutions of postsecondary education (Figure II-7d). In 1980, enrollments in Greek and Latin combined were only 6.2% of those in French, German, and Spanish combined, and that percentage dropped steadily in subsequent years, reaching a low of 4.5% by 1998. However, both languages have experienced increases in enrollments since the late 1990s. In 2009, enrollments in Latin were up 30% from their 1980 level, while a rise in enrollments in Greek beginning in 1998 had resulted in a full recovery by 2006—although from this year to 2009, enrollments in Greek declined by 9%, bringing them back below the 1980 level.

Figure II-7d, Full Size
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Figure II-7e charts enrollment trends for the most commonly taken languages identified by former President George W. Bush in 2006 as “critical need” from a national security standpoint (see Indicator I-7, Language Course Enrollment in High Schools for more on the Bush administration’s National Security Language Initiative). From 1960 to 2009, enrollments in both Chinese and Japanese increased substantially, with Japanese being the more frequently studied language of the two. Another clear growth trend was the marked increase, after many years of stagnation, in enrollments in Arabic. In 2009 enrollments in Arabic, after increasing 689% from 1995 to 2009, exceeded, for the first time, the figure for Russian, which experienced a sharp drop in enrollments after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Figure II-7f presents enrollment figures for the other “critical need” languages on which the MLA collects data. In most cases, enrollments rose considerably between 1998 and 2006 but then leveled off or declined between 2006 and 2009. Even with the large percentage increases in these languages since the late 1990s—166% in the case of Hindi, for example—relatively few students pursue training in these languages (e.g., Hindi enrollments for 2009 were 2,207, compared to 91,763 enrollments in ASL).

Figure II-7e, Full Size
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Figure II-7f, Full Size


1 “To our knowledge, there are no data available on course enrollments in all subjects in United States institutions of higher education. To complicate matters, students, particularly majors, may enroll in more than one class in languages per semester and therefore be counted more than once. Thus numbers of students attending institutions of higher learning and enrollments in language courses are not equivalent groupings. Nonetheless, the ratio of language course enrollments to total students registered in postsecondary institutions is a figure that over time can serve as an important indicator of student involvement in the study of languages.” Nelly Furman, David Goldberg, and Natalia Lusin, Enrollments in Languages Other than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006 (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2007), 2,

2 This period was one of dramatic decline in the proportion of postsecondary institutions with OTE language-related requirements for bachelor’s degrees. In 1965–1966, 88.9% of institutions reported such a requirement. By 1982–1983, the proportion had dropped to 47.4%. See Richard Brod and Monique Lapointe, “The MLA Survey of Foreign Language Entrance and Degree Requirements, 1987–88,” ADFL Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 2 (January 1989): 18 table 1.

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