Language learning drops in US higher education

As I was reading a book on the importance of using universities to help educate people in an age of increasing cultural diversity and internationalization, this came across my desk: Since 2013, two- and four-year colleges around the US lose more than 650 foreign-language programs.

It’s a story by the Chronicle of HIgher Education, which got hold of a report from the Modern Language Association.

The totals of lost language programs include:

  • Spanish: 118 program losses

  • French: 129

  • German: 86

  • Italian: 56

After a jump in Arabic enrollments in the years following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the piece stated, the only programs seeing increases this decade are: Korean, American Sign Language and Biblical Hebrew. (Interestingly, American Sign Language is now the third most studied language in US higher education, replacing German.)

Of course other methods exist in universities for students to learn about other cultures. History, sociology and other general education requirements like semester abroad spring to mind. But I can’t think of a better way to understand a culture than learning a bit of its language.This comes from a person who was quite poor in university-level language courses. For most people, though, language courses were a window into a different culture. 

What’s just as important with this news is the reported is 9.2 percent drop in enrollments in foreign language programs across the country between 2013 and 2016. This is the biggest drop since the 1970s.

This brings up more questions than answers, only some of them on the efficacy of undergraduate language teaching. Is this drop because students are uninterested in learning languages; rather, perhaps they face more credit requirements from their majors. Also, what does it mean that most of declines take place in two-year colleges?

I am also interested in what these findings say about the state of language instruction. Has language learning at school been supplanted by the online world and private companies? Do language departments need to rethink how to organize courses—concentrating on fewer, yet longer courses (perhaps over weekends, etc.) to better cement the work into the students’ heads.

Whatever the many reasons for this drop, it’s probably not a good sign. The stereotype is mostly true: Americans are pretty bad at languages, even with the increase of instruction in lower education levels. It’s not a good trait. To problem solve in today’s multicultural and multipolar environment, we need ideas from everywhere. Without understanding in language, we will only hear a fraction of those ideas.