“That language is so last century”: A Look at Trends in College Language Study

By Jennifer Crystle

Much like bellbottoms and legwarmers, languages have gone in and out of style. Over the years, universities have seen the popularity of languages like French and Russian give way to the study of Spanish, which, in turn, has most recently given way to the fashionable study of Chinese and Arabic.

Data from the Modern Language Association sheds light on language trends. MLA’s latest report, “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009,” shows how the popularity of languages has changed over time. The study, the twenty-second in its series, is based on data from 2,514 colleges and universities representing 99 percent of all higher education institutions nation-wide.

The data decisively reveals that there have certainly been shifts in perceptions about the value of particular languages. According to MLA’s data collections, the popularity of French and German peeked in the mid 1960s with over 388,000 and 216,000 students enrolled, respectively. In the same year, only 4,324 students were enrolled in Japanese courses, and merely 1,099 students considered Arabic important enough to include in their studies.

Now, the tables appear to have turned. While Arabic’s enrollment numbers cannot yet compare to those of the most frequently studied languages, the rate at which enrollment has increased is a more telling sign that it is certainly the “in” thing. From 2002-2006, Arabic increased its enrollment by 126.5 percent, and from 2006-2009, it saw an additional 46.3 percent increase. This rate of increase makes Spanish’s 5.1 percent increase and French’s 4.8 percent increase in 2009 enrollments seem miniscule. Although Arabic may have had a slow start, it is quickly gaining momentum. Already surpassing Russian and Latin to become the eighth most studied language, we may soon see this underdog catch up with some of the biggest language competitors.

Of course, these statistics do not fluctuate without cause. The trends in language enrollments are heavily dictated by historical and cultural context. In the 1950s and 60s, U.S.’s allies France and Germany became founding members of the European Economic Council and enjoyed prolonged national growth. Because these countries proved to have a powerful presence in world politics during this time, it should not come as a surprise that MLA’s 1968 study reported record enrollments in both French and German.

This same cause-effect relationship between history and language study is evident with the skyrocketing popularity of Russian in the 1990s. For the entirety of the second half of the 20th century, the world had its eyes on the Soviet Union and the threat of communism. The USSR’s military strength, nuclear potential, and sheer vastness made it a force to be reckoned with. According to MLA’s data, college students did not turn a blind eye to this power — 44,626 students enrolled in Russian courses in 1990, an 87 percent increase from the 1980 enrollment data. Despite this spike in popularity, jumping on the Russian bandwagon was a fad of the 90s, for enrollment dropped below 27,000 in 2009.

In 1995, Spanish took the limelight, and for the first time ever, the number of college students enrolled in Spanish courses was higher than the number of students enrolled in all other modern languages combined. According to the Census Bureau, the number of Spanish speakers in the U.S. has reached over 37 million; it is safe to assume that we will continue to see Spanish enrollment numbers rise.

Due to the increased U.S. economic interest in Asia and the Middle East, the latest language trends making their debut on the runway have been Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic. However, perhaps a more unexpected result of MLA’s study is that the number of students enrolled in American Sign Language (ASL) courses is now over 91,000. According to a recent New York Times article by Tamar Lewin, a strong job market for interpreters and increased college recognition of ASL as a valid foreign language may account for this 16 percent increase from 2006 .

MLA researcher Natalia Lusin says that the association plans to complete the next study of language enrollments in the fall of 2013 with a web publication of the data released the following fall. As history progresses and U.S. foreign relations evolve, there will undoubtedly be new trends in language study.

Jennifer Crystle is a senior at The University of Mary Washington majoring in English and Spanish. Mary Washington is home to the Kappa of Virginia chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.