Recent figures from the Modern Language Association (MLA) reveal a worrying decline in the number of American college and university students enrolling in non-English language courses. From autumn 2016 to autumn 2021, there’s been a big slump—16.6% fewer people are studying these languages. This pattern points to changing trends in what schools think is important. Plus, it could spell trouble for understanding different cultures and keeping the country safe.
Major Declines and Notable Exceptions
- German, Arabic and Modern Hebrew saw the largest enrollment decreases, with German dropping by 33.6%.
- Korean, Biblical Hebrew, and American Sign Language (ASL) bucked the trend, showing enrollment gains, with Koreans experiencing a remarkable 38.3% increase.
Implications of Language Enrollment Decline
Being good at languages can bring you lots of advantages. These include better scores on exams, more creativity, better job prospects, and the chance to connect with different cultures. But there’s been less interest in studying languages lately. The high point was in 2009, but it’s decreased from then on. This drop is because of several reasons:
- Decrease in overall college student numbers.
- A shift in focus toward STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.
- Reduction of language programs, with 961 programs disappearing over five years.
- Greater declines were observed in two-year institutions compared to four-year schools.
Cultural and Real-world Applications
Successful language programs, such as those at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, and UCLA, emphasize cultural context and practical application. This approach aligns language learning with real-world needs, like translation services and community engagement.
Historical Context and National Security Concerns
The decline in language enrollments is not a new phenomenon. It traces back to the post-Sputnik era when the U.S. realized the importance of language proficiency for national security. The National Defense Education Act of 1958 boosted language instruction significantly. However, geopolitical events have continuously influenced language study trends:
- Russian and Arabic enrollments fluctuated in response to political events like the fall of the Soviet Union and the 9/11 attacks.
- Despite the increase in global interconnectedness, language study has not kept pace, raising concerns for national security.
Long-Term Consequences of Enrollment Decline
At the moment, the United States is facing a challenge because too few people are fluent in critical foreign languages, especially Arabic and Russian. This shortfall is causing complications for American institutions, such as the State Department, in managing international relations and security matters effectively. Overcoming this deficit in language skills won’t be a quick fix; becoming proficient in another language to a level needed for work purposes requires a considerable investment of time.
The Bigger Picture: Humanities Under Siege
The trend in declining language enrollments is part of a larger narrative of humanities being undervalued in education. Institutions are increasingly pressured to produce graduates with immediately marketable skills, often at the expense of a well-rounded education. This shift raises questions about the long-term impact on cultural understanding and intellectual diversity.
Strategies for Reviving Language Education
Addressing the decline in language enrollments requires a multifaceted approach:
Enhancing Program Visibility and Appeal
- Developing courses that tie language learning to contemporary cultural phenomena, such as the impact of K-pop on Korean language enrollment, can attract students.
- Incorporating technology and innovative teaching methods can make language learning more interactive and accessible.
Conclusion: A Call to Action
The MLA’s findings serve as a wake-up call to the importance of multilingualism and the humanities in education. While language apps and AI translation services offer convenience, they cannot replace the depth of understanding and cultural insight gained through language learning. As educational priorities evolve, it is crucial to maintain a balanced approach that values both technical skills and cultural literacy.
To explore more about the importance of language study and its impact on culture and national security, please visit the Modern Language Association website.
Despite the challenges, there are opportunities for revitalization and innovation in language education. Educators and policymakers must work together to reinforce the value of multilingualism, integrating language study with other disciplines and current global issues. This integration can create more engaging and relevant language programs that appeal to today’s students.