Decline in Language Enrollments Raises Concerns About Cultural Understanding

Enrollment in non-English language courses in US colleges and universities has dropped by 16.6% between 2016 and 2021, according to the Modern Language Association’s latest census. The decline, which is more than twice the overall drop in enrollments, has raised concerns about the impact on cultural understanding and the role of higher education.

The latest census conducted by the Modern Language Association (MLA) reveals a significant decline in the enrollment of non-English language courses in US colleges and universities. Between 2016 and 2021, enrollment in these courses dropped by 16.6%, amounting to a loss of approximately 236,000 students. This decline has brought the number of students studying languages other than English back to levels last seen in 1998. While the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the overall decrease in enrollments, the decline in language courses predates the crisis. The report highlights the need to understand the causes behind this decline and its potential implications for cultural understanding and higher education.

Funding Challenges and Shifting Priorities:

The MLA’s report suggests that the decline in language enrollments can be attributed, in part, to funding challenges. The economic crisis of 2009 led to a reduction in government funding for humanities programs, including language courses. The Department of Education’s support for the census, which had previously funded the survey, was also affected. While government funding has gradually increased, the report emphasizes the need to address the national rhetoric that prioritizes higher education solely as job training. This narrow focus on career prospects may have contributed to the decline in language enrollments, as students may perceive language courses as less relevant to their future employment opportunities.

Changing Language Landscape:

The decline in language enrollments obscures the differing trajectories of various languages. The report highlights a relative rise in Asian languages, such as Korean, while historically popular European and Romance languages have experienced a decline. In 1974, all five of the most commonly taught languages were of European origin, but by 2021, only three remained. French, Portuguese, Latin, Italian, and Spanish experienced the greatest decline, with enrollments dropping by around a fifth between 2016 and 2021. However, American Sign Language (ASL), Korean, and biblical Hebrew saw an increase in enrollments, with Korean experiencing remarkable growth of 38.3% since 2016.

Factors Influencing Enrollment:

The popularity of Korean pop music (K-Pop) and Korean drama programs has contributed to the increased interest in learning the Korean language. Quality instructors and institutional support have also played a role in the growth of Korean language programs. Meanwhile, ASL’s popularity can be attributed to its inclusion in non-language programs, such as speech pathology, special education, and social work. The report acknowledges that the increase in biblical Hebrew enrollments may be due to improved data collection methods, as the language is typically taught in religion departments rather than language departments.

Concerns for Cultural Understanding:

Spanish remains the most studied language in 2021, with over 580,000 students enrolled. However, even Spanish enrollments decreased by 18% since 2016. The decline in French enrollments, which remained the second most studied language, was even more significant at 23%. German, previously the third most studied language, experienced the largest decline, losing a third of its enrollments. This decline in language enrollments raises concerns about the impact on cultural understanding. The report emphasizes the need for higher education to provide more opportunities for students to appreciate the connection between multilingualism and enjoyment.

Disappearing Programs and Institutional Impact:

The census reveals that language programs are disappearing at both large and small institutions. The report shows that between 2016 and 2021, there was a net decrease of 961 language programs. German, French, Chinese, and Arabic were among the languages that experienced a significant decrease in the number of institutions offering instruction. Additionally, 20 Indigenous American languages that were taught in 2013 or 2016 were no longer offered in 2021. The decline in language programs at community colleges is particularly concerning, as it limits access to language education for many students.


The decline in language enrollments in US colleges and universities raises concerns about the impact on cultural understanding and the role of higher education. Funding challenges, shifting priorities, and the perception of language courses as less relevant to future job prospects may have contributed to the decline. However, the growth in enrollments for languages such as Korean and ASL demonstrates the potential for cultural interest to drive language learning. The report calls for increased support for language programs and a broader understanding of the benefits of multilingualism. As the world becomes more interconnected, the importance of cultural education and understanding should not be overlooked by institutions of higher learning.






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