One joke you may hear while waiting in an international airport goes as follows:
“What do you call someone who speaks three languages? Trilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks two languages? Bilingual.
What do you call someone who speaks one language? American!”
It is funny because it is true. Among all developed countries, Americans are the most monolingual of all. And it is not getting better. According to a preliminary report released in February by the Modern Language Association (MLA), “Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016,” the number of American college students studying languages other than English is continuing to drop.
The MLA has conducted this survey of undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages besides English since 1958. This census is generally conducted every three to four years, and between 2013 and 2016, overall enrollments in other languages fell an average of 9.2 percent. That continues a 6.7 percent decline in 2013 over the 2009 survey.
Their analysis of the data from over 2,500 colleges and universities shows trends in student enrollment in each major language as well as changes in enrollments by level of instruction (AA, BS, masters and doctoral levels) and by regions.
The recent decline is the second greatest decline after 1972 when enrollments fell 12.6 percent. This report does not assign cause, but I know that 1972 saw a decline in all enrollments due to the graduation of the baby-boom generation. Therefore, this recent decline is a serious reflection of today’s college generation turning inward, combined with a larger proportion of non-college able student enrollments and a larger percentage of international college students who already speak multiple languages.
The MLA report detected dramatic decreases of 20 percent in Illinois (where a funding gridlock has damaged all higher education) and in Oregon, North Dakota, Wyoming and Wisconsin. In addition, they found a “...disproportionate drop in enrollments that has occurred at two-year institutions.”
Spanish and French are the leading foreign languages chosen by American students, with over 712,000 and 175,000 enrollments, respectively. Spanish now accounts for 50.2 percent of all language enrollments, despite a decline of 54.7 percent since 1998.
American Sign Language now occupies the third most popular position with over 107,000 enrolled, but likewise is down from over 109,500 in 2013.
American Sign Language has displaced German, now in fourth place at over 80,500 students. German or Russian were often required as foreign language or research skills (FLORS) in many science doctoral programs through the 1970s, but were rapidly replaced by computer programming. The result has been a faster shift of the world’s science to publication in English (not mentioned in this survey).
Students of Russian dropped 7.4 percent from 2013 to just 13,936, continuing a decline of 17.8 percent from 2009. Arabic was a language that had grown to 35,228 enrollment in 2009, but dropped 4.8 percent in 2013 and declined another 5.9 percent in this last survey. Such foreign languages are critically important to understanding other countries (the 2013 MLA survey was partially funded by the National Security Education Program).
Only two world languages showed increased enrollments. Students studying Japanese increased 3.1 percent to 68,810 in 2016 and Korean enrollments increased 13.7 percent to 13,936.
The United States has often been criticized for not understanding other cultures. Our military and foreign services have shortages of staff fluent in other languages, and American news media are very ethnocentric.
On the one hand, many states began offering bilingual certificates with high school diplomas in order to encourage and reward foreign language study. But this has been undermined by public universities dropping low enrollment foreign language programs as they chase tuition dollars and abandon their role as intellectual leaders. High school and college students can’t study foreign languages if universities don’t train the language teachers.
So back to that joke about Americans only speaking one language—it isn’t going away.