ADFL Bulletin
19, no. 2 (January 1988): 39-44
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Foreign Language Enrollments in US Institutions of Higher Education—Fall 1986


Richard I. Brod


IN AUGUST 1987 the staff of the Modern Language Association completed work on its Fall 1986 Survey of Foreign Language Registrations in US Institutions of Higher Education, the sixteenth in a series of surveys conducted since 1958 under contract with the US Office of Education or its successor, the US Department of Education. Data for the survey were obtained from a postcard questionnaire sent to the registrars of the 2,659 two- and four-year institutions listed in the MLA's computerized files, plus 252 additional institutions—primarily seminaries—listed in the 1987 Higher Education Directory, published by Higher Education Publications, Inc. Replies were received from all but 58 of the institutions canvassed, giving the MLA a response rate of 98%. Among the respondents, 2,343, or 82.1%, reported registrations in one or more languages other than English.

The 1986 survey shows a total of 1,003,234 foreign language registrations, an increase of 3.9% since the last published report, for the fall term 1983. The 1983 survey showed an increase of 4.5% above the total reported in 1980. The current survey is also the first in fourteen years to yield a total of enrollments larger than one million. The peak enrollment year for foreign languages in higher education was 1968, when a total of 1,127,363 registrations was reported; the 1972 total was 1,008,912. Between 1972 and 1980, the total fell by 8.3%; between 1980 and 1986, however, it rose again by 8.5%.

After the decline of the 1970s, the 1980s have brought an increase not only in the national total of language registrations but also in the ratio of language enrollments to total college and university enrollments. As shown in table 1, below, that ratio had reached a peak of 16.5 in 1965, declined to 7.3 in 1980, and remained relatively stable at 7.4 in 1983. For 1986, the ratio is calculated as 7.8.

Table 2 presents the results of the 1986 enrollment survey, with a breakdown by language for the twelve most commonly taught languages, plus an aggregate figure for the 103 “other” languages listed by the institutions; separate tallies for two-year colleges and undergraduate and graduate registrations in four-year colleges and universities; comparative totals from the 1983 survey; and a figure indicating percentage change in the language totals between 1983 and 1986. The table reveals widely different trends for the various languages. Decreases were recorded for Arabic, German, Ancient Greek, and Hebrew; French and Latin increased slightly; Italian, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish showed moderate increases (of between 5.8% and 14.0%); and enrollments in Chinese and Japanese increased dramatically. Japanese has now risen from ninth to seventh place among the languages, and Chinese from tenth to ninth.

The six leading languages—Spanish, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Latin—accounted for 90.4% of the total registrations in foreign languages in the colleges and universities covered in the survey; the other six languages listed in table 2 accounted for an additional 8.2%, and the remaining 1.4% were distributed among 103 additional languages, ancient and modern. Of these, 28 are European languages, 27 from the Middle East and Africa, 33 from Asia and the Pacific, and 15 are languages indigenous to North and South America.

Spanish, having displaced French from its leadership position in 1970, remains the most widely taught foreign language in US higher education, as it has been in secondary schools since 1948. Spanish now accounts for 46.6% of the total registrations in the five leading modern languages. In 1960, Spanish had accounted for only 30.0% of the total, and French had accounted for 38.4%. Table 3, based on the registrations in the five leading modern languages, shows the percentage of the total in each of these five languages from 1960 to 1986. Table 4 depicts growth trends in ten less commonly taught languages over the same twenty-six-year period, while table 5 provides registration data and indexes of growth for the five leading languages.

Foreign Languages in Two-Year Colleges

In 1960, 455 two-year colleges reported foreign language registrations; by 1972 the number of institutions had peaked at 899 and by 1974 was down to 835. Since then the number has risen and fallen slightly from survey to survey; in 1986 it was 832. Having increased steadily since 1972, total language enrollments in two-year colleges underwent a slight decline between 1977 and 1980. Between 1980 and 1983 they held steady, and they experienced another slight decline (of 0.9%) between 1983 and 1986. Spanish, with 89,491 enrollments, accounts for 54.9% of the two-year college total. The state of California is the location of 104 of the 832 responding two-year institutions and has 63,772 enrollments, or 39.2% of the total for the nation.

Less Commonly Taught Languages

References to the category of “critical” or “strategic” languages were used by the MLA, the US Office of Education, and other agencies during the early 1960s but were later replaced by the designation “less commonly taught” languages. The line between commonly and less commonly taught is arbitrary, but most MLA survey reports have drawn it below the seventh language on the list in descending order of reported registrations. Until this year the list of the seven most commonly taught languages included the five “leading” modern foreign languages—French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish—plus Latin and Ancient Greek. As of 1986, however, the seventh most commonly taught language is no longer Ancient Greek, but Japanese. Accordingly, while the traditional grouping is still meaningful for statistical purposes, it can no longer be labeled as it was before 1986 but must be designated simply as the five most commonly taught languages plus Latin and Ancient Greek.

Taken together, the less commonly taught languages—that is, all languages other than the seven named above—have experienced considerable growth in recent years. In 1968, total enrollment in these languages was 32,813; in 1972 it was 59,532, and in 1983 it was 68,866. The total for 1986 is 78,039 registrations; of these, 40,345 (51.7%) are in Japanese or Chinese. Registration figures for Japanese, Chinese, Hebrew, Portuguese, and Arabic are included in table 2, while table 6 lists the 103 languages not presented in table 2 and provides enrollment data by type of institution (two-year or four-year).


The author is Director of Special Projects for the Modern Language Association. The enrollment survey was undertaken by the MLA with the support of a grant from the US Department of Education. Data were compiled by Rachel Fine, who served as research assistant on the project. The project staff also gratefully acknowledges the support and assistance of the MLA Computer Center staff, headed by David Feinberg.


Table 1
Registrations in Modern Foreign Languages Compared with
Enrollments in Higher Education, 1960­86
1960 1965 1968 1970 1972 1977 1980 1983 1986
Total College Enrollment in USA 1 3,789,000 5,920,864 7,513,091 8,580,887 9,214,860 11,285,787 12,096,895 12,464,616 12,247,055
Index of Growth 2 100.0 156.3 198.3 226.5 243.2 297.9 319.3 329.0 323.2
Total MFL Registration 3 608,749 975,777 1,073,097 1,067,217 963,930 883,222 877,691 922,439 960,588
Index of Growth 100.0 160.3 176.3 175.3 158.3 145.1 144.2 151.5 157.8
MFL Registration as % of Total
College Enrollment
16.1 16.5 14.3 12.4 10.5 7.8 7.3 7.4 7.8
1 Source: Center for Education Statistics, USED. Figures show total enrollments in the fifty states and the District of Columbia. The figure for 1960 is an estimate. Since the 1986 total was not available at press time, the 1985 total is used here.
2 For index figures, 1960=100.0
3 MFL=Modern Foreign Languages, i.e., all categories in table 2 except Latin and Ancient Greek.

Table 2
Fall 1986 Survey of Foreign Language Registrations in
US Institutions of Higher Education
TOTAL

Registrations 1983
1986

Two-Year Colleges
1986
Four-Year Institutions Undergraduate
1986 Four-Year Institutions Graduate 1986
Total Four-Year Institutions
TOTAL

Registrations 1986
Percent Change in Totals 1983­86
Arabic 3,436 354 2,608 383 3,063 3,417 -0.5
Chinese 13,178 2,105 14,087 699 14,786 16,891 28.2
French 270,123 39,818 228,738 6,772 235,510 275,328 1.9
German 128,154 15,399 101,340 4,283 105,623 121,022 -5.6
Greek, Ancient 19,350 245 12,609 4,754 17,363 17,608 -9.0
Hebrew 18,199 697 11,633 3,300 14,933 15,630 -14.1
Italian 38,672 6,303 33,710 932 34,642 40,945 5.8
Japanese 16,127 4,835 17,966 653 18,619 23,454 45.4
Latin 24,224 497 23,724 817 24,541 25,038 3.3
Portuguese 4,447 289 4,441 341 4,782 5,071 14.0
Russian 30,386 1,596 30,902 1,463 32,365 33,961 11.8
Spanish 386,238 89,491 314,224 7,578 321,802 411,293 6.5
Other 13,479 1,252 11,030 1,294 12,324 13,576 0.7
TOTAL 966,013 162,881 807,084 33,269 840,353 1,003,234 3.9

Table 3
Distribution of Students among the Five Leading
Modern Foreign Languages, 1960­86, in Percentages
1960 1968 1970 1972 1977 1980 1983 1986
French 38.4 37.3 35.2 32.4 30.0 30.5 31.6 31.2
German 24.6 20.8 19.8 19.6 16.5 15.6 15.0 13.7
Italian 1.9 2.9 3.4 3.7 4.1 4.3 4.5 4.6
Russian 5.1 3.9 3.5 4.0 3.4 2.9 3.6 3.9
Spanish 30.0 35.1 38.1 40.3 46.0 46.7 45.3 46.6

Table 4
Registration in Ten Less Commonly Taught Foreign Languages, 1960­86
1960 1968 1970 1972 Percentage Change,
1960­72
1977 1980 1983 1986 Percentage Change,
1977­86
Arabic 541 1,100 1,333 1,669 208.5 3,070 3,466 3,436 3,417 11.3
Chinese 1,844 5,061 6,238 10,044 444.7 9,809 11,366 13,178 16,891 72.2
Hebrew 3,834 10,169 16,567 21,091 450.1 19,356 19,429 18,199 15,630 -19.2
Japanese 1,746 4,324 6,620 8,273 373.8 10,721 11,506 16,127 23,454 118.8
Norwegian 722 1,103 1,084 1,248 72.9 1,520 1,616 1,330 1,031 -32.2
Polish 537 656 734 954 77.7 1,156 1,268 1,076 963 -16.7
Portuguese 1,033 4,048 5,065 4,837 368.2 4,954 4,894 4,447 5,071 2.4
Swahili 22 608 1,787 2,322 10,454.5 2,225 576 582 1,086 -51.2
Swedish 622 1,101 1,138 1,166 87.5 1,534 1,575 1,283 1,363 -11.1
Yiddish 13 109 257 912 6,915.4 1,144 944 471 431 -62.3
10 languages 10,914 28,279 40,823 52,526 381.3 55,489 56,640 60,129 69,337 25.0

Table 5
Trends in Registrations in the Five Leading Modern Languages, 1960­86, by Language (All Institutions)
TOTAL REGISTRATIONS 1960 1968 1970 1972 1977 1980 1983 1986
French 228,813 388,096 359,313 293,084 246,115 248,361 270,123 275,328
German 146,116 216,263 202,569 177,062 135,371 126,910 128,154 121,022
Italian 11,142 30,359 34,244 33,312 33,327 34,791 38,672 40,945
Russian 30,580 40,696 36,189 36,409 27,784 23,987 30,386 33,961
Spanish 178,689 364,870 389,150 364,531 376,697 379,379 386,238 411,293
TOTAL 595,234 1,040,284 1,021,465 904,398 819,294 813,428 853,573 882,549
INDEX OF GROWTH (1960=100.0)
French 169.6 157.0 128.1 107.6 108.5 118.1 120.3
German 148.0 138.6 121.1 92.7 86.9 87.9 82.8
Italian 272.5 307.3 299.0 299.1 312.2 347.1 367.5
Russian 133.1 118.4 119.1 90.9 78.5 99.4 111.1
Spanish 204.2 217.8 204.0 210.8 212.3 216.2 230.2
TOTAL 174.7 171.6 151.9 137.6 136.6 143.4 148.3
PERCENT GROWTH
BETWEEN SURVEYS
20-Year Period,
1960­80
6-Year Period,
1980­86
Change from
1968 * to 1986
French 8.5 10.9 -29.1
German -13.1 -4.6 -44.0
Italian 212.2 17.7 34.9
Russian -21.5 41.6 -16.5
Spanish 112.3 8.4 12.7
TOTAL 36.6 8.5 -15.2
* The peak year for language enrollments was 1968.

Table 6
Distribution of 13,576 Fall 1986 Course Registrations in 103 Less Commonly Taught Foreign Languages
Language 2-Year 4-Year
Afrikaans 7
Akkadian 51
Albanian 2
Altai 4
Aramaic 98
Armenian 36 117
Athabaskan 23
Bambara 20
Basque 14
Bengali 23
Berber 1
Blackfeet 36
Bulgarian 19
Burmese 5
Cambodian 2
Cantonese 97 14
Catalán 26
Cherokee 5 17
Coptic 5
Crow 14
Czech 193
Dakota/Lakota 1 167
Danish 315
Dutch 431
Egyptian 94
Eskimo-Alut 56
Estonian 7
Fang 1
Finnish 11 123
Georgian 1
Greek, Modern 75 905
Guarani 4
Haitian Creole 15
Hausa 60
Hawaiian 199 242
Hindi 300
Hindi-Urdu 101
Hittite 3
Hungarian 8 132
Icelandic, Old 61
Ilokano 28
Indonesian 122
Inupiaq 32
Iranian 19
Irish 20
Irish, Old 71
Kirghiz 1
Kootenai 11
Korean 875
Lao 3
Latvian 78
Lingala 4
Lithuanian 25 43
Malay-Indonesian 34
Mohawk 15
Mongolian 14
Navajo 125 150
Nepali 32
Norwegian 61 970
Ojibwa 75 109
Persian 17 289
Pilipino 132
Polish 45 918
Punjabi 1
Quechua 18
Romanian 105
Salish 11
Samoan 56
Sanskrit 250
Serbo-Croatian 243
Setswana 1
Shilluk 1
Shona 40
Sinhalese 6
Slavic, Old Church 106
Slovak 32
Slovene 22
Sumerian 26
Swahili 23 1,063
Swedish 71 1,292
Syriac 30
Tagalog 35 53
Tahitian 10
Tajik 2
Tamil 36
Telugu 12
Thai 108
Tibetan 50
Tongan 16
Turkish 259
Turkish, Ottoman 2
Turkmen 1
Ugaritic 32
Uigur 1
Ukrainian 107
Urdu 49
Uzbek 24
Vietnamese 56 119
Wolof 76
Yiddish 25 406
Yoruba 107
Yupik 43 53
Zulu 38
TOTALS 1,252 12,324


© 1988 by the Association of Departments of Foreign Languages. All Rights Reserved.

ADFL Bulletin 19, no. 2 (January 1988): 39-44


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