The Recent US College Foreign Language Enrollment Drop - Context Is Key

I will be adding to and correcting this primitive draft, activating links, until I complete the description of contexts which may have had an impact on the 6.7% decline in college foreign-language enrollment, which the MLA noted between 2009 and 2013, and which continues today.


In 2013, a meticulously researched work,

Kathleen Stein-Smith. The U.S. Foreign Language Deficit and Our Economic and National Security: A Bibliographic Essay on the U.S. Language Paradox (Lewistown, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 2013),

demonstrated that, beyond our first generation immigrant population, we have fallen very much short of the mark in training a sufficdient number of proficient foreign-language users to staff professional, diplomatic, defence an business needs in the United States, once you . The author also makes  numerous cases for  the usefulness of foreign-language study.

By 2013, many foreign-language teaching organizations, national and state level, had developed agressive and convincing arguments about the value of froeign language learning, including its role in cognitive development and brain growth and social development, with a very specific focus on its functions in a variety of careers. An article in a well-known gaeral-readership business forum gives a strong endorsement to language learning:

Kurtz, Anderson. "The hottest job skill is...". The New American Workplace, CNN Money (11/30/13)

This came on top of a tradition of endorsements, reflected in

$$World Languages = Career Opportunities$$$.html

However, the foreign-language teaching profession got a surprise from a study conducted that very year.
The MLA college "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education" (David Goldberg, Dennis Looney, and Natalia Lusin) for Fall  2013 was released as a web publication in February 2015

The report shows a downturn in college foreign-language (including ASL) enrollment of 6.7% (98,989) since the last survey in 2009;  a drop from 8.7% to 8.1% of students out of 100 (general college enrollment) taking a foreign language.

Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009

This is the first significant enrollment downturn since the one reported in the 1995 survey. Among all college programs and languages surveyed, 48.8% increased or were stable, while 51.2% declined. A somewhat paralell decline is reported on p. 15 of the 2013 report: " The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) also reports a decline in postsecondary enrollments, but a somewhat smaller one (a drop of  299,268 between 2012 and 2013 and a drop of 709,472 between 2011 and 2013 [Knapp, Kelly-Reid, and Ginder, Enrollment . . . Fall 2011; Ginder and Kelly-Reid; Ginder, Kelly-Reid, and Mann])." Subsequently, the MLA Job Information List for the next year (2013-14) showed a decrease of 6.8% in college foreign language job announcements from 2012-13.

Report on the MLA Job Information List, 2013-14

The enrollment report, published in 2015, has been the subject of a number of articles whose purpose seems to be speculation about the reasons for the downturn. What appears to be lacking in these arguments is an attempt to see this downturn in the broadest possible context.

The report is part of an MLA database of similar surveys, dating back to 1958, and survey efforts for 23 out of the 56 years of the survey's existence. From these, we can see that growth of foreign-language enrollment has not simply paralleled college enrollment. It is also possible to note that the "Sputnik moment" notion does represent a real peak of interest in foreign-language learning in the United States; one to which the figures indicate we have never returned in terms of percent of college students. The MLA report indicates that in 1960, 16.2% of college students were enrolled in foreign-language classes. By 2013, the figure was 7%. We also know that there have been changes in what is included and the way the survey was given.

The 2013 report reflects a solid response rate, which shows that of the 2,616 reporting institutions, 181, that is 7.5% and 6.7% of the responding two-year and four-year colleges simply offered no courses in languages other than English. An important result is that, in spite of the recent inclusion of ASL and the rapid growth of Mandarin we have seen recently, only 7% of American college students were enrolled in a foreign language course.   

Interestingly enough, we find a near-parallel enrollment decline in English and Australian universities.

Turner, Camilla. "Dramatic decline in number of university students taking modern foreign languages" (The Telehraph, 2/14/15)

Mcgibbon, Ainslie. "A nation lost in translation" (The Sydney Morning Herald, 2/7/11)

A recent report has been published showing a 7.6% history enrollment decline in American post-secondary schools between 2012 and 2015.

Jaschik, Scott. "History Enrollments Drop." (Inside HigherEd, 8/6/16)

Another near parallel is no surprise: the 2012-2014 8.7% decline in the number of bachelors degrees awarded in the Humanities, the lowest level recorded since 1948 (6.1% of all bachelors degrees):

Scott Jaschik, "The Shrinking Humanities Major" (Inside HigherEd 3/14/16)

Other parallel declines can be found in the broad spectrum of Humanities disciplines, as demonstrated in

The 2012-13 Survey of Humanities Departments at  Four-Year Institutions: Full Technical Report

The numbers themselves have a very limited use, and in their shadow, causality becomes a product of the human imagination. A contextual soup of factors which may have contributed to this large drop is mandatory to allow any sensible hypothesis. What follows is an examination of the contextual issues, large and small.

Demographic Considerations

What about overall post-secondary enrollment for the years in question? In 2012, there were 32.2 million Americans from 18 to 24 years old. This was a high-water mark in traditional college-age people. Compare this with the smaller 2009 figure of 30.01435 million. In 2013, the national high-school graduation rate hit a record 81%. All during the recession, young people had been hearing that the unemployment rate for college graduates was considerably smaller than for non college graduates. Surely college enrollment for this age group would have been up in 2013 and higher than in 2009, but that is not what the figures say. Look at the graph from this Bureau of Labor Statistics study, where the facts tell quite a contrary tale:

Percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college during October of the year they graduated from high school (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 5/8/14)

"Where Are All the High-School Grads Going?" (Atlantic, 1/11/15)

Actually, the peak for overall US college enrollment was in 2010, at 21,019,438. By 2014, it was down 3.8%+ at 20,207,369 according to NCES figures:

Total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions (NCES Digest of Educational Statistics)    

Here is what  a PBS report had to say about college enrollment in 2012 and 2013: "Between 2012 and 2013, according to a Census Bureau report, 463,000 fewer people were enrolled in college. In fact, 2013 was the second year enrollment had fallen by that much, bringing the two-year total to 930,000 fewer college students, bigger than any drop before the recession." 

Pathe, Simon. "Why are fewer people going to college?" (PBS Newshour, 9/29/14)

The biggest part of the drop was in two-year institutions, where there is normally a larger proportion of students from low-income families. We could explain this by saying the recession stole much of the buying power from students in the earlier peak enrollment years, student debt grew out of hand. Unemployment, which had been 9.6% in August 2009, was down to 7.2% in August 2013. This always effects enrollment, and yes, it is very likely to have effected foreign-language enrollment.  Add to all of this the fact that the average public college tuition rate had risen by over 20%, and subsidized student-loan rates for undergraduates rose significantly in 2012-2013.

Public College Tuition Cost Change Over Past 10 Years [2012]

If the general enrollment numbers tell us anything, it is only part of the story, and it would be simplistic to expect foreign-language enrollment trends to correspond exactly with general enrollment The 2009 foreign-language enrollment is itself down nearly .013% down from the 2006 enrollment figure. However, looking at the previously cited graph

Percentage of 16- to 24-year-olds enrolled in college during October of the year they graduated from high school (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 6/8/14)

we can see contrasting trends. There must be other forces at work.

It should be obvious that the notion of college as a cocoon, where 18-24 year olds go to find themselves and metamorphose into working adults is quite old fashion. We must consider the fact that over 70% of undergraduates work, 20% full time.

O'Shaughnessy, Lynn. "More students working (a lot) in college" (CBS News, 2/5/13)

We need to know what it means that  over 38% of undergraduates are non-traditional students, 25 years old and up. In general these students have less time to take anything outside of a required core and major courses.  In 2012, according to one study,

4.8 Million College Students are Raising Children (Institute for Women's Policy Research, Nov. 2014)

there were 4.8 million student-parents in post-secondary schools. This represents a little over 27% of the total post-secondary general enrollment at the time.  In general, these are the students most likely to be working long hours and to have less time to pursue academic non-major interests, like foreign-language study. It is likewise for returning veterans.

Abramson, Larry. "Vets Flock To Colleges ... But How Are They Doing?" (NPR, 12/5/12)

With the 2008 Post-9/11 GI Bill as a draw, by 2012, 860,000 veterans were enrolled in college.

Facing the MLA figures, we are forced to ask over and over again how it is that all of our efforts to advocate foreign-language study, often widely disseminated, have fallen so short. Looking at the training of college-age kids, coming out of K-12, we see a growth in foreign-language immersion programs (several thousand now):

Directory of Foreign Language Immersion Programs in U.S. Schools

Two-Way immersion

Dual Language

the same for IB programs, which have seen much growth funding, graduates, and over 1700 sponsoring schools with one or more programs in the US:

The International Baccalaureate - Facts and Figures

What does College Board Advanced Placement  data tell us about exams taken by American high-school students in Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish

 AP World Language Exam Volume (ACTFL Assembly of Delegates Luncheon, 11/21/13)

Even though these exams represent less than 5% of the total for all subjects, we see growth between 2009 (166,240) and 2012 (191,880).  These are students most likely to be successful in college language major, minors and certificate of proficiency programs, but they are also the students most likely to test out of required post-secondary foreign-language classes.

A Profile of College Language Faculty

What about human resources in language learning?  Our generally acknowledged K12 foreign language teacher shortage has been going on for well over a decade. This is an expected result, not just of the waning number of foreign-language graduates, but also state and school district budget troubles, which have turned perspective language teachers away to more lucrative jobs in a globalizing economy. On the post-secondary level, the overall percent of adjunct faculty moved from 66.5% in 2009 to an astounding 76% in 2013.

"The Changing Academic Workforce" (Trusteeship Magazine, May/June 2013)

An MLA statement made over two decades ago is still true: " . . .  few adjunct appointments are made for educationally sound reasons. Indeed, the primary motivation for most of these appointments is to reduce the cost of instruction."

MLA Statement on the Use of Part-Time and Full-Time Adjunct Faculty Members (1994)

It is not just quality that is affected by a growth in the number of adjuncts. Remember that the employers have health care benefits to consider for employees who work 30 or more hours per week. IRS rules say an institution must count at least 1.25 hours of preparation for each credit hour of class. The institution must also count office hours. So, if an adjunct was trying to make a living through teaching say a minimum of 4 three-hour courses at an institution requiring 6 office hours a week for this kind if a class load, here is what you have:

12 + 12 x 1.25 + 6 = 33

Adjuncts frequently teach lower-level courses, it is not difficult to comprehend why sections of lower-level courses are disappearing. The effect of ACA on work hours has been documented:

OBAMACARE: List of colleges that slashed and capped student, faculty work hours (College Fix, 10/28/14)

Figures from the MLA midyear Job Informmation List reports indicate that starting with the 2008-2009 JIL, the number of full-time foreign-language teaching positions took a nose dive of 460 positions, and continued down from there. Though an MLA commission urged PhD programs to end the literature-centered PhD in 2007, many programs still have the word literature in their labels. Faculty are hired by literary century, genre and critical theory, and deans expect to see literary-referenced article titles. Is it any wonder that some of the candidate literati were lacking in language proficiency:

Brockhamn, Stephen. "Failing the French Test" (Inside HigherEd, 1/23/12)

In spite of the observations and  by an MLA panel in 2007,

Jaschick, Scott. "Dramatic Plan for Language Programs." (Inside HigherEd, 1/2/07)

many foreign-language programs were "literature-centered". to the extent that most of the courses pas the first and second levels were literature and theory. It is no surprise, to see that graduation rates are low. NCES figures show the following differences between 2009-10 figures and those for 2014-15 for language and literature B.A.s French (-22.9%), Spanish (-17.83%), German (-19.45%), Italian (-31.24%). If programs are walking away from their literary pasts, why does a Google search show this about their nomenclature:

    "Department of French language and literature" 127,000
    "Department of German language and literature" 107,000
    "Department of Spanish language and literature"  81,200
    "Department of Romance languages and literatures" 52,100

Note the observations from a recent survey reported at the 2017 MLA and summarized in

Reddon, Elizabeth. "Call to Action on Languages, 10 Years Later" (Inside HigherEd 1/6/17)  

What does this mean for instruction in the packed lower-division foreign-language course?  This is the domain of the woefully underpaid, and sometimes underprepared adjunct promessor. Minimum education requirements for adjuncts, as stipulated by regional accreditation associations, is 18 hours toward and Masters degree in the discipline taught. There is no garantee of successful and adequate preparation, even with tenure-track faculty, as the following article shows:

Brockhamn, Stephen. "Failing the French Test" (Inside HigherEd, 1/23/12)

Was the foreign-language teaching personnel situation a contributing factor in the enrollment drop between 2009 and 2013?

STEM and Pre-professional Programs

It is predictable that in the wake of a financial crisis, those who are out of work, those who cannot find work, and those who are deeply concerned about qualifications for work will flock to post-secondary institutions. So it was with the recent recession. Equally predictable is the migration of students away from college enrollment as jobs become available during a recovery. Those who remained under these circumstances tended to be focused on preparing for good jobs, and many enroilled in pre-professional and STEM programs. This simply makes sens. Look at published lists of the fastest-growing jobsover the last decade. Many are filled by pre-professional graduates. According to a study published by the National Science Foundation, in 2012,  39.2% of entering freshmen intended to major in a STEM discipline

Science and Engineering Indicators (

According to a new study by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, STEM majors seem to take very few Humanities courses, including foreign languages:

Tyson, Charlie. "Humanities vs. STEM, Redux" (Inside HigherEd (8/18/14)

We have already noted the enrollment decline in Humanities majors. It is generally acknowledged that pre-professional programs leave little room for Humanities courses.

Language Learning in Relative Anonymity

Are students drawn to the anonymity and independence of online experiences? Before we answer, we need to mention a fundamental human reaction to language learning in a public space: foreign-language anxiety, with fears of public errors, disapproval of teachers, ridicule of  peers, especially in aural/oral activities. The consequential mental blocks, short-term memory lapses, as well as avoidance and passivity strategies to deal with our fears. All of these may inhibit our ability to actually learn a language in the public space of a classroom. It is also, as research testifies, an important factor inhibiting people from learning a foreign language

Americans are flooded with an abundance of the very devices which facilitate anonymous, independent, and very mobile learning. 45% of us have tablet computers, and 68% have smartphones, according to

Technology Device Ownership: 2015 (Pew Research, 8/29/15)

In 2013, 84% of American adults were internet users, mostly wireless:

Americans’ Internet Access: 2000-2015 (Pew Research, 6/26/15)

Pew research, in analyzing the ways in which we are now life-long learners, finds that a quarter of all Americans have had online instruction about something that interests the, and 16% have taken full online courses.

Lifelong Learning and Technology (Pew Research 1/22/16)

Each year, thousands of foreign language courses are offered online for free and for a fee We know that by 2012, 25.8% of all students in title IV institutions were taking some or all of their credit courses online (13.3%/12.5%).

Enrollment in Distance Education Courses, by State, Fall 2012 (DOE, June 2014)

After the MLA survey, there has been considerable growth in online foreign-language course offerings. Looking at French alone as an example, we can see the immersion of whole programs (including BA, AA and MA) online:

Armstrong State Univsity
Arizona State University (Spanish BA)
Valdosta State University
College of Coastal Georgia
Clayton State University
Oregon State University
University of Louisiana, Monroe
Gloucester County College
Athabasca University (Canada)
University of Wisconsin - Madison (32 hours)
Front Range Community College  (Associate of Arts in French)
Fox Valley Technical College (1st, 2nd yrs + advanced conversation)
University of New Orleans (Master’s Degree in Romance Languages)

By my count, there are (as of July, 2017) 1500+ online foreign-language courses offered by colleges and universities in the US as well as 90+ whole foreign-language programs.  While I do not yet have the details, there is  an interesting survey on this subject  being planned by Virginia Commonwealth University.

Until recently, an online foreign language course was unthinkable, and what existed was highly discouraged, but the number of good courses and students enrolled in them has increased dramatically with digital and mobile technologies, including video-based VoIP, the gamification of foreign-language learning activities, compensating for the increasingly crowded schedules of working students. While the MLA does not mention online course enrollment, they recorded it whenever the record was offered. One might well ask if these were all offered for report. What about students who took "independent study", a-synchronous courses, courses to be transferred from one institution to another, courses attached to a state system rather than a single institution, transferrable courses taken but not actually transferred within the survey period?  Currently, there is a surprising growth of whole online foreign-language degrees. A significant number of innovations in digital communications have occurred since the year 2000, with the development of mobile-specific learning strategies, beginning with podcasts, and becoming highly prolific sometime after the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. This is part of the explanation for a rapid recent expansion of online learning, which parallels a growth in independent or autonomous learning.

We may have more students studying a foreign language in college than we can accurately survey if we count those who have chosen to study on their own. Now autonomous learning is as old as informational resources, but what would motor such a giant step away from the classroom and the presumably adaptive instruction of an observant teacher? Technology is a large part of the answer. Even standard classroom-taught foreign language classes make extensive use of digital technologies, MALL (mobile-assisted language learning), in some cases flipping the classroom, where concepts are introduced digitally. Students are nearly all digital natives, having grown up with computers, iPods, cellphones and smartphones. There is an increase in non-credit and independent-learning foreign-language courses offered by universities, some of them intensive or immersion. The digital component of their learning is already adaptive, sometimes more so than a teacher would make it for the classroom.

Attention given to level-appropriate and comprehensive input for digital audio and video, adaptive digital pedagogy, mobile apps, text-to-speech apps, communicative formats like Skype (finding partners and coaches through free online services), Face-time, Google+, and the availability of both digital and independent standard multi-language assessment tools (SOPI, COPI, LTI, TELC, STAMP, ACTFL OPI), as well as language-specific tests (TFI, DELE, JLPT) , have turned the tide for independent foreign language learning by motivated individuals. Non traditional students, raising kids, frequently working full time may well understand the value of learning a foreign language, but they may see its value in real-world results, rather than in grades and credits, and with the right equipment, might be willing to study it on their own if they thought could reach a measurable proficiency to show or demonstrate to an employer. What about students who find the language they were learning in K-12 is not taught at their university, and there are no language requirements for graduation. A student like this may well continue as an independent learner. A number of universities even have centers for independent language learners. Even without this, there is abundant software, like Rosetta Stone and Fluenz.  There are special web sites for the independent learner, like Livemocha, Babbel, BBC Languages, Italki, Pimsleur and Transparent Language. According to to Peter Bol (Harvard) keynote at Foreign Language Education and Technology Conference 2015, Duolinguo a popular independent learning site for foreign languages had reached the 100 million accesses mark in July of 2015. There can be little doubt that independent learning is at least a  part of the drop in college foreign-language enrollment noted in the latest MLA survey report.  It should be noted that there is no good way to estimate the number, and that success is a long way from guaranteed in independent learning, as the following study by Katherin B. Nielson indicates:

Nielson, Katherine B. "Self-Study with Language Learning Software in the Workplace. What Happens?" (Language Learning & Technology 15, no. 3, October 2011)

and an investigative article by Holly Young in The Guardian

Young, Holly. "Myth: young people have abandoned language learning (The Guardian 2/11/15)

The latest witness to whole online programs in French comes from

Les Cours en ligne sont-ils l'avenir des départements de français (France-Amérique 16.3.17)

This trend is bound to grow, because it deals with two major problems not adequately addressed by traditional classroom programs: xenoglossophobia (foreign-language anxiety), and the scheduling problems of  non-traditional students. In the meanwhile, our need foreign-language-proficient employees in the workforce will continue to grow.

On College Readiness and Requirements

What circumstances may have actually reduced the number of college students taking foreign-language courses? Because of the highly publicized difficulties associated with student debt and a relentless pace of tuition and boarding expense increases, you might imagine that students with significant K-12 foreign language experience, those coming from good high-school programs, AP, IB dual enrollment experiences, and those with state biliteracy awards, will not need to enroll in many lower-division courses because of university credit awarding policy, CLEP and placement tests. Increasing pressure on institutions to decrease the amount of time between matriculation and graduation has facilitated this.

Are there figures outside of college class enrollment indicating a downward trend in interest or engagement in language study.

The report on the MLA 2009 survey on "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education" has a chart showing what percent of US colleges had foreign language study entrance requirements and what percent of US colleges had foreign language study graduation requirements.

The MLA Survey of Postsecondary Entrance and Degree Requirements for Languages Other Than English, 2009–10

The most comprehensive and complete statistics for foreign languages as a requirement for college entrance and graduation is on "Table 1" of

The MLA Survey of Postsecondary Entrance and Degree Requirements for Languages Other Than English, 2009–10

There seem to be no such figures for the 2013 report. The 1970-71 figure was reported as 76.7%, 1994-95 was 67.5%, 2009-10 was 50.7%.

I suspect, from consulting

What will they learn (American Council of Trustees and Alumni)

that it is down from what it was in 2009. I wonder if it became too difficult to account for all the different kinds of requirements and exceptions. Regardless of the reason why this report has not been made, it is certain that the number of institutions of higher learning requiring foreign language is lower now than in 2009.  Growth in new requirements was matched in by the confusing growth in academic disciplines in many areas.

Among  the likely reasons why foreign language has ceased being a requirement at a number of universities are the recent efforts of those universities to decrease the length of time needed for a college degree. Demographics were changing, and not all entering Freshmen were prepared in the way expected by their institutions. In 2012, only 25% of secondary students taking the tests met all the ACT's readiness benchmarks.

Hot Topics in Higher Education - Reforming Remedial Education (NCSL)

Among the solutions for this were remedial courses. In 2008, 20.4% of entering Freshmen had to take remedial classes in many different areas. This was often unanticipated, and determined by a placement exam. Add to this, Freshman's studies courses, core courses, diversity course requirements, and others. First-year students often had trouble making it into the prerequisite courses needed just to start their designated majors. There was much debate, in some cases, about the need and efficiency of remediation. One effect of all these extra courses was a lengthening of degree completion time. The National Student Clearinghouse reported that only 55% of students who entered college in the fall of 2008 graduated within six years:

Weisserman Jordan. "America’s Awful College Dropout Rates, in Four Charts" (Monybox, 11/19/14)

Student demographics were changing, and it was obvious that a student course load of over 15 hours per semester was nearly impossible for the average student to complete in four years. This was not good for students with increasingly high student-loan debts or for public colleges in states that could ill afford to keep pouring money into their educational institutions as deficits grew. As governors and college presidents began to meet to discuss this problem, there appeared a new organization claiming to have a solution:

Complete College America

The magic bullet was to cut the length of a degree program back to 120 hours, making the average semester a feasible 15 hours. CCA (with Bill and Melinda Gates funding) had all the political connections necessary and the rapt attention of colleges desperate for change.  Not surprisingly, in a number of cases, colleges began reducing their required core, including foreign-languages. The important thing to consider here is that the loss of lower-divion courses had the largest statistical impact on foreign-language enrollment between 2009 and 2013 for the simple reason that these are by far the largest classes.

Growth of English-Language Exceptionalism

English-language exceptionalism is an outgrowth of the genuine importance of English, official in 54 countries (including 3 of the G7 countries), a primary language or is spoken by a significant portion of the population in 79 countries. English is the first most studied language, with massive teaching associations like TESOL (15,000 members worldwide)

Recent developments and statistics underscore what an increasing number of people are claiming: this English is the language of global business. Both modern manufacturing and consumer satisfaction are increasingly dependent on logistics. English is by general acknowledgement the dominant in the work of engineers, doctors, pilots, tourism and media employees. It is the number one language of the internet by content and by users. Most programming is English-based or has English keywords.

Haitham Hmoud Alshibly cites a study by Darrell Bricker

"A worldwide study indicated that 25 percent of jobs require employees to interact with people in other countries, including over jobs for more than half the workers in India, Singapore, and Saudi Arabia. Of these jobs, two-thirds require English."

Haitham Hmoud Alshibly "Why is English the dominant language of business?" (Researchgate, 7/28/15)
Survey results presented in a Reuters article seems to question the use of foreign languages in international business: "The survey of 16,344 employed adults in 26 countries showed that 67 percent, or just over two-thirds, of workers who deal with people beyond their borders said English was the language used most often, with Spanish a very distant second at five percent."

Michaud, Chris. "English the preferred language for world business: poll" (Reuters. 5/16/12)

Another article shows a number of large multinational corporations adopting English as a common corporate language

Neeley. Tsedal. "Global Business Speaks English" (Harvard Business Review, May, 2012)

All of this detracts from the argument that you should speak the language of your customer, and is particularly attractive to students with an increasing number of time restrictions, and administrators dealing with an already crowded curriculum.


ENGLISH IS ALL I NEED? - While I do not doubt the idea that English is most used in and even the lingua franca of business, I don't believe I would be wrong in saying that it has a shelf life in this role.

English's Bleak Future (Forbes, 02/21/08) [the fate of a lingua franca]

Its base of about 350 million native speakers is shrinking. People from English-speaking countries have a birth rate 60% below average . The number of people learning English as a foreign language now exceeds the number of native speakers by a factor of three. Linguists label much of the English learned by the rest of the world "Panglish", because it is difficult to understand by native speakers.

Most would acknowledge that the role of lingua franca is dependent on the status, military and economic power of the nation where it is the predominant tongue. Right now, it is the weight of the of the US economy and its military that make the language so important. Both of these can change.

In the meanwhile, we note that English is losing its status on the internet, with less than a third of its users English speakers. The number of English learners in China is diminishing as is the number of immigrants learning English in the US and fewer foreign students coming here to do the same (perhaps because of our attempted travel bans and feared visits by ICE agents). In the UK, Brexit has lowered the number of foreign students coming to learn English. What will be the effect of Brexit?

"Brexit: English language 'losing importance' - EU's Juncker" (5/5/17) [BBC]…

Using English in the EU after Brexit: “If we don’t have the UK, we don’t have English. (6/24/17) 

If your native language is English, you already have the most valuable linguistic tool, but so do many others. Why yield your place to your friend taking Italian?

How about business? Of the ten countries with the fastest growing economies in the world, only two have English as one of their official languages. Do you remember the Harvard Business Review article (2012) about mandatory English for international companies? It's not working out that well legally. It is easier than corporate lawyers think to run afoul of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Also, it has the effect of stifling the creativity of employees. Your proficiency in English must be pretty high to create the hypothetical scenario necessary for presenting an idea.

Ultimately though, my assurance that the status of English as lingua franca is not eternal can be found in something very basic: our need for people with foreign language skills. If you are not convinced try taking this database for a spin using the names of languages or the word "bilingual"::


or see how short-handed we are through these articles:

Foreign language ‘emergency’ hinders U.S. economy and foreign policy, report warns

Feds Face Foreign Language Crisis (Language magazine, 2017)

Language Learning and National Security (Inside Higher Ed, 6/23/17)   

Program Threats, Cuts and Eliminations, 2009-2013

The 2013 MLA survey report states that , "No language courses were offered in 7.5% of responding two-year colleges and in 6.7% of responding four-year institutions." This statistic, though significant, does not indicate a major source of the downturn.  It is very similar to the parallel statistic offered in the 2009 report: "No language courses were offered in 7.5% of responding two-year colleges and in 6.7% of responding four-year institutions." These simply indicate that post-secondary schoolls are not, and have never been the same. I don't think they reflect the rash of program closings that occured at this time.

By my own count as Founding Chair of the AATF Commission on Advocacy, scores of college foreign-language programs were threatened, cut or eliminated in at least 35 states between 2009 and 2013.* Many actions in public colleges were tied to variations of the same numbers game: college enrollment, class size. program enrollment, college and program graduation rates. Foreign-language classes tend to be relatively small. Sometimes a major was eliminated, sometimes all advanced study, sometimes the foreign-language role in general studies inone, several or all languages. In this time of recession, the real motor was funding, often exacerbated by strategies like lowering state tax rates. Funding shifts were often to pre-professional or STEM programs, which administrators claimed would have a rapid growth rate. Small private colleges lost funding because of enrollment drops and emaciated endowments. Some 25 closed their doors during the period in question: 2009-2013.**

*My statistics as former chair of the AATF Commission on Advocacy

**Here's how many colleges have closed in the past 25 years (Business Insider, 3/12/15)

There Is No Smoking Gun

Remember, the total enrollment loss between 2009 and 2013 was nearly 99,000 students. A vital part of the context is the fact that 2013 was the second year of a steep general college enrollment decline. When you consider those lost through program cuts and eliminations, through independent and non-credit study, through student schedule trimming surrounding the 120 hour college dagree, because of the crowded schedules of the growing sectors of non-traditional students, those with jobs and child-care duties, you begin to understand that there is not a single cause or overwealmingly compelling cause for the decline. Growth in STEM and pre-professional programs equals fewer students taking lower-level courses. This is also true of an increasing number of students, who, because of their school's AP, IB or immersion programs, have tested out lower-level language courses, and who don't want to begin a literature-focused program. Unfortunately post-secondary program funding circumstances seem to point to a continuation of program cuts and eliminations. With so many active causes of this loss in college foreign-language enrollment, I see no reason why it should not continue.

We will soon be examening more context in the data of

New Federal Initiative to Survey K-16 Foreign Language Education in U.S

Several foreign language associations will be data partners, and "The work will comprise national surveys of elementary and secondary language programs, combined with the findings of the MLA 2013 Language Enrollment Survey, to provide a comprehensive overview of K-16 foreign language education enrollments in the United States today." We will have a more comprehensive view of foreign-language enrollment from kindergarten through the the four-year college. Hopefully, by the November 2016 ACTFL meeting we will have some word about the progress of this multi-association initiative.

Selected Items Webiography Relevant to 2009-2013 Enrollment Loss

Foreign-language study in US declines for first time in 20 years (ICEF Monitor, 17/2/15)

Flaherty, Colleen. "Not a Small World After All" (Inside HigherEd, (2/11/15)

MLA: Total foreign language enrollment falls (EAB, 2/19/15)

Berner, Maddy. "Foreign-Language Enrollments Drop After Years of Increases" (Chronicle of Higher Education, 2/11/15)

Ferdman, Roberto A. "Americans are beginning to lose their love for foreign languages" (Washington Post, 2/19/15)

Friedman, Amelia. "America's Lacking Language Skills." (The Atlantic, 5/10/15)

Brinn, Michael. "Are Americans Really Losing Interest in Foreign Languages?" (Evince Analytics, 4/13/15)

Postsecondary Course-Taking in Languages Other than English (Humanities Indicators, April 2016)

Foreign Language Educators in K-12 and Postsecondary Institutions:Needs, Shortages, and New Directions (MLA-ACTFL, Abbot, Feal, Looney, 2014)

Thomson, Irene. "Languages in the U.S. Educational System" (AWL, 3/7/13) pre-dates survey

Meyer, Sarah N. "Foreign Language Enrollment Attrition . . ." Diss. University of Kansas, 2013.

Survey of Foreign Language Enrollment in the U.S  (American Councils for International Education, 2016)

Flaherty, Coleen. "Language by the Shrinking Numbers" (Inside HigherEd, 12/15/16)

The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2016)

Robert D. Peckham, PhD
Director, Globe-Gate Research
University of Tennessee at Martin
Made in Tennessee to bring you the world