Language enrollment declining

Despite a nationwide drop in enrollment numbers, certain languages are now on the rise.

Haley Hansen

After years of steady increase, foreign language course enrollment numbers nationwide have been on the downswing in recent years.

Some of the University of Minnesota’s language programs fall in line with these trends outlined in a Modern Language Association report released earlier this month. The national report found enrollment numbers have dropped slightly in the last few years, though overall enrollment is stronger than in past decades as language skills remain marketable.

The report found that enrollment numbers for all languages fell 6.7 percent from fall 2009 to fall 2013.

Despite that decrease, overall enrollment numbers are still higher than they were nearly a decade ago, MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal said.

“This shows us that more students than ever are enrolled in language classes,” she said. “Part of that is due to the expansion of higher education.”

At the University, overall enrollment has remained steady, though certain languages have seen increases in recent years, said Nanette Hanks, assistant dean for curriculum in the College of Liberal Arts, where all language programs are housed.

All CLA students are required to study the equivalent of at least two years of a foreign language. However, Hanks said many students want to go above that requirement.

Languages such as Arabic, Korean and Chinese have seen spikes in enrollment in recent years, she said, whereas popular languages like Spanish have maintained steady enrollment numbers. These changes are similar to MLA’s nationwide findings.


Others like Danish and Modern Greek have been phased out of the University in the last five years because there wasn’t a high enough demand, Hanks said.

She said political changes have an impact on what languages see increases in enrollment.

Feal said the enrollment changes are due to a number of reasons, including the geopolitical environment, and that certain languages have diminished in recent years while others have thrived.

She noted that interest in Arabic rose after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and more people have become interested in Portuguese as Portugal has emerged as a stronger economic power.

Angela Woods, program officer for the federal government’s Critical Language Scholarship Program, said national security reasons and popular culture also impact students’ interests in certain foreign languages.

Carol Klee, Spanish and Portuguese studies professor and department chair, said her department has seen an increase in students minoring in Spanish studies rather than majoring in recent years.

She said decline in major enrollment correlates with the recession and students’ concerns with finding a job after graduation.

But overall, Spanish is still studied more than all other languages combined, Klee said.

Political factors and changing demographics, she said, are key reasons for the continued interest in the language.

“I think exposure to another language brings a new perspective on your own language and culture and expands your worldview,” Klee said.

Spanish studies major Grant Ruckheim said that while he plans on working in environmental activism after graduating, he’ll integrate his language skills into his career.

He said the new cultural perspectives gained from learning a foreign language are integral, and they allow him to empathize with people in a different way.

“It can stay with you no matter what you’re doing — even if you don’t use it in your career,” Ruckheim said.

Although they are less popular, languages such as Swahili, Somali and Hindi-Urdu are offered at the University, and Hanks said they continue to see steady enrollment.

“Part of studying the language is not just acquiring the language skills,” she said. “But it’s really acquiring the world skills, the global skills [and] the cultural skills that are important in another language.”