American higher education cut hundreds of foreign language programs

One area I track for understanding the future of higher education is enrollment.  How student decisions about which classes and majors to take, and how colleges and universities alter the programs they offer, is crucial for grasping where academia is headed.

Today’s example is a new study that finds American colleges and universities significantly slashing the number of foreign language programs they offer.  The Modern Language Association (MLA) reportedly identified a sharp increase in cuts. Specifically, MLA found “651 instances in which, in fall 2016, a foreign language that had been offered in fall 2013 at a college was not offered.”

This is fascinating on numerous levels.

Note the historical switch.  The period right after the 2008 financial crash did not see such cuts.  “Higher education, in aggregate, lost just one such program from 2009 to 2013. From 2013 to 2016, it lost 651…” In other words, the economic crunch that hit many American campuses was not the immediate driver of these reductions.  There was effectively no change in foreign language offerings from 2009-2013.  And then the axes fell.

To some extent this is a demand-side problem, as students vote with their feet:

The decline in programs coincides with a decline in the number of students signing up for foreign-language courses. The 9.2-percent drop in enrollments from 2013 to 2016 was the second-largest on record, according to the MLA’s “short report” of its findings, released last year. Measured since 2009, the decline is 15.3 percent.

To be fair, this new study (as yet unreleased; I’m going on reports from those who saw drafts) is about programs offered, which is a supply-side issue.  It reflects institutional decisions based to varying degrees on perceptions of student interest, but can also reflect other forces.  Administrators may view second-language acquisition as less important than they once did because they think English is increasingly the world’s lingua franca, or because they anticipate ever-improving AI translation as cutting into demand for humans to actually learn Spanish.  They may also be moved by a general strategy of reducing the humanities.

The study apparently breaks down programs by institutional type, thankfully, and found this key note: “Two-year institutions have disproportionately shed enrollments in foreign-language courses.”  I’m not sure why, but do recall how very sensitive community colleges are to labor force needs.

There’s an interesting breakdown by specific languages:

The most common disappearances of offerings were in French (129), Spanish (118), German (86) and Italian (56). (Spanish is by far the most commonly taught foreign language in the United States.)

Of the 15 most commonly taught languages, only three saw an increase in the number of offerings: American Sign Language, biblical Hebrew and Korean.

Spanish is still very healthy, accounting for half of American foreign language teaching, according to a WBUR report.

I’d like to get a sense of the impact digital learning has had on this, notably Duolingo.

What does this tell us about the future of foreign language instruction in American higher education?

Chronicle reporter Steven Johnson told WBUR that he thinks MLA thinks more cuts are coming, which sounds very plausible.  We haven’t experienced a sudden renaissance in second language learning since 2016.  Moreover, as one friend suggested to me on Facebook, the Trump administration’s tapping into American xenophobia could heighten some populations’ dislike of foreignness, including foreign languages.

On the other hand, this three-year period could be an aberration in modern academic history.  Campuses have ratcheted down their offerings, and perhaps hit the right level by 2017.  Demand for Spanish may well continue to be robust, given that the second-largest American demographic is Latinx.  Additionally, rising distrust of Silicon Valley may stymie further use of automated learning tools.

Which way do you think language instruction will go?  And are you seeing signs of these cuts in your area?

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2 Responses to American higher education cut hundreds of foreign language programs

  1. Ellen Moody says:

    Oh yes I’ve seen these cuts — as have all of us who teach. In all four undergraduate colleges I taught in; in the college my younger daughter attended. As the humanities and literature lose esteem, so French is cut. Latin and classical studies just slaughtered (departments vanish). I’ve seen what I’ll call half-hearted attempts to start up language courses in languages globalisation has made some people think will be of economical use to them, but except in one post-graduate school I know of (in Washington DC) where the students are learning the language as part of an an accreditation for job, the courses don’t last: there is most a second term and then it’s dropped. I saw this in courses offered in Japanese.

    Now if the person majors in a particular culture, perhaps then the language learning is sustained.

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