Language course enrollments may be dropping across the country, but many of Yale’s foreign language departments have held on to student interest.
Last week, the Modern Language Association — a scholarly organization that promotes language and literature study through publications and advocacy work — released a survey that measured foreign language enrollment at American colleges and universities, comparing trends across languages like Korean and Russian. Language enrollment nationwide fell nearly 7 percent between 2009 and 2013 despite multiple periods of growth since 2002. While overall enrollment in Yale College foreign language courses has also dropped since 2009, many other trends summarized in the report do not hold true at Yale.
“It could be that with the ever-increasing use of English globally, students may see less of a need to study a foreign language,” Director of Undergraduate Studies for French Christopher Semk said. “Especially now that more students and parents see college as a means to a high-paying job, they don’t necessarily see the influence of language study — especially when you can do work abroad in English.”
On a similar note, MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal told the Chronicle of Higher Education last week that the decrease could be explained by increased student enrollment in career-oriented subjects, such as business, which leave little time for language classes.
Still, others said it is difficult to know what is behind the trend.
“I have no idea what accounts for these broad shifts — if, in fact, they are taking place — nor does anyone else,” East Asian Languages and Literatures DUS Seth Jacobowitz said, noting that the subject has drawn increased attention of late.
Nelleke Van Deusen-Scholl, director of Yale’s Center for Language Study, said it is hard to say whether these numbers reflect an ongoing trend or mere fluctuations in language enrollment.
Jacobowitz added that Yale students often enter college with strong language backgrounds — something that both the study and Spanish DUS Susan Byrne corroborated — so small declines in elementary courses do not necessarily indicate less overall interest.
Still, despite the overall decrease, numbers for individual language courses have fluctuated at Yale and beyond. The MLA survey indicated increased enrollments in languages such as Korean, American Sign Language, Portuguese and Chinese. In the case of Korean, this increase was as large as 44.7 percent. Yale’s Korean enrollment, meanwhile, has shown an overall positive, if erratic trend since the 2009–10 academic year.
Portuguese enrollment has also been unpredictable. Portuguese DUS David Jackson said registration numbers generally hover around 60 per semester, but spiked to 120 two years ago before returning to normal levels this spring.
But other languages saw decreased interest nationally. Ancient Greek enrollments, for example, have fallen 35.5 percent nationwide since 2009, but, according to Classics DUS Emily Greenwood, ancient Greek enrollments at Yale have been “modest but steady” during the same period. And though it remains the most-studied language at Yale and in the United States, Spanish has seen an 8.2 percent fall in nationwide enrollment.
Russian enrollments have decreased about 18 percent since 2009, according to the survey, but Slavic Languages and Literatures Senior Lector Irina Dolgova said beginning Russian enrollments are about 30 percent higher at Yale this year. The increased interest, she said, could be due to Russia’s recent prominence in political news.
This MLA report is the 23rd of its kind to be released by the association.