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Indicator II-7 Postsecondary Course-Taking in Languages Other than English (OTE)
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Updated (12/11/09) with data from the Modern Language Association's 2006 survey of postsecondary enrollments in languages other than English.

See the
Note on OTE Language Course Enrollment Data.

Because of regular, detailed surveys conducted by the MLA, data regarding the extent of OTE language course-taking in the postsecondary educational setting are plentiful. They reveal that while the absolute number of enrollments in such courses has more than doubled since 1960, the percentage of all postsecondary students taking these languages in 2006 was substantially lower than it had been four decades prior (Figure II-7a). In 1965, 16.5% of all enrollments in higher education were in OTE languages, the greatest proportion ever recorded by the MLA. By 1980, this figure had dropped to 7.3%, a level from which it has risen only slightly in the subsequent 20 years.1 (For more on how an “enrollment” is defined, see the Note on OTE Course Enrollment Data.)

Figure II-7a, Full Size
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That OTE course enrollment did not decrease even more sharply as a percentage of all enrollments is due to the same phenomenon witnessed at the secondary level: a staggering increase in the number of Spanish enrollments (see Indicator I-7, Language Course Enrollment in Public High Schools). Such enrollments more than quadrupled between 1960 and 2006, while enrollments in both French and German declined (Figure II-7b). Italian and American Sign Language (ASL) enrollments experienced even greater percentage growth than Spanish, but the absolute numbers of enrollments in ASL were far smaller than those for Spanish over the time period. Figure II-7c demonstrates even more forcefully the growing popularity of Spanish. In 1968, Spanish enrollments were only 52% as numerous as the enrollments in all other OTE languages combined. But by 1995, Spanish enrollments exceeded the total for the other languages. In 2006, Spanish enrollments were 18% higher than the combined total for all other modern languages (excluding English).

Figure II-7b, Full Size
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Figure II-7c, Full Size
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Though once the foundation of a liberal arts education, ancient Greek and Latin were much less frequently studied in recent decades than French, German, and Spanish, the most commonly taken modern languages in American institutions of postsecondary education (Figure II-7d). In 1980, enrollments in Greek and Latin combined were only 8.5% of those in French, German, and Spanish combined, and that percentage dropped steadily over the subsequent quarter century, reaching 4.9% by 2006. In terms of absolute numbers of enrollments, however, both languages have experienced increases since the late 1990s. In 2006, Latin enrollments were up 29% from their 1980 level, while an upsurge in Greek enrollments beginning in 1998 has resulted in a full recovery from their decline over the course of the 1980s.

Figure II-7d, Full Size
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Figure II-7e charts enrollment trends for the most commonly taken languages identified by former President George W. Bush in 2006 as “critical need” from a national security standpoint (see Indicator I-7, Language Course Enrollment in Public High Schools for more on the Bush administration's National Security Language Initiative). Between 1960 and 2006, enrollments in both Chinese and Japanese increased substantially, with Japanese being the more frequently studied language of the two. Another clear growth trend is the marked increase, after many years of stagnation, in Arabic enrollments between 1995 and 2006. Rising 439%, the number of Arabic enrollments now rivals the figure for Russian, which experienced a sharp drop in enrollments after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Figure II-7f presents enrollment figures for the other “critical need” languages on which the MLA collects data. In most cases, enrollments rose considerably between 1998 and 2006. But even with large percentage increases—271% in the case of Persian, for example—relatively few postsecondary students are currently pursuing coursework in these languages (e.g., 2,280 students were enrolled in Persian courses nationwide in 2006).

Figure II-7e, Full Size
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Figure II-7f, Full Size


1 This period was one of dramatic decline in the proportion of postsecondary institutions with OTE language-related requirements for bachelor’s degrees. In 1965–1966, 88.9% of institutions had such a requirement. By 1982–1983, the proportion had dropped to 47.4%. (Richard Brod and Monique Lapointe, "The MLA Survey of Foreign Language Entrance and Degree Requirements, 1987–88 ", ADFL Bulletin, vol. 20, no. 2 (January 1989): table 1.)

Note on OTE Language Course Enrollment Data

School enrollments refer to students, while language course enrollments refer to class registrations. The collector of the data on which this indicator is based assumes that a one-to-one relationship exists between these units—that is, each student is taking only one language course—although this is not always the case. However, multiple course registrations are a rare enough phenomenon that the data collector believes equating school enrollments with course enrollments is appropriate for the purpose of its calculations.

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