The Most Studied, Fastest Growing, and “Best Represented” Languages in U.S. Colleges

A recent post by Brad Peterson on the supposed popularity of Chinese language study around the world sent me digging for some data on the whole question of what foreign/modern languages are popular in U.S. schools and, well, what we mean by “popular.”

There are at least three ways you could define popular when it comes to language study:

  • Number of students enrolled in classes
  • Rate of growth of enrolled students from one year to the next
  • Ratio of native speakers to students studying the language

The first two are fairly straightforward.  The third one, what we might call a “best represented” index, consists of the ratio of native speakers of a language to the number of students studying it.  This gives us a rough indicator of how popular a language is in school versus in the “real world.”

The best data I could find on U.S. college foreign or modern language enrollements is Furman, Goldberg, and Lusin (2010), done on behalf of the Modern Language Association.  Table 1 shows winners of the first two measures of popularity, number of students studying the language and the rate of growth (here using the past 3 years, since the last MLA survey).

Table 1: Foreign Language Enrollments and Growth Rates at U.S. Colleges

LanguageStudentsGrowth 2006-2009
Ancient Greek20695-9.40%
Biblical Hebrew13807-2.40%
Modern Hebrew8245-14.20%
Other Languages4074720.80%
*ASL = American Sign Language

As you can see, Spanish has the most students, to no one’s surprise. Chinese is less popular than six other languages.  There are more than 13 times as many students studying Spanish, three and half times as many studying French, and 1.5 times as many who study German compared to Chinese.  In fact, there are more students of three dead languages (Latin, Ancient Greek, and Biblical Hebrew) than there are Chinese students (67,108 versus 60,976).

The MLA’s study also includes the percentage that each language has grown in popularity in the past three years.  Even here, Chinese is only third on the list.  Leading the pack is Arabic at 46%, followed by Korean at 19%, Chinese at 18%, and ASL at 16%.

In Table 2, using the same data from Table 1 (but excluding classical languages), I’ve added the best estimates (according to Wikipedia) of all the modern languages on the list, then provided the number of native speakers per U.S. college student of that language. This gives us the “best-represented” languages.

Table 2: Native Speakers to Student Ratio for Modern Languages in U.S. Colleges

LanguageStudentsSpeakersSpeakers to Student Ratio
Modern Hebrew82455300000642.81

The best-represented language is, by far, American Sign Language.  The estimate of ASL users is, however, very approximate, since no good recent estimate seems to be available.  Even if the ASL estimate were off by 100%, however, it is clear that there are far and away more students studying ASL relative to speakers than any other language.

Granted, we are using the native speaker count from the world population for the other languages, not just the United States, so the comparison is biased in that way.  We should probably calculate the ratio by including all sign language users, not just ASL, but these figures are even harder to estimate. We can go in the other direction and use just native speaker figures for the United States to make the comparison. For example, there are around 37 million native Spanish speakers in the U.S., which would mean the Spanish ratio would drop all the way down to 43 speakers per student – not quite as low as ASL, but closer.

After ASL, Spanish is the next best represented language relative to native speakers at the international level, followed by French, Modern Hebrew, and Italian.  Chinese is dead last, though to be fair, to be at the same ratio as Spanish (578:1), there would need to be 2,076,000 Chinese students, roughly 27% greater than the entire population of college students studying languages in the U.S.

There are three languages with more than 100 million native speakers that don’t even appear on our list: Hindi-Urdu (480 million speakers), Bengali (250 million), and Punjabi (109 million).

Works Cited

Furman, N., D. Goldberg, & N. Lusin (2010). Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2009. New York: Modern Language Association.

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