French Courses Less Popular Among US College Students

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The percentage of American college students choosing to enroll in French courses is continuing to drop according to the Modern Language Association’s recent survey of over 2,500 institutions of higher learning. The decrease is reflected not just in the French language — other commonly taught languages such as Italian, German, and Spanish are also decreasing in popularity, as well as a general decrease in enrollments in courses teaching any language other than English.

The MLA has been tracking enrollment in college-level language courses other than English since 1958, and it reports a drop of 100,000 such enrollments between 2009 and 2013. It’s the steepest drop since 1995, with the percentage of students enrolled in foreign language courses going from 8.7 to 8.1 per cent.

Even Spanish — which with over half of all foreign language enrollments is by far the language of preference for American college students — experienced its steepest drop since 1958.  70,000 fewer students signed up for Spanish between 2009 and 2013, even as the overall number of college students increased.

Modern Language Association Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal sites enrollment in French courses as an interesting case. Despite the general decline of languages, French has remained steadily in second place behind Spanish and enrollment in French courses is dropping slower than other European languages. During the 2009-2013 period, French enrollment dropped by 8.1 per cent, compared with 9.3 per cent for German, 8.2 per cent for Spanish, and 11.3 per cent for Italian.

“In the 60s everyone studied French in school. French culture, French literature, and the constitution especially had a lot of influence on the United States,” Feal says, describing the peak of US enrollment in French courses in 1968. “It’s a language that was and that remains important for professional and commercial reasons. French is the official language for many African countries and it is the official language for certain international organizations like the UN.”

Rather than citing a lack of reasons to take French, Feal suggests that the drop may come from a growing array of college courses to choose from, like digital art or mastering certain software. Language course offerings are growing in diversity, too. In fact languages like Chinese, Arabic and Korean are enjoying growing enrollments in institutions of higher learning.

“American students today have a much broader choice when it comes to enrolling in college courses, and we are noticing a grown interest in gaining new experiences such as learning Korean or American Sign language which is now a more popular choice than German,” says Feal.

Not all European languages are declining in popularity: Portuguese is increasing its share of the language-learning university population with 8 per cent of foreign language students enrolling in courses in 2013.

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