Why are Languages so Foreign (to U.S. Higher Education)?

  • 2024-02-27

Most readers of this letter agree on the importance of language acquisition. What can be (and is being) done about the apparent decline of language instruction on the US campus?

Writing about the importance of language acquisition in this space is a clear case of preaching to the converted. Everyone knows the facts; the Chronicle reporting on a recent MLA census showing that modern language enrollments are in steep decline, the example of bleak news from the University of West Virginia, waves of language cuts at the secondary level, and so on.

The causes seem pretty obvious as well, but might be worth a recap here: modern language enrollments began declining due to pressures on students NOT to study them because a distraction from supposedly career-readying subjects. Pressure from parents, pressure also from (some) advisors in the “practical” majors, probably also from messages received from the social ether, or the internet (“everyone speaks English”). Then, universities were increasingly pressured to enter an arms race to attract students. Reducing their commitment to languages seemed – and still to many seems – a way to score two quick gains with one pen-stroke: save money and attract parents with a new no-nonsense profile complete with new job-market-designed majors (paid for by cutting back modern language departments) and no pesky language requirement.

IFE student with badge "Je parle Français" (I speak French)


Lots of clouds, any silver linings? Students, for one. A lot of whom didn't get the memo declaring language-learning obsolete. And there are a couple of counter-trends that may allow students to register for that language class. One is everyone's favorite lip service, “internationalization”; some of those new majors have 'global' in the title, while employers have been trying for some time to make themselves heard about their need for cultural and communication skills among job candidates. As they do, some parents are seeing the reasons for internationalizing a college degree. Another message getting heard, hopefully, is recent data-discoveries that humanities majors do pretty well on the job market or, similarly, that liberal educations have more “practical” value than the utilitarians have been allowing.

In addition to pushing back, Modern Language departments at IFE's partner universities have taken to innovation. Joining ranks by forming Languages and Literatures departments or schools, linking arms or at least courses with non-language departments, emphasizing Language for Special Purposes (LSP), identifying language study abroad options that work well, emphasizing heritage and migrated language (foreign languages aren't foreign), or giving pride of place to applied linguistics and specialists of language acquisition at the same time resisting ideas like becoming a no-lit, service department. (Ask the provost if they are thinking of doing the same with the English Department...)

Allies are important. It's finally all the same battle: defeating the naysayers on subjects like the value of liberal arts, language and culture, diversity, the humanities, transferable skills, and effective language-based study abroad. Here's one ally: Historian Karen Spierling of Denison University, whose Linkedin posts abound with good stuff being written in support of the humanities. Readers of The Pond, please share any information or insights about any of the above with us.