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Fewer and fewer US college students are studying foreign languages

By Nikhil Sonnad
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Americans have a reputation for being bad at learning languages. Now even fewer of them seem inclined to try.

From 2013 to 2016, the number of students at American universities enrolled in foreign language classes fell by over 9%. This does not appear to be just a blip—the overall number has been steadily falling since 2009, according to research (pdf) by America’s Modern Language Association.

Much of this can be accounted for by a drop in the number of people learning Spanish, by far the most popular language among US college students. But many other languages saw their popularity drop as well, and often at higher rates than Spanish, including German, Russian, and Italian.

By far the biggest increase was in Korean, with enrollment up 65%. Still, the actual number of students enrolled in Korean classes is quite low—just 14,000, compared to over 700,000 for Spanish.

Language learning is important. Multilingualism is correlated positively with intelligence and memory. In the new global economy, fluency in multiple languages increases job opportunities. But this new data shows that America’s university students are falling even farther behind the rest of the world when it comes to acquiring new languages.

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