Declining Number of College Students Pursuing Foreign Language Studies Raises Concerns for National Security

When the Soviet Union launched its first artificial Earth satellite, Sputnik 1, on Oct. 4, 1957, it not only sparked concerns about America’s technological competitiveness, but also raised worries about the scarcity of Russian speakers in the U.S. who could monitor Soviet scientific and military activities.

In 1958, the passage of the National Defense Education Act led to funding to enhance language instruction, as well as math and science education.

A recent report from the Modern Language Association (MLA) reveals that America’s foreign language capabilities are once again a cause for concern. The report indicates that enrollment in languages other than English at the university level experienced an unprecedented decline of 16.6% between 2016 and 2021.

The largest drop, amounting to 12.6%, occurred between 1970 and 1972.

This decline is part of a continuous trend since 2009, despite the increasingly globalized world we live in. The number of college students studying foreign languages is dwindling.

As a Spanish and Portuguese professor who conducts research on language education trends, I understand that having fewer U.S. college students learning foreign languages poses greater risks for national security.

Foreign language census

Since 1958, the MLA has conducted regular surveys of enrollments in college-level language courses in the U.S. According to their data, enrollments in languages other than English boomed after the implementation of the National Defense Education Act.

Between 1958 and 1970, these enrollments nearly tripled, going from around 430,000 to almost 1.2 million. The majority of students studied French, German, or Spanish. However, enrollments in Russian doubled within the first three years alone, jumping from approximately 16,000 in 1958 to over 32,700 in 1961. Enrollments in less commonly taught languages like Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic also saw significant increases.

After 1970, enrollments in language studies began to decline with the exception of Arabic. Despite the initially small number of U.S. students studying Arabic (only 364 in 1958, increasing to 1,324 in 1970), the 1973 oil crisis accelerated the trend, pushing enrollments to over 3,000 in 1977 before leveling off.

Role of geopolitics

Enrollments in Russian and Arabic courses illustrate how language study can be directly impacted by, and have consequences for, political events.

Enrollments in Russian peaked at nearly 44,500 in 1990. However, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 led to an immediate loss of interest in learning Russian. Enrollments dropped to below 25,000 by 1995 and have continued to decrease since then. The latest MLA survey shows that between 2016 and 2021 alone, enrollments fell from 20,353 to 17,598 – just over 1,500 more than in 1958. The limited number of U.S. students learning Russian becomes a concern given the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, as well as Russia’s prominent role as a top cyberthreat, as knowledge of the language plays a crucial role in protecting national security.

Enrollments in Arabic were low in 1998, with only 5,505 college students studying the language. At that time, training and hiring individuals with professional-level Arabic proficiency were not prioritized by the federal government. Consequently, the FBI had very few Arabic translators, resulting in significant delays in translating surveillance information in the lead-up to the 9/11 attacks.

A year after 9/11, college-level enrollments in Arabic nearly doubled to over 10,500, peaking at just under 35,000 in 2009.

Expansion takes time

Addressing foreign language deficiencies is not a quick fix. Bridging these gaps requires hundreds to thousands of hours of study to achieve professional proficiency in languages considered critical for national security. Additionally, universities need time to expand their language offerings and faculty.

Consequently, shortfalls persist. In 2016, nearly a quarter of the State Department’s overseas positions were occupied by individuals who did not meet the language proficiency requirements for their positions. The numbers were even higher for positions that necessitated proficiency in critical languages such as Arabic, Dari, Farsi, and Urdu. These language gaps have impeded officers’ ability to safeguard embassies, manage emergency situations, and more.

Steep declines

After peaking at almost 1.7 million in 2009, college-level enrollments in languages other than English experienced a significant decline. The latest MLA report demonstrates that this decline has persisted, with enrollments dropping to under 1.2 million by 2021, reflecting a decrease of nearly 30%.

Most commonly taught languages experienced significant declines during this period. Arabic enrollment fell by almost 35%, Chinese/Mandarin by almost 25%, French by 37%, German by 44%, Japanese by 9%, and Spanish by 32%. The only exceptions to this downward trend are enrollments in American Sign Language, which increased by 17%, and Korean, which jumped by 128

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