Hallo! Bonjour! Hola! Ciao! According to the American Councils for International Education, 10.6 million students from grades K-12 are enrolled in a foreign language. A new study has shown that although many have learned languages in their early education, there is a decline in the pursuit of learning a language in college. 

According to the Modern Language Association 2023 Census, there was a 16.6% decrease in enrollment in foreign language classes by college students from 2016 to 2021. This is the largest decline since the association started its census in 1958 with language enrollment peaking in 2009.

Elon University requires students to take language classes up to the level 1020 as part of the core curriculum. This is a common requirement in liberal arts colleges. 

Elon’s world language and culture department is currently stable in enrollment. For languages such as German, they have seen an increase, as noted by Brandon Essary, world languages and cultures department chair. He said Lydia B. Tang, head of world language programs at MLA, reached out to Elon to commend them on their language program, specifically for German, and that they are a model to follow. 

Elon’s official learning outcomes for their language program are intercultural learning, intercultural competence and critical thinking. Essary believes, in addition to those outcomes, students gain additional life skills.  

“You develop a competence for understanding people from different places and different backgrounds,” Essary said. 

The MLA attributed the reasons for the decline is the decrease in student enrollment in universities and in interest in humanities and foreign languages. 

Sophomore Lucas Koch, who has family in Austria, is currently studying German at Elon. He believes that the reason students don’t want to learn a new language is a mixture of burnout and the challenge of learning a new language. 

“I feel like people just don't want to learn new languages because it is hard,” Koch said.

The value for advancing language learning in college has changed with the transitioning mindset of what a degree means. 

“The value of degrees have changed,” Hodges said. “Like in the past, people would just go to college and a degree is all you really needed. So you could just explore different majors and take languages. But now you need really particular degrees and then you have to go on and get masters. So unless you want to teach or move to that country, a language degree is really not that beneficial for you and your career.”

Essary finds the perception that the arts and humanities are not important when calculating what degree to take is harmful. He said he believes that pursuing classes in another language or even a minor or major will benefit people in the long run. 

“They're in a better place to work in any environment,” Essary said. “And that kind of versatility is not what people talk about in the news.”

The rising concern for lucrative jobs seems to have a knock on effect for interest in languages.  

“It sends a signal that these skills can go away first,” Essary said. “And that's a hard pill to swallow.”