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National data shows that foreign language offerings have declined in the United States over the past six decades as well as more recently.
Even if the supply of foreign language courses has slipped, it’s less clear that demand has declined.
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One of the biggest casualties of program cuts aimed at balancing the West Virginia University budget were foreign languages.
In the initial round of proposed cuts, the entire WVU Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics was on the chopping block. After an appeal — and a backlash on campus and elsewhere — the university moved to save some Spanish and Chinese courses and five full-time equivalent teaching positions. But courses and degree programs in other languages would be shuttered.
The cuts to foreign languages became perhaps the most controversial element of the administration’s plan, and the Faculty Senate cited it in its proposed resolution of no confidence in President E. Gordon Gee.
The language cuts are "likely to lead to increased state departures as they limit young people’s access to a comprehensive education, quality language education, global perspectives, and the option to further their education in much-needed areas in-state," the Faculty Senate resolution said. (The resolution passed, but it is nonbinding and Gee remains president.)
Outside the state, critics pounced on the decision to cut back on foreign languages.
"I can tell you that no other state flagship university has forsaken language education for its students or made the kinds of cuts to the humanities that WVU is undertaking," Paula M. Krebs, executive director of the Modern Language Association, a professional association for U.S. language and literature scholars, wrote to Gee in a letter.
In an interview published Aug. 25 in The Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper, Gee defended the proposal.
"Our intent is to continue to have a very robust foreign language program," Gee said. "Not in the same way that we've been doing, but through partnerships. We're looking at a new delivery system. Any student who wants to have a language experience at this institution will be able to have that language experience."
Gee added that foreign languages are "not a high priority nationally." We decided to see whether Gee was correct about that.
We found evidence that fewer students are taking foreign language courses over the past six decades and more recently, though it’s unclear whether this is a question of supply or demand.
Periodic surveys by the Modern Language Association have found that more than 16 college and university students out of every 100 took foreign language courses in 1960, a number that fell to 7.5 per 100 by 2016. This figure also dropped in four surveys taken from 2006 to 2016.
Based on more limited data covering 2020, the Modern Language Association found that foreign language enrollment declined by 15.4% between 2016 and 2020.
Gee’s office also cited data from the National Center for Education Statistics that show the number of bachelor’s degrees awarded annually across all areas of foreign languages, literatures and linguistics has declined 25% nationally and 30% in WVU’s primary recruiting states from 2010 to 2021.
However, enrollment may have declined partly because offerings shrank. The Modern Language Association’s 2016 survey found that the number of language programs fell by 5.3% percent from 2013 to 2016.
This chicken-and-egg problem makes it hard to determine whether Gee’s correct that foreign languages are "not a high priority" because there does appear to be some demand from U.S. companies for foreign-language speakers.
A 2019 survey of 1,200 senior business professionals conducted by the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages found that 32% of officials surveyed said they rely on employees with foreign language skills "a lot," and 58% said they rely on such workers "some." Ten percent said they rely "not at all" on workers with foreign language skills.
Meanwhile, a 2019 survey by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences found that adults named foreign languages first among the subjects they wish they’d studied more in college.
Gee said that foreign languages are "not a high priority" nationally.
There is evidence for Gee’s assertion: Enrollment in foreign language classes at U.S. colleges and universities has declined, both since the 1960s and the early 2000s.
However, it’s unclear whether students and employers are the ones making it a lower priority, or whether they are simply reacting to a diminished supply of college-level courses.
We rate the statement Half True.
The Daily Athenaeum, "Gee speaks on the budget deficit, academic transformation and Huggins," Aug. 25, 2023
WVU Faculty Senate, "Resolution of No Confidence in the Leadership of President E. Gordon Gee"
West Virginia University, summary of appeals, Aug. 29, 2023
Inside Higher Ed, "Loeuf ou la Poule?" March 18th, 2018
Inside Higher Ed, "West Virginia’s Unprecedented Proposed Cuts Become Clear," Aug. 11, 2023
Modern Language Association, "Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Summer 2016 and Fall 2016: Final Report," June 2019
American Academy of Arts & Sciences, "The Humanities in American Life: Insights from a 2019 Survey of the Public’s Attitudes & Engagement," accessed Oct. 3, 2023
American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, "Making Languages Our Business: Full Report" ,accessed Oct. 3, 2023
Paula M. Krebs, "Opinion: West Virginia University’s cuts are a travesty" (CNN op-ed), Sept.19, 2023
Paula M. Krebs, letter to Gordon Gee, Aug. 11, 2023
Language Testing International, "Why It Pays to be Bilingual" , Aug. 16, 2022
American Academy of Arts & Sciences, "Foerign Language Classes Becoming More Scarce" , Feb 6, 2019
Polyglottist Language Academy, "How does one Explain the Significant Decline of Foreign Language Study in the United States?" , Oct.11th,2020
Washington Post, "WVU’s plan to cut foreign languages, other programs draws disbelief," Aug. 18, 2023
Forbes, "West Virginia University To Retain Only Chinese And Spanish Language Instruction," Aug 30, 2023
Email interview with Anna Chang, director of outreach for the Modern Language Association, Sept.18th, 2023
Email interview with Frankie Tack, WVU Faculty Senate chair, Sept. 20, 2023
Email interview with April Kaull, WVU executive director of communications, Sept. 19, 2023
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