In a November 15th press release, the Modern Language Association of America reported that enrollment in foreign-language courses in U.S. colleges and universities significantly declined from 2016 to 2021 (Chronicle of Higher Education, November 16th online).
Experts note that there are a number of reasons for the decline. Here’s what we know (percentage decreases are in parentheses):
FRENCH (-23.1%): For decades, students took French because it was the language of seduction (e.g., “Voulez–vous coucher avec moi?”). However, several studies have shown that it is the French accent that gets people into bed, not the words themselves. As a result, interest in French courses has waned. It is also the case that, increasingly, casual sex on college campuses requires only a minimal amount of preliminary conversation (“You wanna?” “Um, Sure.”). Elegant, seductive whispering just isn’t needed as much anymore.
CHINESE/MANDARIN (-14.3%): With virtually all take-out menus in Chinese restaurants now available in English, student demand for instruction in this venerable language has plummeted.
GERMAN (-33.6%): The impact of social media and smartphones on the attention span of American students has made it impossible for them to learn lengthy German words like dralenstorfhausencracken. You can’t communicate very effectively in Munich if your vocabulary is limited to frau and herr.
PORTUGUESE (-21.8%): With Russia having announced its plans to annex both Portugal and Brazil in early 2024 (“Our borders are threatened,” claims Putin), there won’t be much need for this language unless you are travelling to Mozambique or Cape Verde.
JAPANESE (-4.6%): For many years, most American students taking Japanese were under the mistaken impression that they were taking Chinese. Ever since a New York Times investigation revealed that error, enrollment has dropped.
RUSSIAN: (-13.5%): Speaking Russian is great when you’ve been drinking a lot of vodka and want to demonstrate bluster. Unfortunately, as college students increasingly substitute hard seltzer for Russia’s national beverage, demand for its national language has taken a hit.
SPANISH (-18%): Now that the whole Lin-Manuel Miranda phenomenon has run its course, interest in Spanish has slipped. The success of Bad Bunny has not been sufficient to offset this decline.
ITALIAN (-20.4%): Once researchers discovered that nearly 85% of all Italian communication takes place through hand gestures, the need to know the actual words became much less pressing.
LATIN (-21.5%): Except for Vladimir Putin, nobody says “Veni, Vidi, Vici” anymore.
ARABIC (-27.4%): Arabic numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.) remain very popular. The language, not so much.
As Ron DeSantis is fond of asserting, “if you can’t say it in English, it’s probably not worth saying.”