New MLA Report Highlights the Need for Investment in Language Study

Many language programs at US colleges and universities remain strong despite challenging national and local conditions, according to a comprehensive new report, Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2021, released today by the Modern Language Association (MLA). While total enrollments in languages other than English continued the sustained decline that began after the historic peak in 2009, more than one-third of all language programs saw an increase in enrollments or remained stable, and several languages showed gains in overall enrollments.

The MLA report is the longest-running comprehensive analysis of the study of world languages at US colleges and universities; this is the twenty-sixth survey in the series. The report includes undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages other than English in fall 2021 for 2,455 AA-, BA-, MA-, and PhD-granting colleges and universities in the United States, or 92.2% of all eligible institutions. This response rate is lower than the census’s peak rate of 95% or higher, but it remains an exceptionally high number, qualifying the report as a census rather than a survey. Partial funding for the report came from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the United States Department of Education.

Total language enrollments on US college campuses decreased by 16.6% between 2016 and 2021, marking the largest decline in the history of the census. From 1980 until 2009, the year immediately following the 2007–08 financial crisis, language enrollments at US colleges and universities saw strong growth, rising from 924,337 in 1980 to 1,673,566 in 2009 (see fig. 1a). Enrollments now stand at approximately the same level as in 1998. Part, but not all, of this drop in language enrollments can be attributed to the overall decrease in the number of students enrolling in colleges and universities, as institutions have seen an 8.0% decline in enrollment since 2016.

Fig. 1a: Fall Language Enrollments by Year

Fig. 1a: Fall Language Enrollments by Year

The drop in enrollments was steepest at two-year institutions, falling by 24.2%; enrollments at four-year institutions declined by 14.7%. This disparity has concerning implications for equity of and access to language study; the two-year institutions whose programs are disproportionately at risk provide critical educational opportunities for underserved communities of students.

Despite these challenging conditions for language study, many language programs continue to flourish. Among all programs and for all languages, 38.3% increased or were stable. The percentage of programs that increased or were stable was even greater for advanced undergraduate study (50.0%) and graduate study (56.5%). Moreover, three of the fifteen most commonly taught languages saw an overall increase in enrollments. Korean continued its remarkable growth, rising by 38.3%, followed by Biblical Hebrew (9.1%) and American Sign Language (0.8%).

The report includes case studies of ten institutions from across the country where language programs are thriving. Many of these institutions achieved remarkable growth over the past several years, and instructors and administrators share how their approaches to language learning have enabled their programs to flourish. What works? Access to robust institutional and financial support, the development of close ties between language programs and local communities, an emphasis on real-life language application and professional advancement, and courses that highlight the cultural component of language learning. “In a difficult time for language study, it is vital that we learn from these extraordinary success stories,” said Paula M. Krebs, the executive director of the MLA. “These strong programs offer valuable strategies for institutions with struggling programs, and they speak to how transformative full-throated institutional support can be for language learning.”

Data from this census are also being added to the MLA Language Map, where visitors can view language programs and enrollments in the context of where languages are spoken in the United States. Researchers who want to find out more about enrollments over time and to search by state or institution will be able to create custom reports in the Language Enrollment Database, 1958–2021.

Key Findings of the Report

Following are some of the key findings of Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2021:

  • Total college and university enrollments in languages other than English dropped by 16.6% between fall 2016 and fall 2021.
  • The total number of programs of study reporting enrollments fell by 961, an 8.2% drop. These numbers do not represent closed departments; rather, they reflect the reduction in the aggregate number of institutions that report a given language in a given year.
  • Between fall 2016 and fall 2021, enrollments increased in Korean (38.3%), Biblical Hebrew (9.1%), and American Sign Language (0.8%).
  • In 2021, 44 more institutions reported enrollments in American Sign Language than did in 2016, and 29 more institutions reported enrollments in Korean.
  • The most successful language programs had several key characteristics in common, including ample funding, support from administrative offices and other departments, a willingness to prioritize studying the cultural component of language, and a focus on applying language learning in real-life contexts.
  • Spanish and French still led as the two most studied languages, and American Sign Language continued to hold third place, but other shifts in the most commonly taught languages reflect a growing diversity in the languages students are pursuing. Japanese has taken German’s place as the language with the fourth most enrollments. Chinese/Mandarin has moved ahead of Italian, and Korean has advanced above Russian.
  • The top languages studied in US colleges and universities in fall 2021 were
Language Enrollments Change since 2016
Spanish 584,453 –18.0%
French 135,088 –23.1%
American Sign Language 107,899 +0.8%
Japanese 65,661 –4.6%
German 53,543 –33.6%
Chinese/Mandarin 46,492 –14.3%
Italian 45,182 –20.4%
Arabic 22,918 –27.4%
Latin 19,472 –21.5%
Korean 19,270 +38.3%
Russian 17,598 –13.5%
Greek, Ancient 11,433 –13.8%
Hebrew, Biblical 10,442 +9.1%
Portuguese 7,684 –21.8%
Hebrew, Modern 4,125 –26.0%
  • Course offerings for less commonly taught languages (LCTLs) continued to be somewhat irregular. While enrollments in the aggregated LCTLs declined significantly less (6.8%) than enrollments in languages as a whole, 101 LCTLs saw a decline in the number of institutions where they were taught, and 20 Indigenous American languages that were taught in 2013 or 2016 were not taught in 2021. However, also among the LCTLs, 113 languages experienced an increase in the number of institutions where they were taught.

“In the current professional and cultural climate, we can’t afford to devalue the study of languages,” said Krebs. “The world is increasingly interconnected, and the need for knowledge of languages other than English is even more important. Institutions of higher education have an obligation to both prepare their students for their future careers and create well-informed citizens. If they are going to fulfill these obligations, they have to prioritize investing in and supporting language education.”


The new MLA census counts fall 2021 undergraduate and graduate course enrollments in languages other than English at 2,455 AA-, BA-, MA-, and PhD-granting colleges and universities in the United States. The response rate for the census was 92.2%. Approximately one-third of the responses came from two-year institutions, and two-thirds from four-year institutions.

To conduct the census, the MLA contacted registrars and other school representatives by email and telephone. The MLA listing of institutions was supplemented with information from the National Center for Education Statistics and the Higher Education Directory, among other sources, to ensure that all eligible institutions were accounted for. The census measures course enrollments, not the number of students studying a language.

2023 ADE and ALD Award Winners Announced

Congratulations to Patricia Okker, who will receive the Association of Departments of English Francis Andrew March Award, and to Paul Sandrock, who will receive the Association of Language Departments Award for Distinguished Service to the Profession. 

Patricia Okker is the former president of New College of Florida and dean emeritus and professor emeritus at the University of Missouri, Columbia. During her tenure as dean, she increased diversity among new faculty hires, developed community engagement programs that supported the public humanities, and promoted new majors in digital storytelling and health humanities (among others). Beyond her campus, her support of ADE programs has been critical in ensuring opportunities for others whose leadership will influence both the field of English and the larger humanities ecosystem. In July 2021, she began her term as president of New College, where she led initiatives that focused on improving faculty pay and on better aligning infrastructure to advance students’ curricular and co-curricular experiences. Okker’s presidency was terminated in January 2023, an action she and others have referred to as part of a “hostile takeover” of the small, public liberal arts college. Since then, she has joined the PEN America initiative Champions of Higher Education. In presenting the Francis Andrew March Award to Okker, the ADE recognizes her commitment to the ideals of liberal education as well as her support for English faculty and faculty leadership more broadly and the extent to which these efforts are often intertwined.

Paul Sandrock joined the ACTFL staff in 2011, and served the organization for more than twelve years, in roles including director of education, interim director of professional learning and certification, and, most recently, senior advisor for language learning initiatives. Through initiatives such as the Leadership Institute for Language Learning and publications such as the updated Guidelines for Implementing the Seal of Biliteracy, Sandrock brought together diverse groups of institutional representatives from the world languages community, ranging from early language learning and K–12 to higher education. His work has been guided by a keen understanding of institutional and organizational contexts, along with attention to the needs of historically underrepresented groups, such as heritage language students and English-language learners. Sandrock’s broad range of experiences and commitment to professional development across institutions and ranks also informed the publications he wrote and collaborated on, including Planning Curriculum for Learning World Languages (2002), the original Integrated Performance Assessment, and ACTFL’s Keys series, a four-volume set of guides that successfully link research and practice for classroom instructors. A 2003 State Supervisor of the Year and the 2008 recipient of the Florence Steiner Award for Leadership in World Language Education, Sandrock is both an accomplished and effective national language advocate in his own right and an inspiring mentor and colleague who has trained and empowered generations of language professionals to lead with languages in their communities. 

The awards will be presented during the MLA Awards Ceremony, which will take place on 5 January at the MLA Annual Convention in Philadelphia.

Gates and Mitchell to Be Honored at MLA Annual Convention

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The MLA is pleased to announce that Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University, will receive the eighth Phyllis Franklin Award for Public Advocacy of the Humanities. Frieda Ekotto, president of the MLA, will present the award during the MLA Awards Ceremony on 5 January in recognition of Gates’s groundbreaking and sweeping work in the promotion of Black literature, history, and culture. Gates will also take part in the 2024 convention session “Finding Your Roots as Public Humanities,” in conversation with Ekotto.

W.J.T. MitchellW. J. T. Mitchell, Gaylord Donnelley Distinguished Service Professor at the University of Chicago, will receive the tenth MLA Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement. The Executive Council selected Mitchell for the award on the recommendation of the Lifetime Scholarly Achievement Review Committee. Mitchell is renowned as a scholar and theorist of media, visual art, and literature. The Award for Lifetime Scholarly Achievement will be presented to Mitchell by Frieda Ekotto during the MLA Awards Ceremony at the January 2024 convention.

MLA Members Receive 2023 NEH Grants

Congratulations to the sixteen MLA members who are among the winners of the National Endowment for the Humanities grants announced in August 2023. Their projects include preparation for a publication of an open-access digital edition of the complete letters of the early American writer Catharine Maria Sedgwick; research and writing leading to a biography of the famed English novelist Emily Brontë; a digital repository of findings and research templates based on humanistic research on the simulation of human language, communication, art, and culture by AI software; and much more.

William Hedberg, Arizona State University, Tempe

Project Title: Translation and Traveling Texts: East Asian National Literatures in an Age without Borders

Project Description: A two-week residential institute for twenty-five higher education faculty members to explore issues of translation and cultural contact in East Asian literatures from the seventeenth century to today.

Joshua Smith, University of Arkansas, Fayetteville

Project Title: Brut y Brenhinedd: Translating the Welsh Reception of Geoffrey of Monmouth

Project Description: Preparation for print publication of three volumes of translations, from middle Welsh to English, of Brut y Brenhinedd (The Chronicle of the Kings), a retelling of British history based on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s twelfth-century Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). 

Patricia Kalayjian, California State University, Dominguez Hills

Project Title: The Letters of American Novelist Catharine Maria Sedgwick: An Online Edition

Project Description: Preparation for publication of an open-access digital edition of the complete letters of the early American writer Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789–1867). 

Maria Rosa Olivera-Williams, University of Notre Dame

Project Title: Ruben Dario: Critical Editions Project

Project Description: Preparation for print and digital publication of an edition of four volumes in Spanish of the journal articles written by Ruben Dario (1867–1916), a well-known Nicaraguan poet and critic.

Deborah Lutz, University of Louisville

Project Title: A Biography of British Writer Emily Jane Brontë (1818–1848)

Project Description: Research and writing leading to a biography of the famed English novelist Emily Brontë (1818–48).

Wendy Galgan, St. Joseph’s College

Project Title: Place, Race, and Gender in New England Gothic Literature

Project Description: A three-week residential institute for twenty-five higher education faculty members to study New England Gothic literature with a focus on race, place, and gender.

Robert Levine, University of Maryland, College Park

Project Title: After Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Harriet Beecher Stowe, African America, and the Quest for Interracial Democracy

Project Description: Research and writing for a book on the development of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s relationships with African American writers after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Kenneth Price, University of Nebraska, Lincoln

Project Title: The Late-Life Writings of Walt Whitman

Project Description: Preparation for online publication of Walt Whitman’s (1819–92) late-life writings and poems, including “November Boughs” and “Good-Bye My Fancy.”

Lauren Goodlad, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

Project Title: Design Justice Labs: An International and Interdisciplinary Digital Network

Project Description: A digital repository of findings and research templates based on humanistic research on the simulation of human language, communication, art, and culture by AI software.

Tanya Pollard, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Project Title: The Man Who Made Shakespeare: Richard Burbage and Theatrical Partnership

Project Description: Research and writing a book that shows the nature of William Shakespeare’s (1564–1616) collaborations with the actor Richard Burbage (c. 1567–1619).

Julie Crawford, Theatre for a New Audience

Project Title: Teaching Shakespeare’s Plays through Scholarship and Performance

Project Description: A two-week institute for twenty-five K–12 educators on the theme of nature and good government in the text and performance of Shakespeare’s As You Like It and King Lear.

Thomas Hahn, University of Rochester

Project Title: Middle English Text Series

Project Description: Preparation for print and digital publication of six volumes of medieval literary texts (thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) and implementation of a redesigned digital interface.

Kimberly Mack, University of Toledo

Project Title: The Untold History of American Rock Criticism

Project Description: Preparation of a book about American rock criticism, from the 1960s to the present, and the overlooked Black, Indigenous, people of color, and women writers who wrote about rock music for publications such as Rolling Stone and Creem.

Sasha Senderovich, University of Washington, Seattle

Project Title: In the Shadow of the Holocaust: Short Fiction by Jewish Writers from the Soviet Union

Project Description: Preparation for print publication of an annotated translation into English of ten Yiddish and Russian short stories written in the Soviet Union about the Soviet Jewish experience of World War II and the Holocaust. 

Eugenia Afinoguenova, Marquette University

Project Title: The Edinburgh Companion to the Spanish Civil War and Visual Culture

Project Description: Research and writing leading to a book of essays on the visual culture of the Spanish Civil War (1936–39) and its visual legacy. 

Lauren Arrington, National University of Ireland, Maynooth

Project Title: Bohemia on the Breadline: The Women Who Made Art and Created Social Change in Depression-Era America

Project Description: Research and writing of a book about the network of socially and politically engaged women artists employed through the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and 1940s.

The MLA Condemns Cuts at West Virginia University

The MLA’s recent advocacy in support of language and other humanities programs at West Virginia University has received coverage from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and Yahoo News, among numerous other outlets. In a letter to West Virginia University president Gordon Gee featured in the Washington Post, the MLA’s executive director Paula M. Krebs condemned the university’s proposed elimination of the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics, writing that “A full liberal arts education includes providing students with the tools that enable them to interact both with their neighbors in West Virginia and with the rest of the world. Science, technology, and business courses and majors are not enough for WVU to offer if it wants to produce fully informed and thinking citizens for West Virginia.” 

To learn more about the cuts to humanities programs at West Virginia University and the MLA’s advocacy initiatives, you can listen to Krebs on Here & Now and read her interview in Axios.

MLA Executive Director Speaks Out against Dramatic Cuts to Humanities Programs at West Virginia University

In a letter sent to Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, on 11 August, the MLA’s executive director, Paula M. Krebs, responded to the recently proposed cuts at West Virginia University, including the elimination of the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics. Krebs noted that the kinds of cuts to the humanities proposed by West Virginia University were unprecedented for a state flagship university and would “dramatically narrow educational opportunities” for all students, not just those in the humanities. 

“All students’ job prospects and lives are enriched by language study, writing instruction, and the research and analytical skills taught in beginning and advanced literature and culture courses,” wrote Krebs. “Access to these courses is especially important in public higher education, which is often the only route to a degree for many state residents.” Beyond providing vital skills, the Department of World Languages, Literatures and Linguistics and the Department of English generate substantial tuition revenue for the university beyond their expenses, which undermines arguments that cite budgetary issues as a reason for the cuts.

The university’s appeals process runs through mid-September, when the board of governors will vote on the proposed cuts. 

Read the full letter to President Gee.

New Report on the MLA Job List

A report on the jobs advertised in the MLA Job List for the 2020–21 and 2021–22 academic years is now available on the MLA website. The decline in the number of jobs advertised in 2020–21 was pronounced, while 2021–22 showed a welcome rebound to prepandemic levels. Together the significant decline and robust recovery shed light on hiring practices during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In 2020–21, the number of English positions dropped to 510 from 728 in 2019–20, a decline of 29.9%, the steepest recorded in the history of the Job List since 1975. The number of positions in languages dropped to 496 in 2020–21 from 683 in 2019–20, a 27.4% decline, the steepest since the 27.0% decline in 2008–09, during the economic downturn.

In 2021–22, the number of positions witnessed a major recovery. There were 921 positions in English and 837 positions in languages. These increases—80.6% and 68.8%, respectively—are unprecedented, and the number of positions surpassed numbers in the period immediately before the pandemic. The 2021–22 numbers of positions are the highest since 2015–16. Read the full report for more information, including figures charting trends in the data since 1975–76 and breakdowns by tenure status, rank, and field.

Results of the 2023 Ratification Vote

Voting on the 2023 ratification ballot concluded at 11:59 p.m. (EDT) on 5 May. Members ratified the election of Ōe Kenzaburō, Oh Jung-hee, and Xiao Kaiyu to honorary fellowship in the association. Support for the candidates ranged from 96% to 98% of the members who voted in that section of the ballot. Oh Jung-hee and Xiao Kaiyu will be invited to accept the honor. Ōe Kenzaburō passed away after the Delegate Assembly elected him to honorary fellowship in the association; his estate will be invited to accept the honor.

Members also ratified the 2023 Delegate Assembly’s approval of seven constitutional amendments.

Amendment 1 allows for virtual meetings of the Delegate Assembly and hearings conducted by the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee only in years when the convention is fully online.

Amendment 2 updates the language in Articles XI.A and XI.B to allow for electronic voting for new members of the Nominating Committee and Elections Committee.

Amendment 3 authorizes the Executive Council to meet online.

Amendment 4 authorizes other association committees to meet online.

Amendment 5 makes changes to the requirements for field representation on the Executive Council.

Amendment 6 makes changes to the requirements for field representation on the Nominating Committee.

Amendment 7 makes changes to the requirements for the representation of membership categories on the Nominating Committee.

Support for the amendments ranged from 90% to 99% of the members who voted in that section of the ballot. The amendments, which take immediate effect, have been incorporated into the text of the constitution at the MLA website.

MLA Members Receive 2023 Guggenheim Fellowships

Congratulations to the eight MLA members among the winners of the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowships announced in April 2023. Many fellows’ projects directly respond to issues like the lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, democracy and policing, scientific innovation, climate change, and identity. Noting the impact of these annual grants, Edward Hirsch, president of the Guggenheim Foundation, said, “The new class of fellows has followed their calling to enhance all of our lives, to provide greater human knowledge and deeper understanding. We’re lucky to look to them to bring us into the future.”


Michael Berry, University of California, Los Angeles

Field of study: Translation

Stefani Engelstein, Duke University

Field of study: European and Latin American Literature

Gretchen H. Gerzina, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Field of study: Intellectual and Cultural History

Petra Kuppers, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor

Field of study: Theatre Arts and Performance Studies

Heather Love, University of Pennsylvania

Field of study: Literary Criticism

Deborah Lutz, University of Louisville

Field of study: English Literature

Tanya Pollard, Brooklyn College, City University of New York

Field of study: Early Modern Studies

Michael Rothberg, University of California, Los Angeles

Field of study: Literary Criticism

Contribute to an MLA Volume

The volume Approaches to Teaching the Works of William Carlos Williams, edited by Daniel Burke, Elin Käck, and Mark C. Long, is now in development in the MLA series Approaches to Teaching World Literature. Instructors who have taught William Carlos Williams’s works are encouraged to contribute to the volume by completing a survey about their experiences. Information about proposing an essay is available at the end of the survey.