Foreign language enrollment at KU: Down but hardly out

Mirroring national trend, enrollment has declined even as globalization grows

After a period of growth, enrollment in foreign languages at the college level has gone down in recent years. That’s also been the case at Kansas University, which prides itself on being a national leader in the study of foreign languages — offering courses in 40 of them, more than any other school in the Big 12 or the entire plains area.

Is declining enrollment threatening KU’s program?

KU language leaders say no. Rather, it underlines the need for rethinking it, a process KU has already started.

Marc Greenberg

Top 10 most popular foreign languages at KU

Listed by student credit hours taken in fall 2014.

Spanish — 4,588

French — 2,259

German — 1,302

Italian — 890

Japanese — 577

Chinese — 467

Russian — 385

Latin — 305

Korean — 270

Arabic — 262

Source: KU College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

“It’s something to worry about, but I don’t think it’s something to worry about for the reasons that people might think,” said Marc Greenberg, director of KU’s newly created School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures and a professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures (who, incidentally, speaks eight languages himself). “The real worry is that students aren’t understanding what the benefits are to them for taking foreign languages.”


In October, KU announced the creation of the School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. Starting this fall, all the university’s language departments will operate under the umbrella of the new school, which is part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Greenberg noted that declining foreign language enrollment isn’t in a vacuum — KU’s total enrollment has declined in recent years, though fall of 2014 did see a tiny increase. He said looking for efficiencies and applying attrition has enabled KU’s language programs to continue with no drastic cuts.

The challenge for the future, he said, is basically selling foreign languages to students in an increasingly trade-skill-driven environment.

If you go to engineering school, you become an engineer, and if you go to law school, you become a lawyer, Greenberg said. “If you take a language, you don’t become the language.”

However, the global economy is creating a tremendous demand for all kinds of workers who speak foreign languages, and paying them well, he said.

In many cases, he said, the business can be learned on the job. Mastering a foreign language requires more intense study.

That’s what KU senior and Spanish major Stefanie Carnahan is banking on.

“I chose a foreign language as my major primarily because I wanted to spend my four years at KU developing a skill,” Carnahan said. “This major doesn’t lead me directly into a specific career, rather it helps me add a significant ability to my résumé, and I am left with something additional I can bring to the table in a variety of job settings.”


Nationally, total college language enrollments decreased by 6.7 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to a report released earlier this month by the Modern Language Association. The association’s previous nationwide reports showed that enrollments rose 6.2 percent from 2006 to 2009 and rose 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006.

Though enrollment in Spanish slipped from 2009 to 2013, too, the language remains the most-studied, according to the Modern Language Association study.

The study noted a bright spot: Even though the study revealed national declines overall, many individual colleges’ French, Arabic and Spanish programs reported growth.

“At a time when so many language programs are facing financial constraints, it’s inspiring to see how some programs are thriving,” Modern Language Association executive director Rosemary Feal said in a statement. “If we are going to give all students the opportunity to pursue advanced language study, we need to document what successful programs are doing and advocate these models.”

Among the goals of KU’s new School of Languages, Literatures and Cultures is to increase foreign language study by combatting myths like these:

Everyone speaks English.

I have no talent for languages. I’ll never become fluent.

Who needs literature? It’s just fairy tales.

Greenberg said the school is seeking ways — from course offerings to better advising — to increase interest in languages, show how it translates into careers and ensure KU’s offerings stay up to date with today’s world.


At KU, Spanish is by far the most popular language, with 4,588 credit hours taken in fall 2014, according to numbers provided by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. French is second with 2,259 credit hours, and German is third with 1,302 credit hours.

Those numbers are lower than they used to be.

In 2009, Spanish enrollment was 5,564 credit hours, French was 3,058 and German was 1,634.

KU has a few categories where enrollment is higher than in 2009, including Russian, Korean and Turkish.

Also, enrollment in Hindi and Farsi has gone up since KU began offering them in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

Over time, Greenberg said, the popularity of certain languages has hinged on current events.

For example, during the Cold War many colleges added Russian, Arabic and Mandarin to their curriculums because they were seen as strategic for the U.S., he said.

KU offers courses in a number of rare languages, too.

Languages such as Old Norse or Old Church Slavic (Greenberg teaches that one) are typically taken as enrichment for people majoring in Germanic or Slavic languages. KU’s other so-called “less commonly taught languages” include Quichua — an indigenous Latin American language — and Uyghur — a Turkic language spoken today in a currently volatile section of China.

Learning a rare language like that puts KU students in a position to be one of a relative few experts in the world, Greenberg said.

“They give students a chance to really set themselves out from the crowd,” he said. “They’re actually really little gems at KU.”