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JNCL-NCLIS Statement on the 2021 MLA Report on Enrollment in Higher Education Language Courses

Updated: Nov 21, 2023


WASHINGTON, D.C., November 21st, 2023 -- The Modern Language Association's (MLA) 2021 report on the 16.6% drop in college and university enrollments in world language courses is devastating. Twelve of the fifteen most commonly taught languages saw declines in college course enrollment since MLA’s last report in 2016, with many seeing double-digit reductions. For instance, college and university enrollments in German fell by 33.6%, in French by more than 23%, and in Latin by 21.5%. Despite Spanish being the second most spoken language in the United States and the most widely studied, enrollments in Spanish dropped by 18%. Even languages critical to the nation’s diplomatic and intelligence missions saw significant retrenchment – Chinese language courses lost more than 14% of their students, Arabic courses lost more than 27%, and Russian lost 13.5%. Even worse, nearly all of these declines represent an acceleration of trends that began as far back as 2009. While there are bright spots in the report – the more than 38% growth in Korean language enrollments, for example, they are dwarfed by the overall loss of more than 235,000 students studying the most commonly taught languages since 2016 and more than 490,000 since 2009.

While appalling, these results do not come as a surprise. Aside from the fact that they are in line with past MLA survey data and the findings in America’s Languages: Investing in Language Education for the 21st Century 2017 report about our nation’s language crisis, they accurately reflect federal and state government underinvestment in language study at all levels of education, a continual lessening of world language requirements for high school graduation as well as for college admission and graduation, and the absence of focus and funding in language education by the U.S. Department of Education for many years.

JNCL-NCLIS’s consistent and ongoing work to lobby and advocate for the funding and creation of new world language programs plays an essential role in changing the unfortunate trajectory of world language study in colleges and universities. Since MLA surveyed schools and universities more than two years ago, JNCL-NCLIS has helped launch new world language funding streams, initiated legislative initiatives that will generate additional attention to and investments in this space, and has engaged legislative and executive branch officials in conversations about the need for these changes.

JNCL-NCLIS legislative steps and impact on world language program growth include:

  1. The World Language Advancement and Readiness Act (WLARA) grants, operated by the US Department of Defense, have delivered more than $45 million in multi-year grants to allow K-12 school districts across the nation to create and expand innovative world language programs. The students who benefit from these programs – which include exposing students to several languages enduring enrollment declines at the higher education level – will help grow college and university enrollments in world language courses.

  2. The World Language Education Assistance Program (World LEAP) legislation, introduced in the US House of Representatives this Fall, would establish an innovative world language grant program at the US Department of Education to complement WLARA and ensure that all school districts and students have access to world language courses.

  3. The forthcoming reframed Biliteracy Education Seal and Testing (BEST) Act will help scale and implement Seal of Biliteracy programs, separate courses of study that reward K-12 students for achieving proficiency in at least one language other than English by affixing a seal to their diplomas or noting their accomplishment in their transcripts. The BEST Act will help create a new generation of multilingual K-12 students, who may well continue their world language studies at higher education institutions.

  4. The bipartisan Senator Paul Simon Study Abroad Act, already reintroduced in the US Senate, will not just support higher education study abroad programs but prioritize support for programs that offer world language study components. This represents another opportunity to encourage enrollment in world language courses in colleges and universities.

  5. One additional unique and extremely pertinent bill, the Language Education Data Enhancement Act, would finally add language education to the required list of data to be collected and supported through research by the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Center for Education Research. It has been a great detriment to the growth and sustainability of K-12 to not have data collected nationally to demonstrate the exceptional return on investment that these programs can have.

In addition to these priority programs, JNCL-NCLIS continues to work in close coordination with other education groups to reauthorize Title VI of the Higher Education Acts in order to preserve existing and create new international studies programs. JNCL-NCLIS continues to work to support annual funding for a whole host of federal education programs that provide support to language education, including within the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – Title II-A (professional learning); Title III – English Language Acquisition; Title IV-A (flexible block grants); Indian Education, including the Native American Language Resource Center; Alaska Native Education; and Native Hawaiian Education.

JNCL-NCLIS works closely with the US Department of Education, which is headed by a bilingual Secretary of Education who understands that knowledge of a second language is an asset and has included multilingualism in his Raising the Bar initiative and annual budget.

Finally, JNCL-NCLIS is working with state advocates to prevent the reduction or elimination of world language high school graduation requirements (including in Virginia, Ohio, Delaware, Louisiana, and Ohio) and the elimination of world language courses at higher education institutions (most recently at West Virginia University and Auburn).

The MLA study is more than just a wake-up call for the world language community of the challenges it faces from lower enrollments in world language courses; it is also a siren sounding the alarm of downstream effects – on the world language educator pipeline, our nation’s diplomatic and intelligence services, and even our nation’s economy as companies struggle to find American multilingual employees – caused by fewer world language students.

JNCL-NCLIS heard and heeded the warning signs of these declines and continues to lead legislative and policy initiatives to reverse the decline of world language study and support the growth of new and existing world language programs. The collective support and voice of language educators, administrators, organizations, businesses, and students across the country represented by JNCL-NCLIS is key to moving our nation forward to ensure multilingualism is recognized and valued as essential.


Established in 1972, the Joint National Committee for Languages (JNCL) and the National Council for Languages and International Studies (NCLIS) unites a national network of leading organizations and businesses comprised of over 300,000 language professionals to advocate for equitable language learning opportunities. Our mission is to ensure that Americans have the opportunity to learn English and at least one other language.


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