The latest figures from the Modern Language Association of America, released Tuesday, reflect a major push toward internationalization on college campuses, with total enrollment in language courses growing 12.9 percent over the four years.
Spanish remains by far the most popular subject, with more than 823,000 students enrolled - up 10.3 percent since 2002 and nearly four times higher than No. 2 French.
But Arabic is the fastest-growing major language, breaking the top 10 for
the first time with just under 24,000 enrollments, compared to about 10,600
in 2002. The number of institutions offering Arabic has nearly doubled.
Altogether, enrollment in modern language courses - the figures exclude Latin and ancient Greek - stands at about 1.5 million, or about two-and-a-half times higher than in 1960. However, there are nearly five times as many college students.
That means while total enrollments are up, a smaller proportion of college students are taking language courses. In the 1960s, language courses accounted for about 16 percent of total course enrollments. The current figure is about half that.
Another area for concern is whether the new language students are learning their subjects in-depth or merely dabbling to satisfy a requirement. For the first time, the MLA survey differentiated between introductory and advanced courses and found substantial variation between languages.
In Arabic, for instance, just 11 percent of enrollments were in advanced courses, compared to 25 percent in Portuguese and 27 percent in Russian.
Other languages in which there were major enrollment jumps since 2002 were Chinese, in which enrollment rose 51 percent to about 51,600, and American Sign Language, which is now the fourth-most studied foreign language with about 79,000 students, up 30 percent over four years.