French and Spanish used to be the only foreign languages offered in high school. While most students are still taking one of those two, languages like Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and Arabic are increasingly being offered in high schools, according to a recently released survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
More than 70 percent of all public school students who enrolled in a foreign language took Spanish, and another 15 percent took French, but enrollment in Chinese nearly tripled between the 2004-05 school year and the 2007-08 school year, from 20,292 to 59,860. Enrollment in Japanese classes increased 17 percent, and it remained the fifth most-taught language, after Spanish, French, German, and Latin.
The federally funded council studies enrollment levels every six years, with the 2007-08 data being the most recent statistics available.
[Waiting until college to learn a foreign language? Start with these tips.]
Although relatively few students study Chinese, Marty Abbott, the council's director of education, says gains have been widespread. "Ten years ago, you would have found Chinese primarily on the West and East Coasts," she says. "We're seeing [increases] happening in urban, suburban, and rural areas. We're seeing increases in most states."
States where the increase has been the strongest include California (which leads the way with 12,700 students taking Chinese), New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. But Minnesota, Delaware, and Utah also have growing Chinese programs. Delaware and Utah had no public school Chinese classes in 2004, but now Chinese classes in those states have 2,000 and 1,200 students, respectively.
Overall, however, the report says foreign language enrollment has been disappointing. About 30 percent of students in secondary school (middle school or high school) took a foreign language, which the agency says is too low, especially if America wants to deliver on raising "new generations of Americans [that are] fluent in multiple languages," as President Barack Obama called for during his 2008 campaign.
Only three states reported seeing enrollment levels above 50 percent: Connecticut (58 percent), Wisconsin (54 percent), and Iowa (50 percent), and programs in Washington, D.C., Rhode Island, and Virginia were cut by about a third or more.
Abbott says individual schools and school districts decide which foreign languages to teach, based on a variety of factors including demand from students and parents and availability of qualified teachers. Some schools receive federal funding and teacher placement for teaching languages the government deems critical for government jobs or national security. Recently, those languages have included Arabic, Chinese, Urdu, Farsi, Korean, and Japanese.