This one isn’t my field of expertise, so I’m hoping folks who know it at a deeper level than I do will chime in.
At the three community colleges at which I’ve worked, I’ve seen the same trend in language departments. Spanish dominates the field, and American Sign Language is picking up strength. Every other language is niche, declining, or dead.
It wasn't always so. There was a time in my memory when French was vital. At many colleges, undergraduate German was, too. Now, we can’t run enough sections to justify a hire. (If you follow Rebecca Schuman’s darkly comic series about job postings in German, it’ll become clear quickly that this isn’t just a quirk of a few places.). At various points, Japanese, Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Italian, and even Latin have had flashes of interest, but none has lasted. The jury is still out on Chinese; we haven’t been able to get steady instructors to really find out one way or the other.
From an administrative standpoint, the challenge with languages is twofold. First, they’re sequential, so unless you have lots of well-populated sections at the 101 level, it’s unlikely you’ll even be able to run 200 level courses. Educationally, I suspect that the payoff from language learning increases as you go along, so we’re running lots of the high-effort, low-payoff stuff, and very little of the more interesting stuff. Second, languages aren’t interchangeable, so if student demand shifts from German to Spanish, I can’t just shift someone’s load from German to Spanish. Some pairings are more common than others -- Spanish and French are commonly found together -- but if, say, Japanese comes in low, I can’t reasonably ask the professor to pick up a section of Arabic to make up for it. That’s not how languages work.
I’m glad to see Spanish doing well, and ASL has been a pleasant surprise. But what happened to the rest of the world? Where did the interest go?
Some of it may be a function of high schools. The Boy took French in junior high and early high school, but when he wanted to take the IB program, they only offered Spanish and Latin. So he dropped French, and started taking Latin. If high schools phase out teaching French, or German, or whatever, it’s not shocking that the pipeline for college classes starts to dry up. Though at this level, most language enrollment is at the 101 level; we don’t get a lot of students coming in at the 200 level.
There’s probably a demographic component, too; the Latinx population is increasing, and some of the kids from those families come in with colloquial Spanglish and a desire to learn the real thing. Other kids notice the population shift and decide that Spanish is the most useful option. (Growing up near Canada, as I did, French seemed more practical.) But that doesn’t really explain the relative dearth of students for other languages. It just seems odd to me that a college of 13,000 students can’t support a single section of second-year French.
The trend pre-dates the Trump administration, so whatever you want to say about Trump, I don’t think he’s the critical variable. It’s something else.
So, I’ll throw it open to wise and worldly readers who understand this at a much deeper level than I do. What’s happening with all of the other languages?