CSU student language interest remains as national enrollment wanes

Peyton Dailey

With plummeting enrollment in languages on the collegiate level, the question that manifests is whether or not Colorado State University should continue to support the Language, Literatures and Cultures Department.

CSU offers nine languages, including Spanish, French, German, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian and American Sign Language, according to the department. As of Fall 2018, 673 students are enrolled in one of the nine offered languages either as minor or major areas of study. 


An MLA study attributes this decline in language enrollment to two factors: institutional disinvestment in language programs or waning student interest. On a national level, only 7 percent of collegiate level students are currently enrolled in a foreign language, according to MLA. 

The Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures was previously the Department of Foreign Languages. (Photo courtesy of SOURCE.)

“Of the eight languages for National Defense, we offer three of them: Arabic, Chinese, Russian,” said Jonathan Carlyon, acting chair of the CSU department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures. 

CSU has followed the national trend of waning language enrollment, but Carlyon attests that it is not due to a lack of student interest nor institutional investment. 

On a University level, Carlyon said CSU students are passionate about languages, and institutional investment in languages at CSU is lining up with student demand.

The required enrollment for a single language section is 25 students, but Russian professor Ludmila Pokatilova said that the University makes accommodations so small language classes can still be taught for interested students.

“In Russia, students begin learning a foreign language as early as the first grade,” Pokatilova said.

Pokatilova currently has three Russian classes, with a total of 41 total Russian students. Typically four Russian language classes are offered, alongside interdisciplinary culture courses taught in English. Pokatilova, alongside other language professors, has experienced lower enrollment not only this semester but over the last few years. 

“Students don’t want to give up on languages on the humanities in general, they want to have a balanced approach. They’re saying don’t make us give up this love of language we have.” Jonathan Carlyon, Acting Chair of the CSU Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.

“This year the enrollment is low, not only in Russian but in other languages,” Pokatilova said. “Less commonly taught languages never have high enrollment.”

With low enrollment, Pokatilova cannot offer the fourth Russian class nor the culture courses required for the interdisciplinary Russian minor. Pokatilova attributes the lower enrollment in critical languages, including Russian, Arabic and Chinese, to the United States system of education.

(Data courtesy of Colorado State University’s office of Institutional Research, Planning and Effectiveness)

“Foreign languages are important all over the world and here (in the US) they are electives,” Pokatilova said, “In Russia, it’s required to take at least one foreign language starting in the fifth grade and many students learn more than one foreign language.”


Even with waning language enrollment on both national and University levels, primary language majors are going down but secondary language majors from 2015-2018 have gone up.

As of Fall 2018, in Spanish there are 49 primary majors and 74 secondary majors. In French, there are 12 primary majors and 14 secondary majors.

In tandem with this, Biological and Biomedical Science primary majors have the highest number of Spanish Minors at CSU.

“Students don’t want to give up on languages on the humanities in general, they want to have a balanced approach,” Carlyon said. “They’re saying don’t make us give up this love of language we have.”

This fall, Pokatilova said, 50 percent of her first-year Russian students have majors in international studies, political science or history, so the language will be used for their profession. The other 50 percent are just interested in the language, Pokatilova said.

Susie Heath, a freshman international studies major, is currently studying Arabic at CSU. Throughout high school, Heath studied French and before that Spanish. In Heath’s first-year Arabic class, there are approximately 15 students, well below the 25 student enrollment requirement.

Enrollment in Languages offered at CSU:

Spanish: 346 minors, 123 majors

French: 51 minors, 26 majors

German: 31 minors, 18 majors

Russian: 14 minors

Chinese: 11 minors

Japanese: 31 minors

Arabic: 14 minors

Italian: 8 minors

“I chose to study Arabic because I am concentrating on the Middle East and Northern Africa regions for the international studies major,” Heath said. “I did not study this before because it was not offered.”

Many students nationwide share the same experience as Heath. According to the 2017 National K-12 Foreign Language Enrollment Survey Report, only 0.91 percent of public high schools in the US offer Arabic, 6.43 percent offering Chinese and 0.83 percent offer Russian. In comparison, 46 percent of public high schools offer Spanish, 21 percent offer French and 8.71 percent offer German.

This translates to collegiate level enrollment rates, as CSU only offers majors in Spanish, French and German, based on higher enrollment rates in these languages. The remaining five languages – Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Italian and American Sign Language – are offered as interdisciplinary minors.

Interdisciplinary means that in coalition with the language courses, students pursuing these minors must complete a number of culture courses, typically taught in English, to receive the minor. Conversely, minors in Spanish, French and German do not require supplemental cultural courses, even though they are offered for interested students.

“When you study culture in English you’re looking at people swimming in a pool from the side of the pool,” Carlyon said. “When you study culture in a language, you’re jumping in that water and swimming with them. Maybe you struggle because you can’t swim as well as they do, but you’re really getting a sense of what it means to be in that culture.”

Peyton Dailey can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @peyton_dailey_.