Most studied languages in the United States, 1983 to 2009

Friday, April 08, 2011

So after a bit more searching it seems that the Modern Language Association has stats for the number of students learning a huge number of languages, even Pennsylvanian German, Esperanto and a ton of other minor tongues. A nationwide survey though can't help but be inaccurate for the smallest of languages, which tend to be taught by small organizations, individuals, cultural centres, and many other places that aren't surveyed. For the most studied languages in the country though, their numbers are very helpful.

I looked through a few languages and decided to go with any language that recorded at least 3000 students in any period. The exact numbers can be found on their site, but as the numbers are always approximate it's better to simply compare them on a graph. The first graph shows just how much Spanish is studied in the US compared to the others, and makes the scale for any language but French and German impossible to read. Spanish will be removed in the next graph.

Now here is the graph without Spanish. Both French and German collapsed for some reason in the 1990s, and have begun to recover since then.
Now French is gone:
and once we remove German we can clearly see the trends for each of the other languages. Note the following in these languages:

- Italian and Japanese are doing surprisingly well. There is a common refrain that nobody studies Japanese anymore since the 1990s that the graph shows to be false, and the same with Italian.
- Arabic hardly grows at all until 2001, then spikes.
- Russian looks a lot like French and German in its sudden drop in the 1990s and then slow recovery
- Portuguese is way underrepresented compared with its economic strength. Brazil is the 8th-largest economy in the world and there are eight other countries that use Portuguese as an official language, but you'd never be able to tell from this graph. The Portuguese media is filled with stories on how Portuguese never gets any attention thanks to always being compared to Spanish and its greater population and extent.

Finally, the US population in 1983 was 234 million and it's 307 million now, so any comparisons made should keep in mind that the population has increased by about 30%.

Edit: it seems I've forgotten Latin. Here are the numbers for Latin during this time, making it somewhat more popular than Russian. Growth for Latin is almost exactly the same as the population growth in the US during that time too.

1983 24,199
1986 25,038
1990 28,178
1995 25,897
1998 26,145
2002 29,841
2006 32,191
2009 32,606


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