US post-secondary enrollments in foreign languages and the position of Mandarin

graphs showing the enrollments of Japanese and Mandarin over time, with Italian thrown in by way of comparisonFrom the way the U.S. media talk about the boom in Mandarin classes, it’s easy to get the impression that Mandarin is about to become the most studied language in the United States. So I offer the following overdue reality check.

The data come from the results of a large survey of foreign-language enrollments in U.S. post-secondary schools. The survey was conducted by the Modern Language Association. I started work on this post when the results were released in November 2007; but, well, I got distracted.

This post has lots of tables and figures, so for those who don’t want to scan through everything I offer some basic points up front.

  • Spanish has more enrollments than all other foreign languages put together.
  • By far the biggest enrollment boom since 1990 has not been for Mandarin but for American Sign Language.
  • The boom in enrollments in Arabic also surpasses that for Mandarin.
  • Mandarin is indeed growing in popularity — but in recent years only at the undergraduate level.
  • Japanese continues to be more popular than Mandarin, though by an ever-smaller margin.
  • Mandarin is the seventh most studied foreign language in U.S. post-secondary schools, behind Spanish (which leads Mandarin by a ratio of 16:1), French, German, American Sign Language, Italian, and Japanese.
  • Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago.

A few summary remarks of my own:

  • I don’t expect the high growth rates for Mandarin to continue for many more years unless the programs are dumbed down (in which case they wouldn’t count for much) or Pinyin gains a much more prominent role in Mandarin pedagogy (and not just at the introductory level). The difficulties of Chinese characters will help keep numbers down, as will the eventual realization that learning Mandarin isn’t an easy ticket to riches (or even a ticket to riches at all).
  • Japanese received a big boost in the 1980s, when the media cranked out story after story about the power of Japan’s rising economy and the need to learn the language. Yet Japanese didn’t become the next big world language. I predict a similar path for Mandarin.
  • A high percentage of those taking Mandarin classes in U.S. high schools are students who are both ethnically Chinese and already familiar with the language. The MLA didn’t provide figures on that for post-secondary students. But I would be surprised if such “heritage” students don’t represent a higher percentage of those in Mandarin language courses than heritage students in most other language classes.

OK, now on to some details.

Look below at the growth for American Sign Language since 1990. If Mandarin had had that sort of growth (4,820 percent!) the pundits would no doubt be telling us that the Chinese had already taken over the planet and were going to rule the entire galaxy within the next decade. (And don’t get me started about the supposed Mandarin in Serenity/Firefly.) But American Sign Language just doesn’t seem to get the same sort of respect, despite the fact that it still has more than 50 percent more enrollments than Mandarin. Arabic, which has also had a much faster growth rate than that of Mandarin, hasn’t received the same level of hype either.

Growth in Enrollments: in declining order of growth from 1990 to 2006

Enrollments 1990 2006 % Growth 2002-06 % Growth 1990-2006
American Sign Language 1,602 78,829 29.7 4820.7
Arabic 3,475 23,974 126.5 589.9
Korean 2,286 7,145 37.1 212.6
Mandarin 19,490 51,582 51.0 164.7
Hebrew 12,995 23,752 4.2 82.8
Portuguese 6,211 10,267 22.4 65.3
Italian 49,699 78,368 22.6 57.7
Spanish 533,944 822,985 10.3 54.1
Japanese 45,717 66,605 27.5 45.7
French 272,472 206,426 2.2 -24.2
German 133,348 94,264 3.5 -29.3
Russian 44,626 24,845 3.9 -44.3
Total 1,125,865 1,489,042 12.7 32.3

Change in enrollments over time: in declining order of total enrollment for 2006

Change between Surveys 1995-98 1998-2002 2002-06
Spanish 8.3% 13.7% 10.3%
French -3.1% 1.5% 2.2%
German -7.5% 2.3% 3.5%
American Sign Language 165.3% 432.2% 29.7%
Italian 12.6% 29.6% 22.6%
Japanese -3.5% 21.1% 27.5%
Mandarin 7.5% 20.0% 51.0%
Russian -3.8% 0.5% 3.9%
Arabic 23.9% 92.3% 126.5%
Hebrew * 20.6% 44.0% 4.2%
Portuguese 6.0% 21.1% 22.4%
Korean 34.0% 16.3% 37.1%
Total 5.0% 16.6% 12.7%

* Modern and Biblical Hebrew combined

Below: Russian may not have the top number of enrollments, but it certainly has some motivated students, given the high numbers of them in advanced courses.

Enrollments in Introductory-Level Courses vs. Enrollments in Advanced-Level Courses

Intro Enr. Advanced Enr. Total Enrollment Ratio of Intro Enr. to Advanced Enr.
Russian 17,527 6,569 24,096 2.67:1
Portuguese 7,387 2,422 9,809 3.05:1
German 72,434 18,758 91,192 3.86:1
French 160,736 40,927 201,663 3.93:1
Korean 5,511 1,397 6,908 3.94:1
Greek, Ancient 13,250 3,176 16,426 4.17:1
Mandarin 41,193 9,262 50,455 4.45:1
Spanish 669,432 142,602 812,034 4.69:1
Japanese 55,161 10,585 65,746 5.21:1
Latin 26,787 4,383 31,170 6.11:1
Hebrew, Modern 7,665 1,250 8,915 6.13:1
Arabic 20,571 2,463 23,034 8.35:1
Italian 69,757 7,593 77,350 9.19:1
Hebrew, Biblical 7,854 705 8,559 11.14:1
American Sign Language 72,694 5,249 77,943 13.85:1
Other languages 27,836 3,478 31,314 8.00:1
Total 1,275,795 260,819 1,536,614 4.89:1

One thing I find particularly troubling is that the number of graduate students studying Mandarin has fallen. (Please click on the link in the previous sentence, since the relevant table is too wide to fit on this page.) The much-ballyhooed but also much-deserved increase in students studying Mandarin has all been at the undergraduate level. Given that the grad enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment for Mandarin is about the same as that for French (2.63 percent and 2.73 percent, respectively) it might appear that Mandarin has simply reached a “normal” ratio in this regard. But native speakers of English generally need much more time to master Mandarin than to master French. Simply put, four years, say, of post-secondary study of French provides students with a much greater level of fluency than four years of post-secondary study of Mandarin.

Also, there is a great deal more work that needs to be done in terms of translations from Mandarin. I do not at all mean to belittle the work being done in French — or in any other language. In fact it pains me that the MLA’s list of languages being studied included neither Old French nor Provençal, both of which I have studied and love dearly. I just mean that Mandarin has historically been underrepresented in U.S. universities given the number of speakers it has and its body of texts that have not yet been translated into English. U.S. universities need to be producing many more qualified grad students who can handle this specialized work. And right now, unfortunately, that’s not happening.

Post-Secondary Enrollments in Select Sino-Tibetan Languages and Classical Japanese: 2002, 2006

Two-Year Colleges Undergrad Programs Grad Programs Total
Language 2002 2006 2002 2006 2002 2006 2002 2006
Cantonese 47 96 128 82 5 0 180 178
Literary Sinitic 0 0 56 101 18 12 74 113
Japanese, Classical 0 0 8 23 11 7 19 30
Taiwanese 0 0 34 21 13 0 47 21
Tibetan 0 0 43 56 35 64 78 120
Tibetan, Classical 0 0 8 11 20 33 28 44

The figures in the table above are probably too low. Literary Sinitic (“classical Chinese”) is probably especially underrepresented because often too little differentiation is given between it and modern standard Mandarin. But at least the numbers can provide minimum figures.

Enrollments in Introductory Classes: 2-Year Schools vs. 4-Year Schools

Language Ratio of Intro Enr. in 2-Year Schools to Intro Enr. in 4-Year Schools
Greek, Ancient 0.00:1
Hebrew, Biblical 0.01:1
Latin 0.04:1
Hebrew, Modern 0.07:1
Portuguese 0.11:1
Russian 0.15:1
German 0.20:1
Italian 0.23:1
French 0.24:1
Arabic 0.26:1
Mandarin 0.26:1
Korean 0.28:1
Japanese 0.39:1
Spanish 0.49:1
American Sign Language 1.47:1
Other languages 0.24:1

American Sign Language sticks out here as the only language that more people take at the introductory level at junior colleges than at universities. Roughly twice as many people take introductory Spanish in universities as at junior colleges. Introductory Japanese classes are surprisingly popular at the two-year college level, well above the level for introductory Mandarin, though Mandarin is not unpopular itself.

Course Enrollments in Some Asian and Pacific Languages

Language 1998 2002 2006 % Change 2002–06
Hindi/Urdu 1314 2009 2683 33.55
Vietnamese 899 2236 2485 11.14
Tagalog/Filipino 794 1142 1569 37.39
Sanskrit 363 487 607 24.64
Hmong 15 283 402 42.05
Thai 272 330 307 -6.97
Indonesian 223 225 301 33.78
Samoan 207 201 280 39.30
Cantonese 39 180 178 -1.11
Tibetan 80 78 120 53.85
Literary Sinitic 32 74 113 52.70
Pashto 14 103 635.71
Punjabi 32 99 103 4.04
Total 4270 7358 9251 25.73

Although more U.S. postsecondary students are studying languages other than English than ever before, that’s unfortunately not because U.S. students as a whole have finally embraced the study of languages. Rather, there are simply more students now. Relatively speaking, enrollments in foreign languages are much lower than they were 30 years ago.

graph showing that present US postsecondary enrollment in foreign languages is relatively much lower than it was in in the 1960s

If “ancient” foreign languages such as Latin and Ancient Greek were included in the graph, the imbalance between the 1960s and the present in foreign-language enrollments would be even greater.

source: Enrollments in Languages Other Than English in United States Institutions of Higher Education, Fall 2006 (PDF), MLA, November 13, 2007

Results of US AP exams: first year for Mandarin, Japanese

2007 was the first year that the U.S. College Board offered an Advanced Placement (AP) exam for “Chinese Language and Culture.” It was also the first year students could take an AP exam in “Japanese Language and Culture.”

Data for the results as a whole have just been released. The figures for Mandarin are remarkably lopsided.

A total of 81.1 percent of those taking the exam for Mandarin and Chinese culture achieved the top score of 5, a much higher percentage than with any other test. The subject with the second highest percentage of 5′s was Japanese (43.4 percent), followed by Electricity and Magnetism (33.8 percent), Mechanics (26.1 percent), and German (24.4 percent). In most other subjects a score of 5 was achieved by only about 10 percent to 20 percent of test takers.

Let’s look at those who achieved only the lowest score (1). Here, too, Mandarin stands out, with by far the lowest percentage of test takers with this score (1.5 percent). Next are Drawing, 2-D Design, and 3-D Design (5.8 percent); English Language and Composition (10.9 percent); and Calculus BC (13.5 percent). Most subjects have “1″ rates in the 20s.

Comparison of Scores Across Language Exams
chart comparing how well test takers did in various language exams, with scores for 'Chinese' being far higher than all others; languages listed: Mandarin, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish

Comparison of Lowest Scores Across Language Exams
comparing percentages of test takers receiving the low score of '1', with all languages other than Mandarin falling above 13% -- Mandarin at a mere 1.5%

So, does this indicate Mandarin isn’t damn hard for students after all or that the perfect pedagogy for this subject has been reached? Of course not.

Only 11.1 percent of the 3,260 people taking the Mandarin exam did not indicate on their test that they “regularly speak or hear the foreign language of the examination at home, or that they have lived for one month or more in a country where the language is spoken.”

Percent of test takers who “regularly speak or hear the foreign language of the examination at home” or “have lived for one month or more in a country where the language is spoken”
chart showing that far more students taking the Mandarin AP exam are already speakers of that langauge

Thus, it’s no surprise to see that 89.4 percent of those taking the Mandarin exam identified themselves as “Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander.” Of all those across the entire United States who took the Mandarin exam last year, only 363 people did not identify themselves as falling within that category. This certainly does not match the hype about Mandarin as the foreign language being studied.

While I congratulate those who scored well on the exam (Chinese characters can certainly be a pain to learn regardless of your background), the test — and perhaps the curriculum, too — evidently needs considerable revision, which isn’t too surprising considering this was its first appearance. I’m a bit saddened, though, to see that more students from a wider variety of backgrounds aren’t taking up the challenge of Mandarin.

There doesn’t appear to be much of a gender imbalance, however, in AP Mandarin classes.

Percentages of students in AP language exams, by sex
chart showing the percentages of students in various AP language exams, by sex

Within a week or two I’ll be posting some interesting figures about U.S. post-secondary enrollments in Mandarin and other languages.

source: The 4th Annual AP Report to the Nation, College Board, February 13, 2008

Pioneer Mandarin ‘immersion’ program sinking?

Some eleven years after it began, what is touted as the first U.S. elementary school Mandarin immersion program is reportedly in trouble.

In September 1996, Montgomery County [Maryland] started what it promoted as the first Mandarin Chinese immersion program for elementary students in the country. The program at Potomac Elementary School became a national model, and acclaim and fame followed.

Today, the original class of first-graders are seniors preparing for college. Many continued to study Chinese in middle and high school, but most dropped out in recent years — a handful as late as this fall — citing confusion in the curriculum and difficulties with the instructor. Now, just three of the first 22 students continue to study Chinese at the cluster’s high school….

Critics say there is a lack of resources and appropriate materials, poor coordination among grade levels and inadequate teacher development. There’s even disagreement among educators on what immersion is.

“Immersion can mean many things to different people in the field,” said Elena Izquierdo, vice president of the District-based nonprofit National Association for Bilingual Education and a professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “For some, immersion is total immersion, for others it is partial, and some people call one class in foreign language an immersion class.”

It is also important to define the goal of each program; all are not the same, Izquierdo said. Some aim for complete reading, writing and oral proficiency in a foreign language; others might be geared to gaining conversational skills.

At first, the Chinese immersion students at Potomac were “a school within a school,” sticking together from kindergarten through fifth grade. Principal Linda Goldberg changed the format when she arrived in 2002, believing that students learning Chinese needed more interaction with the other students.

Today, 137 students at Potomac, from kindergarten to fifth grade, take math and science in Chinese and other subjects in English, she said.

Judith Klimpl, supervisor of foreign languages for Montgomery public schools, said math and science were chosen because the subjects are taught with many hands-on activities and have concrete vocabulary. There is no intensive grammar or writing instruction in Chinese at this level.

Once students move to Hoover Middle School, lessons in language acquisition intensify, Principal Billie-Jean Bensen said. The students, who used to have two periods in Chinese, now have one, including an “immersion class” in the sixth grade. But, Bensen conceded, the title of the class is probably “not correct.” A single class shouldn’t be labeled immersion, she said.

.

Children at Potomac Elementary who enroll in the Chinese partial immersion program are taught mathematics and science in the Chinese language, but not the language itself. The result, parents say, is a familiarity with the language and enhanced listening skills when they reach middle school and a more formal language program begins….

The transition to middle school, and then from middle school to high school, lies at the heart of the program’s problems.

“There’s definitely issues with transitioning from Potomac Elementary to Hoover and from Hoover to Churchill,” said Sees. “If you look at the dropout rate in the high school itself, it’s abysmal.”

Immersion students take an immersion class in sixth grade and then are filtered into the standard one-period-per-day Chinese language classes with students who were not in an immersion program in seventh grade, said Hoover Principal Billie-Jean Bensen. They then continue in that traditional language course structure in high school. Schick said that the transition process at Hoover has improved in the last two years.

The first three levels of Chinese language instruction in the county’s schools are generally completed in middle school and the first year of high school, said Duffield….

sources and further reading:

Chinese New Year’s resolutions: a suggestion

Happy year of the rat, everyone!

Several years ago I made some resolutions for Chinese New Year that others might find useful, if you haven’t adopted similar ones already.

  1. If I’m referring to Mandarin I will use the word “Mandarin,” not “Chinese.”
  2. If I’m referring to a language, I’ll call it a language, not a dialect.

Pretty basic. But these greatly help clarity. And they have the benefit of being correct.

The reason you’ll sometimes find the phrase “Mandarin Chinese” rather than just “Mandarin” on my site is I want to help people find this through search engines. But for the most part the inclusion of the word “Chinese” is easily accomplished through tags or mention of “Chinese characters.”

I’d like to note that even many of those who really should know better have things backwards. They might note that “Chinese” is not a language but a family of languages — and even then one that should be known as Sinitic rather than “Chinese.” And they tend to spend a line or so explaining that what many people refer to as Chinese “dialects” are really languages. This is all well and good. But then they go on to use “Chinese” and “dialects” over and over.

The messages they’re sending out:

Chinese Chinese Chinese Mandarin Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese Chinese.

and

Dialect dialect language dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect dialect.

So what people hear is “Chinese” and “dialect” — both of which are usually wrong.

I have made some resolutions of my own for this year: the first being to answer e-mail messages much quicker than my present average of three or more months behind when I should. Although I’m terrible at writing, I am indeed grateful for all of the messages I receive.

Xinnian kuaile!

Sexism in Mandarin: a study

This week’s free rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is Covert Sexism in Mandarin Chinese (1.9 MB PDF), by David Moser (of Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard fame).

Here’s part of the introduction:

Like other cultures, China has a long history of sexist social conventions, and the Chinese language is pervaded with evidence of these. Research in this area has usually sought to identify and catalog aspects of Chinese that embody these sexist cultural traditions, such as sexist idioms, demeaning words for wife, derogatory terms of address for women, or the large number of characters containing the female radical (?) with negative connotations. Such elements tend to be rather easily identifiable and have been some of the earliest aspects to be targeted for linguistic reform. (The Chinese Communist Party, for example, in their attempts to elevate the status of women and eradicate vestiges of feudalism, has from time to time officially discouraged use of pejorative terms of address for women and wives.) Notable contributions have already been made in such research, but there are certain kinds of sexism in the Chinese language that are more subtly embedded in the grammar in such a way that they often escape conscious attention. This article attempts to shed light on some of these phenomena, since it is often in these hidden patterns of linguistic usage that sexist assumptions and notions are most powerfully present.

This is issue no. 74 of Sino-Platonic Papers. It was first published in January 1997.

more Dungan

Since earlier this month when I wrote a post on Dungan-language radio, I’ve discovered that Olli Salmi has some great Dungan material on his website, including a paper he wrote and a couple of stories in Dungan, including one he has translated into English.

And for lagniappe he offers “An Unofficial Practical Orthography for the Kiowa Language.”

Mandarin borrow-ing English grammatical forms

click for image of complete campaign poster; the slogan, shown in this image, reads '????ing'Putting English words in Mandarin sentences is of course extremely common in Taiwan and elsewhere in Asia, generally because this is thought to look cool and modern. But last month I was surprised to see Mandarin sentences with just English’s -ing added — and not one but two examples of this.

The image here is from a poster for the DPP’s presidential candidate, Frank Hsieh, that came out in March but which I didn’t see until a few days ago. It reads ????ing (“Táiw?n wéix?n-ing“): “Taiwan is modernizing.” (Click the image to see the whole poster.)

The other example I noticed was in a newspaper headline about the Hong Kong pop diva Faye Wong: ????? ?????? ????? ????ING (Míngnián p?n l?os?n — ti?n hòu zàn bù fùch? — L? Yàpéng, Wáng F?i j?jí zuòrén-ing. “Next year work hard to produce third child — superstar temporarily not appearing — Li Yapeng and Faye Wong are energetically working on making a baby.”)

There are several other interesting things about the Faye Wong headline, such as the way in most other contexts zuòrén (lit. “be/make a person”) means something like “be a mensch.” But I don’t want to digress too much lest I never finish this post.

In both of these examples, -ing is used to emphasize the currentness of the actions. But it is of course possible in Mandarin to stress that something is going on now — and to do so without borrowing forms from English. For example, with zài:

  • L? Yàpéng, Wáng F?i j?jí zài zuòrén
  • Táiw?n zài wéix?n

Has anyone seen or heard other examples of this -ing grafting?

sources:

For lagniappe: lyrics to the Faye Wong song “Bù liú” in Pinyin, which has lots of examples of Mandarin’s b?.

Assimilation of Roman letters into the Chinese writing system: 1994 study

The latest rerelease from Sino-Platonic Papers is The Sino-Alphabet: The Assimilation of Roman Letters into the Chinese Writing System (2.3 MB PDF), by Mark Hansell. This was first published in May 1994. Since then, of course, Roman letters have come to be used even more widely in texts written otherwise in Chinese characters.

Here is the introduction:

One of the most striking changes in written Chinese in recent years is the increasingly common use of the Roman alphabet in both loanwords and native coinages. To modern urbanites, vocabulary such as MTV, PVC, kǎlā OK, and B xíng gānyán are not exotica, but are the stuff of everyday life. The explosion of alphabetically-written lexical items is made possible by the systematic assimilation of the Roman alphabet into the standard repertoire of Chinese reader/writers, to create what I have called the “Sino-alphabet”. This paper explores both the formal structure and the function of the Sino-alphabet. Structurally, the Sino-alphabet represents the adaptation of the English alphabet to the Chinese system in terms of 1) discreteness and 2) directionality. Chinese characters (henceforth “Sinograms”) are “discrete” in that each graph represents an independent chunk of phonological material, influenced very little by its neighbors. Roman letters, in contrast, are non-discrete because only in combination with other letters can they form meaningful units of speech. The use of Roman letters as fully discrete entities sets the Sino-alphabet apart from the Roman alphabet as used in other languages, and makes possible its assimilation into the Chinese writing system. In terms of directionality, the Sino-alphabet exhibits the full range of options that are present in Chinese: left-to-right, top-to-bottom, and right-to-left; while the traditional Roman alphabet as used in the West never allows the right-to-left direction.

The main function of the Sino-alphabet has been the adaptation of graphic loans from English. Graphic borrowing has a long tradition in Chinese; for example, graphic loans from Japanese have contributed a great deal to the modern Chinese lexicon (e.g. 科學, 經濟, 幹部 and hundreds of others). The emergence of English as the main source of loan vocabulary, as well as schooling that has exposed the mass of the population to the Roman alphabet, laid the groundwork for graphic borrowing of English vocabulary .Increasing graphic borrowing solidified the position of the Sino-alphabet, which in turn made possible more borrowing. Now firmly established, the Sino-alphabet is available for other functions such as transliteration of foreign or dialectal sounds.

The adaptation of Roman letters into the Chinese system would seem to highlight the difference between alphabetic and morpho-syllabic types of writing systems. Yet it also shows that Roman letters are not inherently alphabetic, and can quite easily change type when borrowed. Throughout the history of writing, the creativity and flexibility of writers and readers have overcome radical structural differences between writing systems and between languages. The development of the Sino-alphabet is proof that the peculiar structure of the Chinese writing system presents no impediment to the internationalization of the Chinese language.

This is issue no. 45 of Sino-Platonic Papers.