10 Most Studied Languages in US Institutions of Higher Education

Learning a language is an in-demand skill that boosts your employability and helps you stand out from the rest. Studies show that it can increase your salary by between 11% and 35% depending on the language and country you are based in.

Many colleges across the United States use the Modern Language Association (MLA) to keep track of enrollment in language classes. This data was collected from 2,669 postsecondary institutions and supplemented by the National Center for Education Statistics and the 2016 Higher Education Directory.

The results find that Spanish and French are still the most studied languages in the US, although their overall enrollment numbers have decreased by around 9%. Japanese is the only language that has seen an increase in enrollment, with Korean also showing substantial growth. Other languages in the top ten include Italian, German, Chinese, Arabic, and Latin.

The following languages are sorted by popularity based on the number of enrollments in Fall of 2016.

1. Spanish (50.2% enrollment)

Spanish is the third most studied language in the world, with over 450 million native speakers and approximately 75 million people speaking it as a second language.

In the United States, it is the most popular language to study among college students and K-12 students, with more than 50 percent of college students and 70 percent of K-12 students opting to learn Spanish.

The US is the second-largest Spanish-speaking country in the world and is projected to become the largest by 2050.

2. French (12.4% enrollment)

French is a Romance language spoken by 72 million people worldwide, and its written materials date back to the 9th century.

Francien, the dialect of Paris, became the standard language in the mid-16th century and largely replaced other regional dialects.

French grammar has been simplified from Latin, with nouns not having cases and gender marked in the article or adjective.

French is officially spoken in Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, Madagascar, Monaco, Switzerland and many others.

3. American Sign Language (7.6% enrollment)

American Sign Language (ASL) is a complete, natural language with linguistic properties like spoken languages. It is the primary language for many North Americans who are deaf and hard of hearing and is used by some hearing people too.

ASL likely arose from local sign languages mixed with French Sign Language (LSF) over 200 years ago, and modern ASL and LSF are distinct languages.

Deaf children born to hearing parents may learn ASL from peers and their parents, who learn along with them.

4. German (5.7% enrollment)

German is a widely spoken language by over 100 million people in European countries, including Germany, Austria, Belgium, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.

It belongs to the West Germanic group of languages and has four noun cases and three genders (masculine, feminine, and neuter).

Modern High German is the standard written form used in literature, media, and education. Low German is a dialect spoken in northern Germany and parts of The Netherlands and is related to English and Dutch.

5. Japanese (4.9% enrollment)

Japanese is a language spoken by more than 124 million people and is the 6th largest-speaking population in the world. Due to Japanese migration, it is mostly used in Japan and some states of Palau, as well as parts of Brazil.

Japanese has its own unique phonology with open syllables that end in vowels. As for accents, it uses pitch accents.

Japanese is classified as an agglutinative language, and its typology type is SOV (Subject-Object-Verb). In SOV, the verb appears at the end of the sentence, and the subject is first. English structures sentences fairly strictly follow the Subject-Verb-Object (SVO) order.

For example, instead of “I eat cake,” which we say in English, we say: “I cake eat” in Japanese.

6. Italian (4.0% enrollment)

Italian is a Romance language that evolved from Latin. It was made the official language of Italy when it unified in the 19th century. It is now spoken by around 85 million people worldwide, 65 million of which are native speakers within the EU.

Italian has influenced many other languages, including English, with words like ‘broccoli,’ ‘fiasco,’ and ‘zucchini.’ This language is also the universal language of music, with terms like ‘a cappella’, ‘maestro,’ and ‘orchestra.’

Italian is spoken in Italy, San Marino, Switzerland, and Vatican City. It’s also the official language of some parts of Croatia and Slovenia. It is a minority language in countries such as the US and Australia.

7. Chinese (3.7% enrollment)

Chinese is spoken by 1.30 billion native speakers, and the official dialect of China is Mandarin, also called “Putonghua.” Chinese is one of the most difficult languages to learn for native English speakers due to its different writing system, grammar, and pronunciation style. 

To achieve basic fluency in Chinese, one must learn around 1,200 characters, but there are tens of thousands more to achieve ultimate fluency. 

The written forms of Chinese words do not give any clues on their pronunciation and must be learned separately. Furthermore, Chinese is filled with similar-sounding words, which makes it hard for non-native speakers to differentiate between them. 

The Chinese government attempted to simplify the Chinese language by reducing strokes per character, but the traditional characters are still used in Hong Kong and Taiwan.

8. Arabic (2.2% enrollment)

Arabic is an ancient language that has been around for more than a thousand years. It originated in the Arabian Peninsula and was spoken by nomadic tribes.

Arabic belongs to the Semitic language family, along with languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Kurdish, Amharic, and Berber.

The spread of Arabic happened through nomadic travel and the Islamic Conquests of the 7th century. Today, Arabic is spoken by over 400 million people and is the sixth most spoken language in the world.

Arabic is the official spoken language of Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and many other countries.

Classical (or Old) Arabic was recorded in the Qur’an, while Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) incorporates modern words and some differences in grammar constructions. Over time, Arabic has borrowed words from other languages and has also influenced the development of many others.

9. Latin (1.8% enrollment)

Latin is an ancient language from Rome that has been around since 75 BC. It was considered the language of scholars and educated people in days gone by, with its alphabets derived from Etruscan alphabets and written in a right-to-left script. However, over time the writing changed to be left to right instead.

Latin literature is widely regarded as some of the best in the world, and it has had a large influence on many modern languages, such as English, with 70% of our words coming from Latin.

While there are no native speakers of Latin today, Latin is still used in places such as binomial nomenclature, law, and even on buildings. Unfortunately, it is now considered a dead language and can no longer be altered or have new words added to its vocabulary.

10. Russian (1.4% enrollment)

Russian is a widely-spoken language, with around 260 million speakers across Central Europe, Central Asia, and many countries within the former Soviet Union. It is the official language in Russia, the largest country in the world, as well as Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.

Russian is a very useful language to know if you are traveling in Eastern Europe or parts of Asia like Mongolia or the north of China. They use the Cyrillic alphabet, which continues to be used in several regions, such as Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

It is known for its impressive literature. Interestingly, Russian is the language of space, and astronauts must learn Russian as part of their training. The computer system of The International Space Station uses both English and Russian.


Learning a language can help you deepen your understanding and appreciation for different cultures and open up possibilities for travel and work.

From the most widely spoken languages to those only spoken by small communities, each language has its own unique set of rules, grammar, writing and pronunciation style.

Whether it be Chinese characters or Latin literature that fascinate you, there is a range of languages to choose from. Whichever language you decide to learn, be sure to practice diligently and enjoy the journey!

Are you learning a language at the moment? Let us know!

This post originally appeared at TPR Teaching.

I'm an Irish tutor and founder of TPR Teaching. I started teaching in 2016 and have since taught in the UK, Spain, and online.

I love learning new things about the English language and how to teach it better. I'm always trying to improve my knowledge, so I can better meet the needs of others!

I enjoy traveling, nature walks, and soaking up a new culture. Please share the posts if you find them helpful!

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