In 1991, 65,252 students were enrolled in world languages in Connecticut’s K-12 schools. A dozen years later, in 2003, that number had climbed steadily, reaching 95,154. By 2015, another 12 years later, the number of students taking language instruction had more than doubled, to 208,627 during the 2015-16 academic year.
Data provided to CT by the Numbers by the state Department of Education also showed that nearly one-quarter of those students were taking Spanish. Also, during those two and a half decades, the number of students taking Chinese language instruction has grown from less than 100 to more than 5,500.
Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, the most popular languages taught were Spanish, with 37,963 students; French, with 17,281; Latin, with 4,764; and Italian, with 2,989. There was also a smattering of German (1,290 students), Russian (318), and Portuguese (193). The number of students other languages was relatively tiny – 72 were learning Chinese, 67 were taking Japanese and 36 were in Polish language classes.
By 2003, the most frequent world language choices for Connecticut students had not changed, but the numbers had jumped. Spanish grew from just under 38,000 students to just over 62,000. The number of French students was virtually unchanged, and would drop slightly in the years following, as the number of Latin students grew from just under 5,000 to just over 7,500 and the number of students taken Latin closed in on doubling from just under 3,000.
By 2015-16, there were 54,308 taking Spanish, plus another 2,142 taking Spanish for Native Speakers. Just under 27,000 students were taking French, and 5,500 taking Chinese. The ratio of French students to Chinese students had dropped from more than 200 to 1 in 1991 to about 5 to 1 by the 2015-16 school year.
Slightly more than 7,000 students were learning Italian in 2015-16, more than double the number in 1991. Arabic, which barely registered in 1991, was being taken by 343 students and Russian was the language of choice for 86 students by 2015-16.
According to “The State of Languages in the U.S.: A Statistical Portrait,” Connecticut was one of seven states, along with New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Vermont, New Hampshire and Wisconsin, where more than 30 percent of K-12 students were enrolled in language. As of 2014, only twelve states had more than one in four elementary- and secondary-school students studying languages other than English.
The report was published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences in 2014, noting in the introduction that “While English continues to be the lingua franca for world trade and diplomacy, there is an emerging consensus among leaders in business and politics, teachers, scientists, and community members that proficiency in English is not sufficient to meet the nation’s needs in a shrinking world.”
“What a lot of Americans remember is language as an academic pursuit,” Marty Abbott, director of education for the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages told the nonprofit organization Great Schools in 2016. “They learned a lot about a language, how to conjugate every irregular verb. Today, the emphasis is on developing students’ communications skills — what they can do with a language. That’s a radical departure.”
There were approximately 191,000 students taking a world language in Connecticut in the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years; that number jumped to more than 208,000 the following year, in the most recent data available from the state Department of Education. Data for specific languages may vary, as course descriptions differ from district to district in Connecticut.