arrow-down arrow-to-left arrow-to-right arrow-up bc-left check delete download facebook google-plus home map menu print search smiling three-lines top-left twitter youtube
September 2015

Top 5 languages that American students learn

Most Americans learn a foreign language during their university years. We take a look at the most popular ones!

While many European students are able to competently speak a second language due to the diversity of cultures within the continent, those living in the United States are less exposed to languages other than English. For most Americans, the opportunity to really dive into a foreign language comes during their university years. But what are the most popular languages that American students learn? Today we’ll take a look at the top five foreign languages most US students select. (Data comes from a study of Fall 2013 enrollment data by David Goldberg, Dennis Looney, and Natalia Lusin of the Modern Language Association of America.)


With Mexico right at the southern border of the US, it’s not surprising that over 50% of university students choose Spanish as their language of study. Spanish speakers are scattered across the globe, and while dialects and regional differences are abundant, mastery of the language can help a traveler communicate in countries from Spain to Mexico to Argentina.


Like many around the world, Americans view the French language as one full of romance and beauty. Knowledge of French is also associated with culture and class. Around 13% of students in the US select French as their study language. While there are comparatively few enclaves of French residents across the US as a whole, Paris remains one of the top dream destinations for Americans looking to travel abroad.

American Sign Language

You may be surprised to learn that the third most studied language in the US isn’t a spoken language at all; approximately 7% of university students opt to study American Sign Language (ASL). The sign language is used mostly within deaf communities in the US, Canada, West Africa, Central Africa, and parts of Southeast Asia. For those who cannot hear or speak, or for those living and working with individuals who cannot hear or speak, ASL is an invaluable communication method.


Both German and English are West Germanic languages, thus English-speaking students studying German may find the language easier than Romance languages like French or Italian. Approximately 5.5% of American students study German in universities. It is also the second most commonly used language in the science community (the first being English). Three major European economic powers have German as an official language: Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. This makes German an important business language as well.


There are large communities of Italians across the US, from North End in Boston to North Beach in San Francisco. Italian culture (particularly Italian-American culture) is integrated into the social fabric of daily American life. And while the pizza from the local chain in a small town in the US differs greatly from the offerings in Naples, one could say the food item is now as American as apple pie. Like French, Italian is viewed as a romantic language and Italy remains a popular destination for travelers. Additionally, many Americans are descendants from Italian immigrants. The reasons Americans have to learn the beautiful language are plentiful.

What language did you study in school? How was the experience? Let us know on our Facebook page and be sure to “like” TELC English for more fun articles on cultures and languages from around the world!

Picture: (c) Fotolia, Trueffelpix