Asian Languages Outpacing Others in AP Exams and Public School Enrollments

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For many high school students in the United States, the month of May provides relief as the academic year winds down, and any Advanced Placement (AP) exams are concluded. In 2013, nearly 4 million AP exams were taken by graduating high school seniors, as they attempted to earn college credit or be placed in more advanced courses when they arrive at their universities. Foreign language AP exam figures and public school foreign language enrollment rates indicate that a growing number of these students are turning to Asia in their studies.

There are currently seven AP exams categorized as “World Languages and Cultures” exams: Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Latin, and Spanish. The newest additions to this list, Chinese and Japanese Language and Culture exams, both began in 2007.

The number of students taking the Chinese and Japanese exams has grown considerably in the ensuing years. In 2013, there were 10,121 Chinese Language and Culture exams taken, a figure that has grown by roughly 21% yearly since 2007. This is nearly three times the annual growth rate of all AP exams over the same time period. Meanwhile, there were 2,234 Japanese Language and Culture Exams taken in 2013, representing a 6% annual growth rate since 2007. The growth in numbers of students taking the AP exams in Asian languages is partly thanks to an increase in public school programs offering those languages and a surge in student interest.

The most recent national report from the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) compared the enrollment of students in foreign languages between the 2004-2005 and 2007-2008 academic years looking at seven major languages Chinese, French, German, Japanese, Latin, Russian, and Spanish.

Between the two analyzed academic years, Chinese and Japanese were the fastest growing world languages with enrollments above 10,000 students. Chinese saw the largest growth in student enrollment, at roughly 195% nationwide, and 37 states and the District of Columbia had an increase in students studying Chinese. States like Minnesota, North Carolina, and Utah have made Chinese language programs a priority. The US government and non-profits have supported this trend by promoting initiatives such as the 100,000 Strong Foundation, which is working to strengthen US-China relations through language study. Japanese saw more than 17% growth during the period analyzed, the second-largest of the major languages.

Chinese and Japanese language programs in public schools have grown considerably since the ACTFL’s last national report, and given the rates of students taking the AP exams, Chinese may be on pace to replace Japanese as the most popular Asian language studied by American college students.

On the importance of Chinese language in public schools and the AP program, Asia Society reported, “In this dynamic time when interest in Chinese is at an all-time high, it is important that we take a systemic approach to strengthen and sustain the field… to produce learners who are globally competent, with the ability to communicate and interact successfully with Chinese speaking people around the world.”

Kevin Lair is a summer research intern at the East-West Center in Washington and will be a senior at Washington College this fall.