Which Languages Are Taught in Massachusetts Public High Schools?

We were having dinner recently with some German friends, and the conversation turned to foreign language instruction in high school.  Our friends have a son in a high school (Gymnasium) in Bavaria, where each student must study at least 2 foreign languages, including 8 years of English. He has been studying three foreign languages in school.  He had started learning English in elementary/primary school at age 8, then added French at age 11 and Italian at age 12.  So in a few years he will complete high school having studied English for 8 years, as well as both French and Italian for several years.  Which is extremely impressive from an American perspective.  Our friends asked, What is foreign language study like in American high schools?

Well, we said, like almost all questions of the form “How is that done in the United States?” the answer is “It depends.  There is huge variation in how things are done across the US.”  In the American educational system, each state, and to a large extent each town within a state, can determine what is taught in their schools.   This is especially true for language instruction.   While almost all high schools in the United States teach classes in English (i.e. the teacher speaks English to the students) and offer courses about English language and literature, there is a wide range of offerings for languages other than English.   For example, the high school in our town in Massachusetts offers 4 foreign languages (Spanish, French, Latin, and Mandarin), the high school in one neighboring town offers a different set of 4 languages (Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and Armenian), and the high school in another nearby town offers just Spanish.

Many American high schools do not require students to study a foreign language, and some do not even offer a single foreign language class.  Sadly, when their German counterparts are asking “Which second foreign language, in addition to English, should I study?” many American high school students are asking “Should I even study a foreign language at all?”   And yet, some American high schools have outstanding foreign language programs, offering many different language options and requiring all students to learn 2 (or more) foreign languages.

The conversation with our German friends got us thinking, and we set out to discover the range of foreign language options in Massachusetts high schools.  We looked at information for 351 public high schools in Massachusetts in order to determine what languages they offer and what their graduation requirements are.   Our key findings are below, and the full results, including a searchable database of schools and languages, can be found on the MassLang Survey page.

  • Which languages are offered in Massachusetts public high schools?
    • 16 different languages are offered by Massachusetts public high schools.  In decreasing order of popularity, they are Spanish (offered by all but 3 of the 328 high schools that offer at least one foreign language, 325 of 351 schools overall, or 92.6%), French (236 of 351 schools, 67.2%), Latin (134, 38.2%), Mandarin (81, 23.1%), Italian (39, 11.1%), German (26, 7.4%), American Sign Language (22, 6.3%), Portuguese (18, 5.1%), Greek (9, 2.6%), Arabic (5), Japanese (3), Turkish (3), Russian (2), Khmer (1), Irish (1), and Armenian (1).
  • How many different languages does each Massachusetts public high school offer?
    • The number of different foreign languages offered in Massachusetts public high schools ranges from 0 to 7, with 328 of the 351 schools (93.4%) offering at least one foreign language.  76% of all high schools offer at least 2 different languages, with the most common numbers of languages offered being 2 languages (88 schools) and 3 languages (92 schools).   2 high schools in Massachusetts offer 7 different languages, and 9 schools offer 6 languages.
  • How many public high schools in Massachusetts require all students to study a foreign language in order to graduate?  
    • We found that the graduation requirements for Massachusetts public high schools range from 0 to 8 years of foreign language study.  Of the 351 schools, 198 (56.4%) require each student to study a foreign language for at least 1 year in order to graduate, while 153 schools (43.6%) have no foreign language requirement for graduation.  The most common requirement, at 160 of the 198 schools with a graduation requirement, is 2 years.  Only 4 high schools in Massachusetts require all students to study 2 different foreign languages, and these are the only schools that require more than 4 years of study.

The full details of the Lexplorers MassLang survey of the foreign languages taught in public high schools in Massachusetts are available via the links below.

MassLang High School Foreign Language Survey main page

Graduation Requirements: We look at high school graduation requirements in Massachusetts and summarize foreign language requirements.

Languages Offered: We look at which languages are taught in Massachusetts schools and how many different languages are offered at each school.

Notable Offerings: We look at some public high schools in Massachusetts that have noteworthy foreign language programs.

Methodology: A summary of data sources, categories, and possible sources of error in our analysis.  Links to all the raw data used in our analysis are here, including information sources and spreadsheets of compiled results.

Searchable database of all schools surveyed: All the raw data used in our analysis, in a searchable database.


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