School of Global Languages, Literatures, and Cultures
Less Commonly Taught Language Initiative

Less Commonly Taught Language Initiative


We live in a very multi-lingual world – there are approximately 7,000 spoken languages, according to Ethnologue.

And we live in a very multi-lingual country – more than 47 million people in the U.S. speak languages other than English at home, and more than 300 languages are spoken in U.S. households, according to the FAQ pages on the Language Map of the Modern Language Association.

Penn State, like other colleges and universities, offers instruction in a selected range of languages. The offerings available in any semester or summer session, at any Penn State campus, can be found through the Bulletin website, and course descriptions are provided in the Baccalaureate Degree Bulletin.

The Less Commonly Taught Languages Initiative (LCTL Initiative), a strategic planning project of Penn State’s Department of Comparative Literature, aims to expand language awareness and language study by highlighting languages that students may not have had the opportunity to study in high school. The project has several goals:

1. To provide information about studying a Less Commonly Taught Language at Penn State, and to provide links to information about further languages.

2. To help students and advisors locate ways to use additional languages within Penn State’s degree programs, by bringing together information about options such as Credit by Examination, Non-Credit Proficiency Evaluation, opportunities to learn languages through Education Abroad, Distance Education, the Penn State Language Placement Policy, etc.

3. As funding and other practical considerations permit, to expand the number of languages, or levels within particular languages, taught at Penn State.

Please visit the pages on this site to find out more, and, if you have questions, contact us.

What is a Less Commonly Taught Language?

The Ethnologue website lists about 7,000 currently spoken languages (aside from languages that were spoken and written in the past). As the Language Map project of the Modern Language Association notes, one study published in the 1990s indicates that the world’s most-spoken languages, in terms of the numbers of primary (mother-tongue) speakers, are, in order, Mandarin Chinese, English, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, Japanese, German, French, Javanese, Korean, Italian, Panjabi, Marathi, Vietnamese, Telugu, Turkish, Tamil, Ukrainian, and Polish.

Language study in the U.S. has typically focused on several of these languages, along with languages that are no longer spoken (such as Latin). According to a recent study published by the Modern Language Association (ADFL Bulletin Winter/Spring 2004), Spanish, French, and German are commonly taught, and these three languages account for about 75% of college and university enrollments in the U.S. The situation is similar in U.S. high schools. According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Spanish, French, and German constituted nearly 95% of foreign language instruction in American high schools in the year 2000.

However, the 2004 MLA study also found that 162 other languages are taught at U.S. colleges and universities, and interest in an expanded range of languages is increasing.

Languages that are now taught only infrequently in a particular country or region are known as Less Commonly Taught Languages, or LCTL’s. Clearly the term “less commonly taught” is a relative one, dependent on place and time. For example, Chinese may be regarded as a LCTL in the U.S., but obviously not in China, Singapore, Taiwan, or other parts of the Chinese-speaking world.

The LCTL situation in the U.S., or in any other part of the world, evolves over time, as certain languages become more (or less) important to changing cultural, political, and economic interests, and as demographic patterns and immigration trends change.

Studying a LCTL can be a challenging as well as rewarding experience. There may be a smaller selection of textbooks or other resources, fewer classes available, and less cultural reinforcement in the immediate environment, than for studying a commonly taught language. However, skill in LCTL’s can enhance a student’s attractiveness to prospective employers as well as providing a unique and very satisfying opportunity for personal enrichment. For more information on the process of studying a LCTL, click here or visit other parts of this site.