Bryan Caplan  

Are Monolingual Americans Missing Out?

Competitive Government... Harry Byrd on Keynesianism...
Many found my statement here outrageous:
To understand why Americans don't learn foreign languages, simply reverse this reasoning.  We don't learn foreign languages because foreign languages rarely helps us get good jobs, meet interesting people, or enjoy culture.
To me, it's just plain fact.

1. Jobs. Very few jobs in the U.S. require or even use foreign languages.

2. Interesting people.  Most Americans don't make friends with foreigners who do speak fluent English.  Are we really supposed to believe they'd have a lot more in common with foreigners who don't speak English?  If you object, "Everyone I know has lots of foreign friends," you're just underscoring the fact that you're far from a typical American.

3. Culture.  Most Americans don't even watch foreign movies with subtitles or read foreign novels in translation.  And these are the foreign cultural products that Americans are most likely to enjoy.  After all, businesses tend to translate and market foreign cultural products with relatively high mass appeal.  Are we really supposed to believe that many Americans would prefer foreign culture so esoteric that no business bothers with English translation?

If you find the typical American insufferably insular and low-brow, I agree.  My point is that given his insular, low-brow ways, the typical American who remains monolingual isn't missing much.  He doesn't even avail himself of the foreign experiences he can enjoy in English; why would he strive to expand his menu?  If you reply that, "Making the typical American learn a foreign language will open his mind," even I think you're spending too much time in your Bubble.

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COMMENTS (24 to date)
Foobarista writes:

I always thought the jobs argument is the weakest, particularly given high levels of immigration in the US from just about every major language group. To get to the level of a Chinese kid who came to the US as a young adult or teenager, an American-born, English-speaking kid would have to dedicate himself to several years of intensive learning to get to college-level proficiency in spoken and written Mandarin. And that's the level he'd need to be at to get jobs in China or in Western companies doing business in China.

There are surprisingly large numbers of people who do exactly this (if you go to the parts of Beijing or Shanghai where Westerners live, you'll meet many of them), but it's a tall order to expect more than a small percentage of non-Chinese to pull this off. And such people rarely get to this level with much help from high school classes.

Taeyoung writes:

"Most Americans don't even watch foreign movies with subtitles or read foreign novels in translation."

True, but Japanese video games in translation are quite popular in the US (although I think their relative popularity is lower now than it was 5 or 10 years ago), and certain Japanese cartoons (like Pokemon) are more or less totally mainstream in the US at this point.

I was also surprised a few years ago to see that Japanese "light novels" (usually comedic novels targeted at teenagers) are also being translated commercially in the US. These are much more niche than either video games or cartoons, but I find it interesting that there's even a market for novel translations at all. I wouldn't be surprised to discover that they sell much, much better than the serious translations of "serious" novels.

For my own part, I read mostly humorous Japanese mystery novels. I don't think any of them are available in English translation, but while some of them (because of all the horrible puns) wouldn't translate well, I do think those kinds of genre works would sell better in the US than generic literary fare, which is most of what gets translated.

I suspect that part of the reason Americans don't read foreign novels or watch foreign movies is that the market participants are trying to keep translated works marked for "sophistication," since a lot of their existing market likes to think they're more sophisticated than the hoi polloi because they enjoy foreign artistic works and the hoi polloi don't. As a result, some of the work that gets translated isn't even that popular in the home country. For example, Americans have been translating every single Haruki Murakami work into English for a long time, but 10 years ago (I think it's different now), when I mentioned him to some Japanese college students they had no idea who he was. Meanwhile, popular authors like Miyuki Miyabe have one or two works translated, but they have minimal presence in the US.

F. Lynx Pardinus writes:

Very few jobs in the U.S. require or even use foreign languages.
Require, you're right. Use, is that really true?
There's a difference between a job that requires a language, and a job where a language occasionally comes in handy and earns you brownie points with the higher-ups. Especially if you deal with clients or customers in a state with a large immigrant population. From experience, you'll get unofficially called in to assist your coworkers when they are having communication difficulties.

It's a similar situation with many computer skills: most jobs don't require Excel proficiency, but if you can whip up an Excel spreadsheet and charts to demonstrate something to your boss (instead of just using anecdotal evidence), you'll look intelligent and skilled. It's probably a good idea for most high school graduates to have at least a passing knowledge of Excel.

David Henderson's comment about mathematics (Aug. 10 below) comes closest to explaining the true value in learning a foreign language in a general way for most people. Physical education knows the value in cross-training. Certainly, mental education cannot deny a similar claim. In my comment to the original post, I mentioned learning Fortran, Basic, and Java. In discussing the artistry in money with my numismatist friends, I speak in a vocabulary of line and space, with special words such as frost, luster, field, device, and toning. What makes English powerful is its nearly 1 million words, perhaps 90% of them borrowed. The more words, grammars, and syntaxes you know, the better your thinking... or so I claim. The opposite of that is Orwell's Newspeak, a restricted language designed to prevent thought, especially critical analysis and synthesis.

AJ writes:

Bryan, one of the main reasons:

I've traveled around the world and had business meetings in many countries and whether business or social, English (or a reasonable facsimile therof) is overwhelmingly the second language that everyone learns. Nothing is more common than for international business meetings and phone calls to be in English when neither party has English as his or her first language. I've never learned more than a few hundred words of any foreign language and have gotten around just fine and even made friends with people who have weak English. Like it or not, it's almost willful ignorance not to learn passable English in the world today. So why should I be in such a rush to learn a foreign language? Lucky me that English is my first language!

Preserve writes:

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bryan willman writes:

And a retort to the complainers is "so what?"

LIFE IS FINITE. The study of foreign language would ALWAYS be done INSTEAD of something else. And given the state of our society, exercise or most any attention to any level of math or science would be a better use of those resources for most people.

And at the 24 hours of LeMans, about as proudly French and French centric an event as you can imagine, the driver's meeting is conducted in two languages. French and English. The French part is peppered with uniquely English words. The English part has zero French words that aren't also standard English anyway. So you have to speak a few words of English to understand the French part of the presentation, but any English speaker would understand the entire English part. And apparently everybody else from everywhere else is expected to speak French or English.

Peter St. Onge writes:

I learned three fluent, four more conversational. They helped my career immensely, but only because of dumb luck (my first job needed a quadrilingual person, rare in Canada). I totally agree with points 2) and 3) on friends and culture.

Unless you live in the country for maybe a decade, dating or marrying locals with whom you have kids, you're very unlikely to learn to the degree you'll read a serious book in the original or enjoy foreign movies without subtitles. Even "fluent" you'll still consume in English - it's just less effort.

As for interesting foreigners, in 15 years abroad there are very few interesting foreigners who do not speak English. Just as there were very few interesting people in 14th c Europe who did not speak Latin.

My kids will learn Chinese (since we live here), but I'd discourage them from any other language, particularly European languages where the interesting natives largely speak English.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Ah, I'll qualify the 3rd paragraph. There are lots of non-English speaking foreigners, but I believe your experience abroad will be made no worse by limiting yourself to interacting with bilinguals.

Robert writes:

Having spent a good amount of time in high school and college learning Spanish and French, I'm surprised by how much I agree that learning languages for most people is not a valuable endeavor.

I'm happy to be fluent in Spanish because it makes travel through South America much more interesting and rewarding. A moderate level of French competency makes travel to France more enjoyable (or less rude). But those are consumption goods and probably just make me better off.

On the other hand, I think that the lower you are on the social scale, the more valuable Spanish would be for you, because you're more likely to have Spanish-only-speaking immigrants as co-workers.

The same goes for police, teachers, and other service workers that operate in areas with high immigrant populations.

Tom West writes:

> The study of foreign language would ALWAYS
> be done INSTEAD of something else.

I'm assuming that for most young men of high school age that something else would be more video gaming.

In the end, I suspect the reductionist argument is that most Americans should be working full time from about 14 years old because very little of what they learn after that point will be actively used in their job. Far better to provide the relevant training when one gets or is about to get the job.

Yet societies for which this is true are almost universally not prosperous, which leads me to believe that something in the chain of logic *must* be flawed.

Sometime I think a little too much of Bryan's thinking goes into things which are clever, but even he realizes are wrong. Sort of like coming up with more proofs of 1=2.

Hugh writes:

Can we not extend Bryan's reasoning to include the study of macroeconomics?

Whereas learning a foreign language may be useless, the application of macroeconomics is downright harmful.

mike shupp writes:

The typical American is pretty ignorant about religion, I've noticed. Comparative theology, church history, all that stuff. Most of them are happy with their lack of knowledge.

So shouldn't conservatives be concentrating right now on closing down churches?

jstaples writes:

I think the big picture being missed here is that learning a language is about exposure. 4 years of highschool language study is probably equal to about 6 months in country.

Europeans are often polyglots simply because of exposure. If New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maryland, and New York all spoke a different language we would have a situation that would be geographically and linguistically similar to Europe. In that situation, I expect we would find just as many polyglots in the Northeast US as we do in Europe.

The number of languages spoken has very little correlation to how uncultured, uneducated, or unintelligent a person is.

Europeans are exposed to multiple languages during childhood when language use comes naturally. Even Europeans with Down Syndrome learn multiple languages with ease because they are exposed during the peak language formation years. It happens naturally and organically and doesn't have to be forced. Americans typically don't have that type of exposure until early adulthood when language acquisition becomes much more difficult. Because of geography that type of early, organic exposure doesn't happen except in border states.

Peter St. Onge writes:


You could always study correct macro.

bryan willman writes:

@Tom West - touche. I will concede that video games and TV are worse uses of time than foreign language study. (Or history or math or exercise or comparative religion, etc. etc.)

I don't support the reductionist argument. Rather, I assert that some claims of "everybody should learn X" are either self serving to teachers of X, or ignore the opportunity costs of X. Indeed, would reading 1st rate books (in one's native tongue) about the history of Europe (say) be a better use of time than studying German?

The time, attention, and intellectual energy of students is finite - it must be allocated with some care.

Tom West writes:

bryan willman: Rather, I assert that some claims of "everybody should learn X" are either self serving to teachers of X, or ignore the opportunity costs of X.

I would agree, at least with the latter - the concept of opportunity cost escapes most. (The number of subject teachers are usually too small to make a difference).

Indeed, would reading 1st rate books (in one's native tongue) about the history of Europe (say) be a better use of time than studying German?

I would say yes. However, to return to my point, I feel that there's fairly relentless pressure to remove intellectually challenging aspects from the curriculum because it makes all direct participants (students, parents, teachers, principals, and politicians) happier in the short-term.

I'm fairly certain that the replacement for almost any mandatory course will be something of substantially less intellectual rigor, which is why I don't think the opportunity cost for languages is likely other intellectual endeavors.

As always, the top 10% of students will intellectually thrive anyway, and the bottom 10% weren't benefiting anyway. But I feel the 80% in the middle will not benefit from reducing the amount of intellectual challenge in their childhood.

Steve Sailer writes:

Here's a relevant data point. Everybody knows Germany is an economic powerhouse. Yet, practically nobody in the U.S. bothers to study German anymore.

Tracy W writes:

It's not just the US. Very few native-born Caucasian New Zealanders or Australians or Brits can speak a language other than English.

I've often thought about studying a foreign language myself, but the return relative to effort for any single language is quite low. And it's not just the upfront costs, my friends who lived abroad and learnt a foreign language quite thoroughly have either lost it on returning to NZ, or have spent several hours a week maintaining it.

Francis Menton writes:

I studied French intensively for 8 years, read very well and speak passably well. I also am a partner of a firm with a large office in France. Remarkably, it is very difficult to get the opportunity to speak the language. All the French people I deal with are required to speak English for their jobs, practice all the time, and inevitably speak English much better than I could hope to speak French. Even when I go to France, hotel and restaurant employees immediately speak English. At some point you stop fighting it.

Hoosier writes:

Bryan's 100% correct, especially if you agree that "the typical American is insufferably insular and low-brow".

These are also the same three reasons that Japanese are so poor at learning English. I was always so surprised at the number of young Koreans, Chinese, and Vietnamese I'd meet in my travels who spoke fantastic English compared to those I'd meet in Japan.

Albert Esplugas writes:

Let's phrase it in another way: you are missing out by being insular and low-brow, which is the reason a second language won't help you. Now you can be open-minded and high-brow just by speaking English, this is the advantage of speaking the world's standard language. But if you have such higher aspirations, a second language (Spanish, Chinese, French) may help.

In any case, you should consider another point: you will miss out when other people, including immigrants in your own country, compete with you for jobs. If your business has immigrant customers, or deals with foreign suppliers, or wants to expand into another country, or requires that you travel or learn from a foreign market, or you simply want to work abroad, English is necessary but may not be enough: anyone with English plus the local language (or regional standard) is going to have an advantage over you.

In Europe knowing English plus the local language gives you an edge. The same will be increasingly true in the US if it keeps its economy open to the world and the immigrant population keeps growing.

To sum up: the rest of world would miss out without English, and once they know English you will miss out if you compete with them.

Andreas Moser writes:

For us Europeans, it’s really funny to see a discussion about the benefits of learning a SECOND language.

Olaf writes:

I can't remember having read a post in a blog of such caliber before that has a severe logical flaw in virtually every sentence...this is so twisted...everyone who has been immersed in a second language knows that that experience alone usually changes everything.

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