Bryan Caplan  

The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money

Greenspan Embraces "Regime Unc... The Degree and Origin of Forei...
The average high school graduate spends two years studying a foreign language. (Digest of Education Statistics, Table 157)  What effect do these years of study have on Americans' actual ability to speak foreign languages?

I started by looking at the Census, but it asks only about "languages spoken in the home."  Gallup has a survey finding that one-in-four Americans can speak a foreign language, but it offers no further details that would allow us to measure degree of fluency or the effect of foreign language instruction.  After nosing around for better data, I turned to the General Social Survey.  As usual, I was not disappointed.

In 2000 and 2006, the GSS asked over 4000 respondents the following three questions*:

1. Can you speak a language other than English?  [Responses: Yes/No]  (OTHLANG)

2. How well do you speak that language?  [Responses: Very well/well/Not well/Poorly or Hardly at All]  (SPKLANG)

3. Is that a language you first learned as a child at home, in school, or is it one that you learned elsewhere?  [Responses: Childhood home/School/Elsewhere] (GETLANG)

The results showed an even smaller effect of foreign language instruction on foreign language fluency than I expected.

25.7% of respondents speak a language other than English.  Within this sample, 41.5% claim to speak the other language "very well."  Within this sub-sub-sample, just 7.0% say they learned to speak this foreign language in school.  If you multiply out these three percentages, you get 0.7%.  The marginal product of two years of pain and suffering per high school graduate: less than one student in a hundred acquires fluency.  (And that's self-assessed fluency, which people almost surely exaggerate).

If you lower the bar from "very well" to "well" the picture remains grim: merely 2.5% of GSS respondents claimed to reach this level of foreign language competence in school.

Fans of foreign languages will probably just respond, "That's why we have to pour more resources into foreign languages."  I say it would be far better to give fans of foreign languages a free economics lesson.  Here goes:

1. Lots of stuff that sounds good isn't worth doing.  "Learning a foreign language" sounds noble, but so does "climbing Mount Everest."  The wise calmly weigh costs and benefits instead of being carried away by words.  Any honest scale will tell you that the costs of foreign language instruction dwarf the benefits.  Think about it: Even ignoring teachers' salaries, we're currently burning two years of class time per graduate.  The payoff?  Making less than one student in a hundred fluent.

2. Doubling an input normally less than doubles output.  The world usually has what economists call "diminishing returns": you can improve outcomes by spending more money, but the more you spend, the less efficacious each dollar becomes.  The fact that two full years of instruction have almost zero effect implies that massive spending increases would be required to noticeably raise foreign language fluency.  Think about all the Canadian adults who don't speak French after a decade of required study.

3. Foreign language fluency is more common in other countries for a reason.  People around the world strive to learn English.  Why?  Because English fluency frequently helps them get good jobs, meet interesting people, and enjoy culture.  Pretty obvious, right?  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.  Americans start in an unusually abundant and diverse economic, social, and cultural pool, so we have little reason to stray.  And if Americans do decide to sample other pools, we can literally travel the world without needing to learn a word of another language.

I may sound like a typical philistine economist.  So let me confess that I personally got a lot of value out of my two years of college German.  I'm an opera fan; knowing a bit of German enhances my experience.  But this hardly means that most Americans would benefit from learning a foreign language.  All romance aside, requiring Americans to learn foreign languages makes about as much sense as requiring them to hear operas.  What inspires the few, torments the many.  Elites who relish foreign languages and opera should show some tolerance for the rest of humanity instead of calling for government spending to correct a "problem" that's only in our minds.

* To be precise, the GSS asked over 4000 respondents the first question; it only followed up with the other questions if the answer to the first question was "yes."

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (41 to date)
Michael Stack writes:

So, is this the skill that the least-educated possess in greater amounts than the better-educated? From yesterday's post which I can't find anymore:

"I've discovered a cognitive skill where American high school drop-outs are markedly superior to Americans with higher education levels."
ChacoKevy writes:

I think the question should have been "where you acquired proficiency" instead of where it was "first learned".
I fall in that 7% number... but ONLY because I lived abroad. That daily practice was everything. If not for that experience, I'd be another time wasted in school example.

Isegoria writes:

Perhaps we should perform a similar analysis for all the other requirements. How well do most Americans comprehend literature, perform algebra and geometry, remember history, etc.?

Sonic Charmer writes:

Seems like this argument would be more convincing if it didn't also apply to the vast majority of subjects students variously end up having to take in high school. How many HS grads come out knowing chemistry or world history 'very well'? What about that drawing 'elective' I had to take? (Maybe it didn't have to be drawing, but I had to take *something* for that person-semester. Why?)

Applied consistently this is an argument for abolishing high school. Not that that necessarily makes the argument wrong, just saying. What is there to distinguish foreign-language instruction in particular as a waste?

Finch writes:

I strongly agree that foreign language requirements are an egregious waste of time.

However, cited without comment:

RPLong writes:

Caplan says, "Lots of stuff that sounds good isn't worth doing."

I go even further. I say that the returns on something that is genuinely worthwhile when done voluntarily are seldom realized through compulsion.

This is the whole premise of public choice theory, is it not? This is the one simple truth that obliterates the entire field of behavioral economics.

JoeMac writes:


I would like to see a post where you offer a k-12 curriculum as an alternative to the one we have. Obviously you would prefer none at all, but what in your opinion would be the optimum alternative?

Granite26 writes:
I go even further. I say that the returns on something that is genuinely worthwhile when done voluntarily are seldom realized through compulsion.

I think part of the goal is to force a small amount of exposure, you won't know till you try it style.


That said, I never got the impression that becoming fluent in the language was the point of taking language classes in High School.

You get insight into the structure of language itself by going outside the bounds of your own language.

Plus, there's a lot of cultural learning that goes into language classes as well. It's not just words.

Joe Cushing writes:

The problem is that our ability to learn new languages is nearly gone by the time we reach high school and is worse by the time we reach college. If you want people to know other languages, move the classes to kindergarten--better yet, hire a foreign nanny when your child is a baby. This is something every language teacher knows. It's an example of how when the government gets involved in something, they will do something that doesn't work for decades and never take a step to improve it. Knowing foreign languages is very useful to people who know them. If I ever have children, I'll go with the foreign nanny rout.

I agree with the above that fluency isn't the goal of high school language class. Since there are thousands of cognates (with English) in Spanish and French, it can be helpful later in life when you find yourself in the Paris Metro trying to figure out which line will get you where you wish to go.

I still remember being amazed at being able to somewhat understand Italians in Rome, when I'd only studied Latin and Spanish.

I also learned from Mexicans in So. Cal. how to make carne asada, since I could kinda communicate with the production workers in a chemical blending plant I found myself managing. They invited me to their parking lot barbecues because I never missed a payroll--which hadn't been the case before I arrived.

Language moves in mysterious ways.

John Fembup writes:

"The payoff? Making less than one student in a hundred fluent."

But surely the worth of taking a class in French as an 11th-grader is not limited to speaking a few words, or can reasonably be judged on "fluency"alone. Although the skill taught most successfully in most high schools just may be the ability to sit still for 45 minutes at a time, that does not mean zero learning takes place.

Bryan reports that he benefitted in another way from learning a little German. I remember how to spell many English words and finally understood the parts of speech - - from Latin I. Yeah, I could have read The Gallic War or The Aeneid or La Chanson de Roland in English, but reading them in approximately their original languages was educational in itself.

"We don't learn foreign languages because foreign languages rarely helps us get good jobs, meet interesting people, or enjoy culture. "

That seems more persuasive about the past 50 years in the US, than about the next 50 years. A basic facility in at least one language other than English e.g., Spanish, seems to me a wise acquisition because that seems more and more likely to help us get good jobs, meet interesting people, or enjoy culture in the future.

Matt C writes:

As other people have pointed out, you have left the door open to make the same type of claim against every other subject in the high school curriculum.

If that is where your argument leads, we don't need to seriously consider the idea of lifting foreign language requirements.

Maybe if you framed your idea in some way that could not be generalized we could look at it again.

Brian writes:

Make a European standard B2 level foreign language exam obligatory for university entrance and you'll see a very high level of foreign language learning.

Right now, you are required to take the classes, but you are not required to actually learn anything. Set some standards and things will change.

Steve Sailer writes:

For more data on subject, you can look at the College Board's website on Advanced Placement test scores. For example, last year only 1,075 students (out of a cohort of about 4 million) scored a 5 on the AP French test (excluding students who learned French in French-speaking countries or homes).

In contrast, 40,500 students earned a 5 on the tough Calculus BC Advanced Placement exam.

That suggests our schools are much better at teaching advanced math than a foreign language to students.

Steve Sailer writes:

Looking at the AP scores for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese, it appears that about 8,000 students annually learn to speak a foreign language in high school (as opposed to in a foreign country) well enough to get an A on college level course. In contrast, five times as many students reach that level on the tougher of the two Calculus APs.

MingoV writes:

I observe that over the past forty years most high schools increased required courses (eg: two years of algebra and two years of a foreign language) and markedly decreased both the number and variety of elective courses. I believe that's the wrong direction.

@Sonic Charmer: "... What is there to distinguish foreign-language instruction in particular as a waste?"

Adults in the USA rarely need or use a foreign language. Similarly, they rarely need or use geometry, trigonometry, and most of what is taught in science courses. My belief is that students should learn what's useful. My recommendations for high school:

- Algebra
- Probability and Statistics for Everyday Life

- The Scientific Method, Skepticism, and Critical Thinking
- Human Biology and Healthfulness

- Comprehending Everyday Writings: news stories, college and employee handbooks, user manuals, etc.
- Rhetoric, Logical Arguments, and Flawed Arguments

History & Civics:
- Early US History, The Constitution, and the Evolution of US Government
- Ethics, Morality, Rights, Privileges, Laws, and Justice

Basic Living Skills short courses:
- Cooking and Housekeeping 101
- Personal Finances
- How to Get a Job, Keep a Job, and Get Promoted

Recommended Electives:
- Fundamentals of Music
- Fundamentals of Visual Arts

The Sheep Nazi writes:

Color me among the confused here. If the signalling model is right, and education is all about demonstrating discipline and conformity, then what better way than to study something that's (1) hard and (2) useless? Let's hear it for an essay-only SAT, in the original Latin.

Mark Bahner writes:
I say it would be far better to give fans of foreign languages a free economics lesson. Here goes:

I say it would be far better to give fans of foreign languages a free technology lesson. Here goes:

1) It is already possible to webpages from just about any language into English,

2) It is becoming increasingly possible to talk into a smartphone, and get on-the-fly translations into various languages:

On-the-fly smartphone translations

In summary, certainly within the next 10-20 years it will not be necessary to speak another language, because smart phones will be able to translate between languages much better than a person could do with a few years in school.

The reasoned disagreements are pleasing to read, in any language. I started in German before the 7th grade (1961) at a Western Reserve Univerity "demonstration school" and then continued through my junior year of college. The payoff was not so much being fluent in German, but being able many years later (1991) to take two college classes in Japanese for Business and then working at Kawasaki and Honda. A couple of months ago, I was often at the bus stop with neighbors who were visibly foreign and to greet them "Good morning" I got an Uzbek phrase book at the library. In between all of that, I learned first Fortran and Basic (1977), and in 2007, Java.

But perhaps mere facility with languages is not "the" goal of foriegn language instruction. We may not know at all. Like teaching "entrepreneurship" to MBAs, maybe there is something ineffable at work and play here.

By analogy, while ocmpleting a BS in criminology (2008), I learned that police officers with college degrees write more traffic tickets with fewer negative interactions with the public than those without college degrees. But the criminology curriculum does not teach traffic stops or public relations. So, something else is involved here. That may suggest that the value in foreign language education may be in other areas not measured.

John Fast writes:

Mais sauf si parlez-vous Francais, ne sait pas parler cette poste!

Et sans parler une language deuxième, combien tu peux le garder les secrets à les enfants?

La sursalaire bilingue est tout de trop avoir la vacherie passer le radar.

Foobarista writes:

I learned passable Mandarin in six months. Of course, I did it in Beijing, where I was subject to the "poop test" - if you need to speak the language to find the toilet, eat, buy groceries, etc, you'll learn it quickly :)

By all accounts, "total immersion" is the only way to actually make someone fluent in a language, unless one happens to be a super-driven language nerd (which I am definitely not).

That said, in my case, the most important thing I learned in HS Spanish was a better understanding of language elements in English.

Steven P writes:

I agree with what many people above me have said about the goal of our current language systems goals not being fluency.
It expands the mind and teaches us to think in new ways to learn a new language and I feel that the amount of people who retained the languages would increase if kids were taught foreign languages at a younger age. Maybe if 8th, 9th, and 10th graders were required to take forgiven language it might lead to a higher amount of retention in the students.
I personally have never used my two years of high school Spanish but I have friends who use the language they learned in high school and I can tell that they valued the experience of diversifying their linguistics.
Government money spent on schools can be said to be just as wasted on art and other similar classes. Foreign language is just a way to broaden our young minds.

Maniel writes:

Bryan, There are several vectors here.
Requirements: You can teach me, but unless I am motivated, I won't learn. This is an argument for choice (across many subjects), but like Samurai in training, students generally have no idea what they will need later in life. Foreign language training may not be the key to "get good jobs, meet interesting people, and enjoy culture," but it can open doors (it has done all those things for me).
Learning a language: Japanese students read English quite well; they even write a little. This proves that you can learn quite a bit from classes and studying hard. However, without the immersion experience – which is overwhelming for some – they are never able to actually speak or understand spoken English. The same applies to us; without the immersion experience, in France, I would not be fluent in French.
Learning to learn: How many Americans appreciate the effort required by students who come from other countries to study here? One way to "get it" is to try to repeat the trick. However, unless one is motivated, the effort will fail. Bottom line: I agree, the foreign language requirement is dubious. However, for those who actually want to learn to speak another language, I strongly recommend that schools take note of the immersion imperative. BTW, wouldn't it be nice if our high-school grads could read, write, and speak English well?

John Fembup writes:

"BTW, wouldn't it be nice if our high-school grads could read, write, and speak English well?"

Hm, well that weakens the "immersion" theory.

The Sheep Nazi writes:

@John Fast. This might interest you -- here is what Google translate made of your post:

But unless you speak French, can not speak this post!

And without speaking a second language, how you can keep the secrets to the children?

The extra pay is bilingual too have the cow cross the radar.

Tom E. Snyder writes:

Q: What do you call someone who speaks 2 languages?
A: Bi-lingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks 3 languages?
A: Tri-lingual.
Q: What do you call someone who speaks 1 language?
A: An American.

Mark Bahner writes:


Here's how Bing translator does with John Fast's comments:

But unless you speak French, is not known to speak this post!

And not to mention a language second, how you can keep it secret to children?

The bilingual differential is too have the vacherie pass radar.

Edge to Google over Microsoft, as usual. Though both need some work.

Nguyen, Quan Trung writes:

To be honest, I am just an international student in US and my first language is not English, so I stand in a position that is different from the author's position. I just want to share my point of view for this topic.
First of all, like my own country, teaching foreign language in school did not bring a good outcome as the government expected. Students in my country have at least 10 years to study English in their middle schools, high schools as well as colleges, but it is a shame that a lot of company leader had to warn that a high percentage of their applicant had level of English as a beginner. However, I will never to blame this problem for the government. Learning foreign language in the school is wasteful only if students don't focus on this. No one can refuse important benefits of speaking fluently.
Secondly, it is obvious that there are clear reasons why all government in the world require student to learn other languages. In addition, the world is so big that all countries are relative small, even America. Nowadays, no country can flourish and be stronger without trading with the rest, so instead of requiring different people to speak English very well, why should not American students study foreign language more hardly. This will help all of you understand more clearly different cultures as well as their behaviors and their way of thinking, it is easy to see that you will get more successes in your jobs.
Finally, I believe that the number of people who can use other language perfectly will reduce instantly if the educational system does not require learning other languages. The responsibility of the government is giving a right direction to whole society, not to specific individual, but using this direction is your responsibilities. Moreover, I think that stopping teaching other language in schools will have bad effects to next generations in the future.

Glen writes:

Bryan, I don't think your probabilities make sense.

What you've found is that 0.7% of the 4000 respondents spoke a foreign language well and learned it in school. But that only translates into the marginal efficacy of language instruction if all 4000 respondents were indeed exposed to such instruction. I doubt that's the case.

To pick an obvious extreme (which I don't think is true, but is consistent with the numbers you report), what if those 0.7% of respondents were the *only* students who were exposed to language instruction? Then we should conclude that the marginal efficacy of language instruction is 100%.

ciro writes:

!Yo soy fiesta!

Cback writes:

I can still imagine how this would be useful to students, similar to the required US History classes or English Literature classes that are mandatory in high schools, but they kids end up pursuing a different career. The goal of these classes is to give the kids a foothold in that area of expertise, a little taste test before they decide what to major in college.

Also, maybe they should have included the effect these languages had? Perhaps the kids could have used these as leverage when applying for certain job postings, citing knowing multiple languages as a skill (despite having only the high school level in their head).

Ghislain writes:

@John Fast, @The Sheep Nazi, @Mark Bahner
It is no surprise if automatic translators have difficulties, even for me (native French speaking), I've read it twice to understand it.

Is the French post the result of an automatic translator?

If so, it is clearly not bijective

Floccina writes:

IMO because school is a test, things are taught wrong. They are taught in an easily testable way rather that it a way to maximize retention of the most valuable skills and knowledge. That is a big problem with language instruction, and chemistry and physics etc. Testing/signaling squeezes out education.

Anonymous writes:

The ability to learn a foreign language is not gone by high school. A child can learn the pronunciation better than an adult, but an older child can grasps that concepts of grammar and sentence structure at a faster rate. Also, they have the ability to compare/contrast their own language with the foreign language. In fact, I begin my language learning as a sophomore in high school. After three years of high school Spanish, I had the basics down. Then I spent five more years studying at the college level. Add numerous more years of self-study and you have an adult who can speak Spanish "very well." This misconception is that fluency can be obtained in two years. It takes 5-7 years to acquire academic proficiency in a language. High school Foreign Language is far from a waste of time. It is an introduction to a language. It is laying the foundation which will be built upon by taking the same language in college.
The only reason so few people speak a language in our country is that it is not seen as important. We are a monolingual country (which in my opinion is embarrassing). We have raised generations of children to believe that English is superior and knowing another language is useless. This attitude is seen even in our guidance counselors and school administrators who see a foreign language as just a requirement to graduate. If instead of writing articles that contribute to this ideology, researchers would discuss that benefits to knowing another language, perhaps this attitude could be changed.

Floccina writes:

Let me add that if wanted to learn a language you would not sign up for something like a high school language class.

Susan writes:

Second language learning is not simply about "second language learning." Research shows that the study of a second language, even at a very low level, actually alters the structure of the learner's brain:
According to recent studies, "Being bilingual may delay Alzheimer's and boost brain power." ( "Another study of bilingual people carried out by Judith Kroll, a psychologist at Penn State University, supported the idea that speaking more than one language keeps the brain in shape and bolsters mental function. She found that bilingual speakers could outperform single-language speakers in mental tasks such as editing out irrelevant information and focusing on important details. Bilinguals were also better at prioritising and multi-tasking, she said."

Besides the fact that studying other languages helps one improve knowledge of ENGLISH grammar and vocabulary, it also increases brain function. And if you're lucky, you might actually learn a second language.

Daublin writes:

I would love to have gone to Mingo's high school. Thet is a wonderful curriculum where everything in it is obviously relevant to an American citizen's life.

I do wonder whether people going to that high school would be able to get into a good college.

Rob writes:

Of the 0.7% of surveyed people who reported being proficient in a foreign language, an even smaller subset of those people would claim that it is important to their job. To actually make the language useful to one's job, that person would most likely have to find a job overseas in a country in which that language is spoken - but the returns from overseas jobs is usually far less than that of in English-speaking countries, such as the United States. As stated in the article, far more people strive to learn English than do they strive to learn other languages - they know the opportunities here are greater.

WillJ writes:

You (Bryan) are right that the number of people who get a high return out of foreign language requirements is low.

But is it low compared to the number of people who get a high return out of history requirements? English literature requirements? Art? Music? Heck, even with the most valuable-in-an-obvious-way subjects (math and science), do you think the percentage of people who get a high return is particularly high?

I'd wager that, no, the percentage of high school graduates who consider themselves huge beneficiaries of, say, high school chemistry requirements is roughly comparable to the numbers you cite for foreign language.

One response to this is to do away with these kinds of educational requirements in general and let older children and teenagers do whatever the hell they want with their time. Another response is to try to figure out ahead of time which students are the high-yield students ("tracking," as they call it), require a bunch of stuff out of them, to hell with the rest. Another is to demand requirements out of everyone, realizing that, yes, for most people the requirements will be pointless, but to the few who benefit, the benefits outweigh the costs to everyone.

I think all three of those philosophies have some merit to them. It varies a little from subject to subject. But I'd wager that foreign language requirements (even in America) are some of the MORE beneficial requirements. I think school should be more about the acquisition of skills than the accumulation of facts (although the latter is important too), and language acquisition is a skill. It's why I decided to fill out a bunch of my college electives with German language classes rather than, say, history. Language acquisition isn't a skill that everyone will find useful, but I imagine that in general it's at the more-useful end of the spectrum of things learned in school, not the less-useful end.

Mark Tier writes:

Quite agree.

Spent several years in school "learning" French--which turned out to be quite useless in France! ('cept I could read the signs.)

I also learnt Mandarin--took a few years--and used it successfully for one whole week in China. (Did meet my now-ex-wife tho--and she didn't use it either).

Then went to Hong Kong where Mandarin was useless (that was 1977--be somewhat useful now).

My two daughters both speak Mandarin--and never use it. One of them speaks Cantonese which she did use while living in Hong Kong.

But the rest of us get around perfectly well with English, and a few words of Cantonese to tell the taxi driver where to go or ask "how much?"

The best way to learn a language is where it's spoken. And if you're living in a place like that, then you have a REASON to so do. Otherwise, it's a complete waste of time in terms of future use.

And how many people learn French or whatever the flavor-of-the-month is in the school system--and then go live in Japan or Brazil or somewhere else where French (or whatever) is useless?

Georgina B writes:

I am a French language teacher and have been speaking French all my life, thanks to my British mother. I have watched as students and schools have shifted their language focus to Spanish and Chinese - but am delighted that more languages enter the fold. This author is missing the point. Foreign Language, and that would include English which is foreign to some, is is not optional to communicate. I also teach soft skills, etiquette and other less important courses. Foreign languages are essential to understanding PEOPLE and CULTURES and GEOGRAPHY and putting context into HISTORY. I teach my course through a Humanties formula and my classes are always full. It's about the teacher, the method and COMMUNICATING. I speak two languages fluently, but i can say 10 words in 6 languages.....and am never afraid to meet people from other countries who speak differently from myself. Languages teach one tolerance and flexibility. Get it! Economically speaking, I don't think we have it in the US.

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