David R. Henderson  

Thoughts on Second Language

Price Discrimination Explains ... Competitive Government...

Like Bryan Caplan, I think that most investment in learning a second language is a waste. Yes, I've benefited, when traveling abroad, by knowing some French (learned from 8th grade through 12th grade plus first year of college, all in Canada) and a smattering of German. That's the benefit. It was small. The cost, however, was substantial.

When I was on KGO (a San Francisco radio station) a few years ago (circa 2006) to discuss that day's 400-point fall in the Dow-Jones Index, I pointed out that at the time it was about a 3% fall. Various financial pundits were saying that it was due to an even bigger fall in China's stock market. I didn't know enough to comment on that. At the end, one of two hosts asked me, "If you were giving a 12-year-old American kid advice on what languages to learn, what advice would you give?" I think he was expecting me to say "English and Chinese." I answered, "Two languages: English and math."

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CATEGORIES: Cost-benefit Analysis

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Chris writes:

I'm investing in language classes (Mandarin) for my very young son. I may be wasting my money, but a second language is one thing I'd like to "give" him early on, while it is easier and seems fun. I believe one of side benefits may prove to be that it actually helps him with math and other fields. Additionally, I travel internationally quite a bit, so I expect to provide more opportunities for him to practice his language skills as he grows older than the average family.


Or course, everyone who "sells" language has studies to point to that show all the benefits.

Personally, I would love to develop my German skills more, but I've realized the payoff just isn't there and I have too many competing interests for my time (like raising a son!).

Yancey Ward writes:

With the coming advances in computer language recognition, the economic value of learning a second language are going to fall even further.

"Siri, translate, please."

Ken B writes:

Frustrated with the lousy jobtheydidteaching me French in Canada (Like DRH) I learnt some German on my own. I don't see much practical benefit but as a hobby I enjoyed it. I can slowly read Maupassant in the original which is the reward.

I think itisdifferent with small kids, who do benefit from what I have seen, as they become fluent.

A man writes:

I'd teach them C# instead of math.

mbk writes:

"With the coming advances in computer language recognition, the economic value of learning a second language are going to fall even further."
If one drives that line of thought a little further one could conclude that it won't even pay to learn one's first language well. [/sarcasm off].

Seriously: most people who don't see the point in learning a second language have not learned a second language well. I also wouldn't see the point in learning French, say, just to buy chips at a corner store when on holidays. But if you do learn a second language well enough to become immersed in a second culture, you do learn something valuable, namely, the various reasons why people of different cultures don't think alike. Much of it has to do with language and most of the important points never survive translation.

ormatti writes:

Even as a former college Chinese language teacher I laughed at your math comment (in agreement). I agree with Ken B: if anyone wants to learn a foreign language, the time is when they're very young.

Katie writes:

When it comes down to it, very few skills are "required". There are ways to get around just about any deficit, up to and including learning it later in life. (Or hiring someone, or using a computer, or...)

So I suggest people do what appeals to them. I like languages. I took 3 different foreign languages in high school. Do I use them a lot? No. But it was good exercise for my brain and exposed me to all sorts of things, such as WWII history (I took Russian, German, and Japanese! :D). I spent a semester in Russia and learned countless things, from how incredibly cold -25 is, to architecture, to how to get invited to the Italian students' parties by making our own Kahlua from cheap vodka and instant coffee. (That's the Americans for ya, huh?)

For me, the best learning is following your interests and plenty of useful things fall out of it that you never could plan. A benefit to society is that instead of everyone knowing identical information (as common core standards would encourage) everyone has a different bunch of knowledge they bring to a job or a problem, leading to greater innovation.

Yeah, we homeschool the kids. ;)

Tom E. Snyder writes:

If you plan to work in the southwestern part of the US learning Spanish would be VERY helpful.

M.R. Orlowski writes:

Wow, I guess I have been wasting my time learning Mandarin. That's always disappointing to hear. Oh well...

Badger writes:

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JKB writes:

I read long ago a suggestion that we would speak to computers in Chinese. Something about tones. I believe technology has muted this.

However, if Firefly is any evidence, swearing in Chinese seems to be much more satisfying.

Mark Brophy writes:

Learning a second language before you know how you will use it is a waste, but learning Spanish is useful if you expect the governments of Europe and the USA to go bankrupt during the next 10 years and you expect a country where Spanish is spoken to offer more economic opportunity.

I learned French in school because it was a requirement to achive a credential, a high school diploma, a complete waste of time, but I learned Spanish later in life, initiated by my desire to learn, and I learned much more Spanish than French.

The Chinese teacher is wrong when he says that children learn languages faster than adults. An older adult will speak English much better than a child or a teenager, while in contrast, a teenager taking a math SAT will usually score better than an older adult, even though the teenager will score less than an older adult in the SAT verbal. The older adult already knows most of the vocabulary of Spanish because most of the words are the same as English. The older adult will likely recognize the word "infirmity" as a cognate while the child must learn the word anew.

The ears of a child are superior to an adult and hence will learn spoken Chinese faster than an adult. The child will also learn to hear the sounds of spoken Spanish faster than an adult but the adult will recognize more words and will more quickly understand the structure of the Spanish language faster than the child because most of the grammar rules are identical to English.

Learning a language is the hardest thing you will ever do and it is foolish to devalue your knowledge of English as a stepping stone to learning other Romance languages.

Ken writes:


Running regularly is a terrible investment. It takes hours each week and, since I've never found myself in a situation requiring me to run to save my life (say), there has been little to no payoff from all this investing.

Let me know when high schools make students run every day for an hour for two years, spending tens of thousands of dollars on running teachers, then get back to me. Otherwise, this is a nothing argument.

The point of Bryan's post is that the argument is this: school is something that tax payers should be forced to pay for. If so, then it's only reasonable to ask what you're getting for your tax dollars. This post shows that almost nothing is being gotten, yet tax payers are still forced to pay for it.

Get it?

n=1 writes:

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PrometheeFeu writes:

I learned English which allowed me to study in an American School, go to the US for college, marry, get a visa and I believe double my earning potential. (That's assuming I could have achieved similar professional goals in France which is highly unlikely) Learning English as a second language is possibly the best investment I made.

Rendra Delano writes:

I am Indonesian, English is my second language. Thus, if I didn't value in learning second language, it is simply impossible for me to comment on this article.

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