Art Carden  

Foreign Language Study: Should it Be Compulsory?

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A few weeks ago, I was in Stockholm, Sweden for a conference. My observations along the way brought to mind co-blogger Bryan Caplan's posts about foreign language requirements(1, 2, 3). Specifically, during my layover in Amsterdam, I noticed that some of the signs were in English with Dutch subtitles. Many announcements were in English. On the flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm, they gave the safety presentation in Dutch and...English, not Swedish. As an American who knows no Dutch and no Swedish, I had no problem communicating.

When Bryan wrote his first posts, I was surprised (and frustrated) at how frequently people misunderstood his argument. Bryan did not write that no one should study a foreign language or that your life won't be better if you know a foreign language. He made the argument that for most Americans, learning a second language brings relatively few benefits. Americans grow up knowing the international language of commerce--English--that allows us to communicate with most of the people we will encounter. If it doesn't allow us to communicate with them directly, it's likely that we're only one degree of separation from someone who can help us.

Yes, I think the world would be a better place if I could snap my fingers and make everyone multilingual. Indeed, I'll block quote myself to highlight this:

I really wish I knew more than one language.

The problem, as Bryan went to great lengths to point out in the posts linked above, is that learning a language requires a lot of time and energy. I still hope to learn at least conversational Spanish at some point, but first I'm not sure I'll succeed and second I plan to do it by finding a way to live in a Spanish-speaking country for a few months. Incidentally, that's something I have the luxury of being able to do as an academic; most Americans probably can't decamp to South or Central America for months on end.

I'm not the world traveler I want to be (yet), but I've been to a few European cities, Brazil twice, IKEA, Belize, Guatemala, and tourist destinations in Mexico a few times. I even lost my passport in Italy a few years ago (not an experience I care to repeat). Given that the majority of Americans still don't have passports--even though this is changing--I suspect I'm better traveled than many other Americans. Being monolingual hasn't really hindered me. How likely is it that a student in a high school language classroom will find himself or herself in a situation in which being monolingual is an insurmountable barrier to communication?

Naturally, I'd like to be able to read great novelists like Hugo and Tolstoy in their original languages. In making inventories of my life's goals, I wrote down that I want to someday be able to read the Bible in Spanish and the New Testament in the original Greek. I want my kids to grow up as global citizens, I would love for them to learn multiple languages, and over the years I plan to take advantage of the opportunities I have in academia to spend large chunks of time abroad.

I whole-heartedly agree that the world would be a better place if more Americans knew more about other cultures and knew more languages. But I also think the world would be a much better place if more Americans knew more economics--or even just read for fun, which is something a lot of Americans apparently don't do. As Bryan points out, the average American doesn't pick the low-hanging cultural fruit at his disposal. Two years of required French courses probably won't have him reading Les Miserables in its original language.

At the end of the day, I think foreign languages should definitely be taught if they pass the market test. But should they be required or subsidized? I don't think so. The student who will really benefit from it will probably already decide to study it. At the margin, the student who has to be coerced or nudged probably won't get much out of it.

Coda: As people pointed out in their comments on Bryan's original posts, the argument generalizes and can also be levied against most study of math, literature, history, and (wait for it) economics. If the signaling model of schooling is mostly correct, though, subsidizing schooling subsidizes a socially unproductive arms race and the argument above shouldn't give us much cause for concern.

I also caution readers to avoid falling into the "if we don't make people do it, no one will do it" and "if the government doesn't do it, no one will" traps. I hope a few minutes with the resources being made available by the E.G. West Centre will convince you otherwise.


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CATEGORIES: Cost-benefit Analysis



COMMENTS (24 to date)
andy writes:

Compulsory foreign language study as it exists now in the form of years of forced congugation of verbs and memorization of grammar rules is useless. Not only does it not result in students who can speak a foreign language but actually results in students who don't want to learn a language. It would be better to emphasize conversation even with imperfect accent and grammar. Those with a true interest can get more in depth on grammar when they are ready.

dougb writes:
European cities, Brazil twice, IKEA, Belize..."
Is that a joke, or did you mean something else instead of IKEA?
Daublin writes:

I broadly agree, as well as with andy's comments. It's not worth years of study to learn something that you will just use as a parlor trick.

Americans know this intuitively. Language classes are a poor use of time in multiple ways:

1. As Art points out, an American abroad likely won't speak that language even if you go to the very country that the language originated.

2. An American studying at home often has trouble finding another person to practice with, so instead they sit in lectures and conjugate verbs.

That's the common case. Occasionally an American will have a real reason to learn a foreign language. In such a case, I suggest starting from there. If you want to be able to talk to your foreign relatives, then spend some time practicing with them even as a very beginner. If you want to read a Spanish Bible, then get a Spanish Bible and dive in.

It will go slow at first, but you will train yourself about what you need to learn. That same intuition that told you to stop wasting time in a boring class, will now be telling you that you really need to study the conjugations of to be.

Art Carden writes:

@dougb: Good eye. It's a joke; I can't find the tweet, but in January I tweeted "I've now been to two Scandinavian countries: Denmark and IKEA" after a visit to the IKEA in Atlanta.

Pemakin writes:
As an American who knows know Dutch and no Swedish, I had no problem communicating.

Are you sure your English is that great either.

Dave Schuler writes:

All told (K-12, college, grad school) I've had about 20 years of foreign language education, much of it compulsory. I've found it enriching and valuable but I think I may be the exception.

Most Americans can travel hundreds of miles in any direction without finding themselves in a place where English isn't spoken or understood. American companies that want speakers of languages other than English would rather hire native speakers of that language with poor English than native English speakers who are fluent in the language.

Look at the incentives. Americans just don't have incentives to learn languages other than English.

DougT writes:

I agree with Dave. I studied 5 years of German in high-school and almost tested out of my language requirement in college. In graduate school I learned Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew, and loved it. I immersed myself in French and Arabic in order to do business in North Africa. By age 30 I was well on my way to being fluent in four spoken languages and having a reading knowledge in three others.

Then reality kicked in.

I got ill, had to relocate to the US for health reasons, and had little reason to use my French, German, or Arabic. My career options narrowed and I no longer translated classical texts for fun. I'm now largely monolingual; I feel like Charlie in "Flowers for Algernon" at the end of the story, after he reverts to his pre-enhanced way of thinking.

But my career path has never been stronger. English is the "lingua franca" of the day; how many French diplomats in the early 19th century were fluent in Russian or English? Did they not let the world come to them?

Foreign language fluency is useful, but generally overrated. I can hire bi-lingual people and train them in my business so I can get things done. In a multi-cultural world that is coming to our doorstep, getting things done is more valuable than spending time noodling over verb-stems and tri-literal roots.

Art Carden writes:

Their, they're, @Pemakin. No knead to be Kurt.

Seriously, thanks for pointing out the typo. It's fixed now.

Ann writes:

I taught at a university in Hong Kong for six years. When I first moved there, I began studying Cantonese and Mandarin. When local Chinese learned what I was doing, every one of them looked at me with a puzzled expression and asked "why would you learn another language when you already know English?"

Besides English being the language of business, I knew faculty in the engineering department at the university in Hong Kong complaining that the students didn't appreciate that English was the language of engineering, and pilots complaining that some didn't appreciate that English was the language of aviation.

For decades, parents in Hong Kong have been demanding that their children learn English in schools, so that their children will have more opportunities.

BZ writes:

@Ann -- interesting perspective!

As a software developer, I can't even imagine someone trying to wade through the several common programming languages without English. And that doesn't even scratch all the online English development resources.

Back in the 70s, there were attempts to create human-language-neutral programming languages. APL comes to mind. However, they didn't catch on: a language that is meaningless to everyone just couldn't seem to beat a language meaningless merely to most.

Mark Brophy writes:

If you want to learn Spanish, don't go to a foreign country; you need a teacher who is fluent in both languages. Instead, go to Brownsville, Texas or Chula Vista, California. Also, don't read the Bible in Spanish; written Spanish is different from spoken Spanish and the Bible uses a different form of Spanish. Instead, translate a Cory Doctorow story from Spanish to English and compare it to a translation done by a native speaker.

The most common mistake I’ve seen with Spanish students is that they don’t make an effort at the beginning to learn how to make the sounds. The double “rr” is the only difficult sound, so you can create the illusion that you are nearly fluent in a week or two with minimal effort.

If you cast aside the myths to learning Spanish, you'll be more efficient.


Richard writes:

I would just like to second everything Carden and Caplan have said on the topic.

I would argue that their case is even stronger for the reason that it is easier to learn English. This is both due to the inherent structure/vocab of the language, and the fact that so much pop culture and written material is in English, that people are surrounded by it all the time. I can't name a single Swedish TV show, but I bet Swedes know quite a bit about American TV.

mike shupp writes:

1. I agree English is used around the world, but there have been "international" languages before, such as Greek and Latin and French, which everyone knew .... until suddenly everyone didn't. English could easily fall into that category, especially if projections of China's rise to power this century become true.

2. The debate about learning second languages in the US almost always assumes that foreign language instruction begins in high school or college. As everyone agrees, earlier learning is better -- in Germany children begin studying English in first grade and continue through high school. My impression is that wealthy people who send their children to private schools in America commonly expect their children to begin learning an additional language -- Chinese, normally -- at a young age. Consider this a suggestion: There's nothing in the US Constitution, the Bible, The Wealth of Nations, or any other sacred text that would prohibit American public schools from offering language instruction in elementary school. Just good old American stodginess.

Mark Bahner writes:

I don't know what the current status is, but I predict that within a decade, a cell phone will be able to perform real-time translations nearly flawlessly from virtually any language into virtually any other. Even 4 or 5 people will be able to have a conversation, with all of them speaking their native languages and hearing all the responses in their native language.

That will include holding a phone camera up to a sign in a any foreign language (including Chinese) and seeing the translation as though the sign was written in one's own language. (An improvement will probably be that the same thing will be available with Google glasses, so it won't be necessary to hold the phone up to see the sign.

A foreign language requirement will be obsolete within a decade, if it is not already.

jason braswell writes:

Whoa. Hey, I hope you're right, Mark, but I have to say that I'm very, very doubtful. Even with the benefit of the written word, Google translate is still total garbage.

I'd say in a decade that we will still have no automated translation software that could turn, say, an English issue of Time magazine into a Japanese issue that a normal Japanese adult would find intelligible.

MingoV writes:

More entries for "should it be compulsory?"

Music and music appreciation
Art techniques and appreciation
Logic and effective argument
Skepticism and critical thinking
Basic probability and statistics
Getting hired and staying employed
Personal finance and home economics
Home maintenance
Driver education
Basic computer programming
Human health
Personality types and interactions
Cursive writing
Keyboarding

Arguments can be made for each of these. So why to focus on foreign languages?

Essen writes:

In India, it is common to learn three languages: Hindi, English, and one's mother tongue. If Hindi happens to be your mother tongue, then 2 languages will do.
Is economics the only reason to learn languages? Why are some people desperately trying to keep alive languages which are on the verge of extinction?
Indeed, why are people working so hard on artificial languages like Ithkuil? I don't think it is only an academic or esoteric pursuit.
Coding languages like Haskell do not necessarily need an English construct and therefore it may not be correct to say that English rules the roost in all source code.

Hugh writes:

@MingoV

I would add Macroeconomics to your excellent list.

John F. Opie writes:

Goodness. Guess I'm the outlier. Born in the US, I started French in grade school, dropped it in high school by testing out, then resumed it in college, where after two years of French I decided to try my hand at German (okay, I had a reason: as a philosophy/psychology major, too much of interest was only in German or French). I then went to Germany for graduate studies and did my Latin and Greek (it weeds out those unwilling to apply themselves). Was ABD and ended up not doing the PhD for reasons too long to get into here, came back to the US with a MA in philosophy, economics and politics.

Having the languages was a significant benefit in the commercial world, where I work as an economist. I can pick up the phone and talk with clients in French and German, as well as English, and that got me my job (above and beyond the usuall economic skills: the competition just had English). I went back to Germany after a few years in the US to be with my wife and there, of course, my English skills helped pave the way, but I would not have gotten where I am today without having fluent German.

My younger daughter did a year as an exchange student in Japan, where she added Japanese to her English and German language skills, as well as having Latin in school. She is a sophmore studying business (international management and supply chain management, dual major) and she's already been talking to major companies about what she's going to be doing after graduation (and she is not going to an Ivy League school), based on those languages and her grades (A average).

It's not that studying languages will get you some of the real neat jobs out there, but rather that it moves you into another league, where you are the one to transcend, as it were, the gap between languages. While many have learned English in the business world overseas, few master it, and are invariably very happy to be able to converse in their native language.

Like I said, outlier. But if you aim at any sort of international career that might lead you overseas - and being an international economist without actually getting out into the real world and seeing how things work outside of academia is unsatisfying at the least - then it helps you get ahead. Back in the day when investment banking actually did what it was supposed to (get companies and money together), someone who spoke English, German and Japanese with a mediocre business degree could get a much higher salary than someone who has a great business degree but could only speak English. There are too many nuances that simply get lost even amongst the best translators.

Pavel writes:

I was born in Russia and moved to Sweden when I was 15 18 years ago. I started learning English around 9. Learning a foreign language at a younger age made learning Swedish easier. Part of the advantage came from Swedish and English being fairly similar and part came from English being the lingua franca, but a lot came from actual experience of learning a foreign language. I also talked to a bunch of people learning Swedish as adults (all of them late 20s- early 30s and a STEM degree) and people with random mother tongue + passable English seems to have an easier time then people with just English.
So my conclusion is: if you'll actually need a new language in the future, learning a random language early is a good idea.

Rochelle writes:

Yes, English will get you far enough, but second language skills get you a lot farther, especially if people don't expect it. Being American, people don't really expect it. I always get through German customs easily since I speak German fluently and since they don't seem to expect it, they're really nice and friendly to me :)
However, I don't see the point in making foreign language study mandatory. Unless you're interested in it, it will just be another waste of your time.
The easiest way to learn a second language is to simply be raised with it. My husband says he's horrible with languages and he speaks 3 fluently with good working knowledge of at least 3 others. Because he was raised with them. We've decided to take refusal out of the equation with our children and just raise them trilingually--they won't have a choice when it comes to speaking other languages while they're young. If they're interested in languages, they'll easily be able to build on their base. If they're not, they can always drop one of the 'extra' languages.

Mark Bahner writes:

Hi Jason,

You write:

I'd say in a decade that we will still have no automated translation software that could turn, say, an English issue of Time magazine into a Japanese issue that a normal Japanese adult would find intelligible.

Like I wrote, it's way outside my field. I'm mainly going by what I do know, which is that a 1 teraflop computer (about the capability of a human brain) is currently about $1 million, and that if the trend of the last 40+ years continues, it will be $1000 in a decade, and $1 two decades.

MIT Technology Review recently wrote this:

"In October, Microsoft chief research officer Rick Rashid wowed attendees at a lecture in China with a demonstration of speech software that transcribed his spoken words into English text with an error rate of 7 percent, translated them into Chinese-language text, and then simulated his own voice uttering them in Mandarin."

"Deep Learning"

Another thing to keep in mind is that the phone itself does not need to be exceptionally powerful, if it can communicate with servers that are exceptionally powerful at a very fast rate.

So let's say that, instead of an absolutely instantaneous translation, there was a delay of one or two seconds between when the speaker finished his sentence and the listener heard the start of the translated sentence. If the translation was decent, it would still basically eliminate the need to know another language.

Art Carden writes:

@MingoV: great list. Indeed, I think the thrust of Bryan's education project would include most of those. In the case of foreign languages, I wrote on this because...

1. Bryan has written several posts on it
2. A lot of people were outraged by his claim that foreign language requirements were a waste of time and money
3. I was just in Sweden.

Adam writes:

@Richard: The idea that English is inherently easy because of its structure and vocabulary can only be said by someone who has never had to study English as a foreign language, or maybe by someone whose native language is closely related to English, such as Swedish or German.

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