Bryan Caplan  

The Double Whammy of Uselessness

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While promoting my new book, I've repeatedly argued that foreign language requirements in U.S. schools are absurd and should be abolished.  For two distinct reasons.

Reason #1: Americans almost never use their knowledge of foreign languages (unless they speak it in the home).

Reason #2: Americans almost never learn to speak a foreign language very well in school, even though a two- or even three-year high school requirement is standard.

This double whammy is easily generalized.  If studying X for years yields minimal knowledge, and you wouldn't use X even if you knew it, you could defend X as an elective.  But how could anyone defend X as a requirement? 

Yet plenty of people I've met can and do stand by such requirements.  Indeed, they think I'm the crazy one.

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Steve writes:

Agree in principal, but those distinct reasons also apply to probably about 80% of the US school curriculum.

Unless the idea is to leave almost everything elective, I don't think there's a reason to single out foreign language for this scrutiny.

Ryan Schmidgall writes:

I think a simple answer could be that parents want their kids to know a foreign language (signal?) and want a requirement for them to learn it so they don't have to coerce their kids into taking the classes.

jc writes:

What Steve said.


And wouldn't it be a better signal if it wasn't required? Less kids would have the signal my kid has. And my coercion appears nowhere on their CV. :)


Fwiw, students may learn more than they realize. Visit Latin America 20 years after having taken 2 years of Spanish, and you'll be shocked at how quickly it comes back, and quickly you can function on your own versus peers who didn't take it. How useful is this? Debatable.

And while I do know some extremely successful businesspeople who swear that they would not have been as successful w/o foreign language skills (e.g., they wouldn't have gotten the plum assignment in a Spanish speaking country that went on to define their career), I'm not sure how generalizable their paths are.

I also know people who say there are simply so many native speakers whose English is quite good that it doesn't make sense to hire someone simply because they took 2 years of French, etc. And I know plenty of folks who speak several languages but get assigned to territories where a completely different language is spoken...if you knew in advance where you'd get sent, you could specialize.


Having said all this, the business world is global today. Talk to people at the biggest companies in the world, and you'll find that they're constantly collaborating across borders to develop products, get them to market, and then into the hands of consumers. It's quite possible that taking general classes on cultural differences, with hands-on experience about how to effectively collaborate with peers or manage folks who have completely different sets of unstated assumptions and norms, and market to people who likewise possess a very different world view.

The cross-border literature on business activity is replete with examples of businesses who severely underestimated the difficulty and importance of this, e.g., Germans collaborating with Indian software engineers, the former blunt and with extremely strict timelines, the latter speaking indirectly in words that, to Germans, sometimes sound like they're simply being told what they want to hear. Or that passage from - was it Blink? - where Hierarchical cultural norms meant crashing the airplane full of passengers rather than risk offending either the Pilot or Air Traffic Control.

Along similar lines, a friend of mine taught military pilots from around the world. He said he hates his class. Because of the need to reconcile cultural differences that clash or, more frequently, cause miscommunication no matter how good the translator (e.g., hidden assumptions). In his last class, for example, 5 Arab pilots chose to simply quit and return home, rather than continue when the class voted a woman to be its class president.

So something like this - a program that, if I heard correctly, may be adapted to help NASA effectively collaborate w/ cross-border stakeholders to get to Mars (and then create a new Martian culture) - might be far more valuable than learning a foreign language: X-Culture.

Don writes:

I agree with your perspective. No surprise there, as we've had many conversations about related topics. But I'm not sure that your reasons are as distinct as you argue they are. Indeed, reason 1 may well be caused by reason 2.

ChacoKevy writes:

A couple of scattered thoughts:
1) I studied Spanish in college, but it wasn't until my Peace Corps stint that my fluency really took off. And even then, my fellow volunteers who joined me without a day of study beforehand became just as fluent as I became from the experience.

2) But today, the abstract thinking I developed to form ideas in a non-native language is much more relevant to the work I do today in my job in the parts that require coding (sql, vba, and M, mostly) than the calculus classes I had to take as part of the CS curriculum.

Both ideas above should be taken with a grain of salt because I 100% suffer from mood affiliation on the topic because I hated every last miserable second spent in the classroom.

robc writes:

They pushed Spanish hard when I was in high school (1980s), for the usefulness of it due to coming demographic changes.

I wish I had taken German. Or Latin.

ColoComment writes:

I had 4 years of HS Latin 50 years ago, and only when I took up genealogy in the last ~10 years & have had to decipher 1700s-1800s German church records has it come in handy. And boy, is it handy now.

I'd rather see a year-long dual HS requirement for 1 semester of very basic personal finance & investment, and 1 semester of very basic economics (with a plain-English, student-centric curriculum). I believe even that limited exposure to basic concepts would be of more use to our youth-soon-to-be-adults than a few semesters of a foreign language.

Gallego writes:

I know you mean well, but the aftermath of your suggestion will be that Americans become even more ignorant than today. Yes, it's gonna be cheaper, and that is the only benefit.

Why teach anything, then? Seriously! Learning has intended consequences - mastering of the learned material - as well as unintended. In case of learning languages you develop other cognitive skills that will be useful, even though you don't speak the language. Learning itself is beneficial. If you for example learn a poem by heart, you don't do it to know the poem, you do it to learn how to memorize things, any things, not just poems. And such metaskills come from every learning opportunity. You'll end up with useless morons, if you get rid of everything that is superficially unnecessary. If the economy of future requires workers to be able to adapt to new and unknown things, how are they going to do it, if your curriculum is devoid of anything, that could trigger their capability of coping with challenging tasks?! Only learning anything cognitively demanding can prepare them for it. And languages are particulary good because they are complex systems that only make sense if you know the details as well as how to put them together to form a sentence.

Greenwich Mean Time writes:

Many colleges require languages as a prerequisite as well, so high schools feel that they can't eliminate it as a requirement because then people would not take a language and then would be stuck when it came time to apply to college.

Of course, that just passes the puck on to the colleges...

Mark Bahner writes:
Fwiw, students may learn more than they realize. Visit Latin America 20 years after having taken 2 years of Spanish, and you'll be shocked at how quickly it comes back, and quickly you can function on your own versus peers who didn't take it. How useful is this? Debatable.

And visit Latin years from now...?...and your smartphone will be able to translate on-the-fly:

Google headphones provide real-time language translation

If any languages are required in high school, it should be programming languages (including such things as the Visual Basic in Excel, or Excel Macros).

I don't know the exact status of high schools these days, but my impression is that there is not much education on use of computer software, including all the MS Office software (or comparable open-source programs), Photoshop (or comparable), CorelDRAW (or comparable), MATLAB, etc. etc.

It's silly to teach the past, when students are going to be discharged into the rapidly changing future.

john hare writes:

A lot of the answer to this post would seem to depend on whether there is learning or attendance involved. Learning something by rote often seems counter to the ability to reason out problems to me, at least in the work force.

IVV writes:

I learned French in high school, did well with it, and then discovered that it's really unnecessary in daily life.

But really, the main reason is that I'm already fluent in English, which anyone who really wants to contribute economically must speak in. Heck, my wife is a German citizen, and she speaks far more English as well. Her German helps keep her rooted to her childhood, her family, her traditions. But honestly, that's it. She's even mentioned that she's far more comfortable talking English for business than German, because her business education was in English.

As for myself, I can speak enough German to get what I need and take care of myself in Germany, but that's about it. And if I'm honest with myself, I can do all that just fine in English as well. Because it's far more important to learn English if you don't speak it natively than it is to learn another language if you speak English natively.

I mean, how much foreign-language-for-English materials out there advertise on being able to handle business, take advantage of opportunities, earn more for yourself, and get you results, and how much advertise on flirting while on vacation?

Art Carden writes:

Indeed, Steve is right: we can apply much of this to the entire curriculum. I haven't studied this systematically but I generally assume students have 0 econ knowledge when they arrive in my principles class even though something called "econ" is a graduation requirement for a lot of schools.

Rob42 writes:

Because learning the basics of a foreign language helps you to improve your English skills? Who else understood English grammar rules a lot better after learning the basics of Latin, French, Spanish or German grammar?

William Kaplan writes:

You can still be the crazy one and right about this.

IVV writes:

Not me.

I learned English grammar rules well in grade school, and when I started learning French or German or Japanese (my high school was lucky in that aspect), I was better able to point out the differences from English, as opposed to being able to apply that knowledge to English.

...Of course, I also hated English classes as a kid, because we were literally being taught the same grammar rules again and again each year, just with bigger words.

Miguel Madeira writes:

If you learn many things that you have a small probability to use, you have an high probbility of using at least some thing that you had learn.

Max M writes:

Slightly more palatable idea: make it a "language requirement (axe the foreign).

In which case, a student could choose to learn:

- A programming language
- A foreign language
- A made up language (esperanto, toki pona, lojban, klignon)
- A dead language (latin, sanskrit, old english).

The teacher could become a facilitator of general language-learning rather than only teaching one type... if you're gonig to waste time, at least make it interesting.

Pierre Lemieux writes:

It seems to me that there are two major reasons to learn at least a second language. These reasons emphasize some points already made by other readers.

First, one cannot really understand the grammar or syntax of one's own language if one hasn't practically studied the grammar and syntax of another language by reading or writing it (or perhaps speaking it). Similarly, one cannot understand what translation involves if one is not fluent in at least one other language. Of course, Latin and classical Greek will do as well as, and perhaps better than, a modern language -- and this is one reason why they should be taught more.

Second, I think, one cannot understand a complex foreign culture (from literature to cooking books) without approaching it in its own language. Perhaps many even cannot get a good taste of their own culture without that perspective. A related reason is that it is difficult to grasp the diversity in the world (or in the history of the world) without being relatively fluent in at least one other language.

Joseph K writes:

I think two points that are important and haven't been mentioned:

(1) What should the language requirement be replaced with? I think your argument would be more effective if you provided something else much more useful that students could be learning instead.

(2) A lot of the problem is with how poorly language is taught. It's pretty much taught like every other subject, whereas a lot more progress could be made with a short burst of intense immersion. You completely immerse students in a language for a month or so, and most will be already be speaking at low-level fluency. Of course, that would mess with the whole school schedule and would just be too different from how other classes are taught, which is probably why it's almost never taught this way (though it's common knowledge that immersion is amazingly effective for language learning).

James writes:

Pierre Lemieux:

Some, maybe most, people would prefer not to have to learn a foreign language even if it meant missing out on the benefits you mention. Maybe they see saving hundreds of hours as a greater benefit than anything that might come from learning a foreign language.

Why should they be compelled to do something that makes them worse off in terms of their own objectives?

Gavin Sullivan writes:

The scam gets taken up a level when snobby suburbs dedicate whole schools to language-immersion education, which includes a disnified, antiseptic version of the target culture. Why did our suburb select Spanish as its idealized window out of our ostensibly xenophobic American rut? I asked the principal why Somali or Sinhalese got overlooked. That got decided before she was brought on board, she said. I look forward to hearing my boss say, 'We really need a fluent Spanish speaker in the office--surely we can find a graduate of the local Spanish immersion school, right?' Dream on!

Alan writes:

I especially think foreign language requirements are unnecessary in college, but I do think learning a second language has some significant benefits even if one never speaks it afterwards. It's about being able to approach the world from a different perspective.

But if we are going to push for learning a second or third language, it should be done starting in preschool, not high school. In most languages I can't even begin to learn the language because I cannot hear the differences between some of the phonemes, and that process of learning to recognize phonemes is something that happens almost exclusively in one's first few years of life. Waiting until one's teens to start learning another language is just insane.

TheButter writes:

Very surprising post coming from you Bryan! Isn't your entire theory that the value of education is not primarily function but signaling? Only the most elite students become even near fluent in a foreign language in the US, and this normally requires after hours study (signaling hard work) and also strongly signals conscientiousness (which employers value more than an "A" in history anyway right?). Can't personally think of a better and relatively low cost (given low functional value at high school and college) signal of quality out there...

Harry writes:

You are right that foriegn language in high school is money poorly spent. By then it is too late for all but the most serious.
However, the benefits of a truly Classical education (cognitive and cultural benefits)are/were well known. The study of Greek and Latin, grammar, logic and rhetoric (and the literature of those cultures)have sharpened all the great minds of the West. It places learning over knowledge, thinking above mere acheivement. There are many good books on the matter. A very serious one is "Climbing Parnassas." Of course, "The Closing of the American Mind", while not overtly demanding language, points out how modern education has failed in general.

Adam writes:

Applause, Bryan. The FL requirement crushes all curiosity. It assures students that schooling--college AND HS--is about requirements, not learning.

After BA, I did become quite fluent in Spanish and south of border for many years. But it still makes me sad to remember those 2 years Spanish FL. What a waste.

Let's get rid of HS and college FL requirements. If kids need more than TXT, the FL requirement should be English.

IVV writes:

Just to return to a point made by Pierre Lemieux: "First, one cannot really understand the grammar or syntax of one's own language if one hasn't practically studied the grammar and syntax of another language by reading or writing it (or perhaps speaking it)."

I honestly think this is false. I hear it all the time, that studying another language helps one understand one's own via the differences, but I can't help but believe this is misguided.

Would this be true for all languages? If you speak English natively, for example, will learning Japanese, with very different grammar rules, assist in understanding English better? Or is the learning stemming from a language that is grammatically similar, with only a few differences, so that specifics regarding case or syntax become emphasized?

And does that suggest that the best way to understand a grammar system comes from understanding other systems, or does it suggest that there are techniques to teaching grammar that are not being leveraged in one's native language, instead? Would adopting those approaches in native language instruction lead to greater native language fluency?

(For example, I was specifically taught le subjonctif in French, but I understood the concept in advance because I already was aware of the existence of the subjunctive in English. But that's because I noted the difference in usage and looked it up myself, not because it was taught. If it were taught specifically, more people would not turn to foreign languages to learn it.)

Jeff G. writes:

I think the best argument for keeping it as a requirement is that the process of learning a foreign language is different enough from other subjects that it helps to differentiate students. This is similar to the argument for requiring all students to take, say, math classes. Most people will never use their knowledge of algebra in their jobs and most certainly don't learn it well enough to get a job teaching algebra. Nonetheless we still require it because we think the mental skills it requires are different from the other subjects. And by requiring all students to take it we get a better signal of the students overall abilities.

If you wanted to argue against excluding subject X from the mandatory curriculum I think a stronger argument would be to say that performance on X is highly correlated to Y, so including both is redundant.

Kurt Schuler writes:

In American schools, foreign languages are generally begun too late and taught too poorly to students who are too little interested to achieve fluency. Machine translation is on track to enable people with no common language to communicate effectively.

Still, it seems you have not thought through the implications of what you propose. Apparently you think that foreign languages are a waste of time for almost all students in the United States and that at least below the university level, history is a waste of time for all students everywhere. Yet somehow your ideal of a cosmopolitan society where people are keenly aware of the horrors of communism is supposed to happen without the great mass of people having had any formal exposure to a foreign language or to history.

Markus writes:

I am a foreign-language-teacher. :)
German, that is. Mostly NOT in schools, as compulsory school teaching of foreign languages is either USELESS (in the US) or rather inefficient (in Germany, most kids really DO learn some English in school).
Some rough calculation:
In Germany to qualify for college, a kid learns English from 5th grade to 12th. PLUS at least one other langauge (usu. French; Latin, Russian, Spanish also "popular") for 6 years.
The 8 years of "learning" at our "grammar-school"/gymnasium comprise ca. 6900 lessons of 45 minutes. Around 15% of this is English. Say 1000 lessons. ONE-THOUSAND!
Result? In my case, meh, I would say "average"/ B1-level (CEFR): not that much, but I could communicate in broken English and read "Lord of the flies" (after I had read it in German first).
If you do a good, intensive language course, 15-30 lesson a week, you should be at that level after around 330-400 lessons.
Cost: the German state pays ca. 10.000 US-$ per school-student per year. (10-20% less on those schools attended by weaker learners from mostly poorer families - horray for "social justice").
Thus: My English-instruction at school costed over 11.000 $! (I checked prices of Goethe in Boston: till B1 in German it would take you 4293$. With classes half the size of what we had in school. I could have had some great time in Bristol or Malta with that money ... (My 2nd foreign-language in school was Latin, hundreds of lessons, 6000$ or so, A+, still can´t say anything, lol, the Tripple Whammy of Uselessness). Can´t say it was an enjoyable experience either. High school? Burn it. College: cool. In Germany even free. Even for non-EU-students! And in English! If interested: check


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