The benefits of learning a second language

by on August 15, 2012 at 3:26 am in Education, Philosophy, Uncategorized | Permalink

Bryan has had a few recent posts criticizing the notion of multilingualism for (most) Americans.  As a general advocate of learning foreign languages, I have a few points in response:

1. There is a sizable literature on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism.  I get nervous when I see the topic discussed without reference to the main claimed benefits.

2. I believe that good fluency in a second or third language significantly expands one’s ability to see and understand and also articulate other points of view.  And most of the very great thinkers of the past were fluent or semi-fluent in multiple languages.  By teaching other languages at an early age, we can make our most productive thinkers deeper and more productive.

3. Ideally foreign languages can be taught to individuals when they are young, well before high school, thus very much lowering the opportunity cost of such instruction.  Just toss out some of the other material, making sure to keep mathematics and English literacy.  Most of Western Europe does this quite well, and I hardly think of those children as miserable.  I don’t see why this has to cost anything at all.

4. I am reasonably sympathetic to the “we’re so uncommitted to this notion we’ll never see it through so let’s not bother trying” response to my attitude.  (In particular it is harder for Americans to get within-culture reinforcement for language learning in the way that Europeans so often do, either from American popular culture or from crossing a nearby border.)  Yet that’s a far cry from believing it would actually be a mistake to invest resources in that direction, if indeed we would see it through.

Here is one stimulating discussion of the topic, in English of course.

Andreas Moser August 15, 2012 at 5:23 am

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

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 6:28 am

But for an American, it’s also funny because none of the “main claimed benefits” cited apparently involve talking to other people.

If we had enough really good traslators specialized in the job, would I really have had to spend years learning something I never use even though I “learned” Mexican. I could have been taking more math.

affenkopf August 15, 2012 at 6:53 am

There might be enough good translators but there aren’t enough translations. There have been numerous times in my life when I read an author, loved his or her novel and found out that only one or two of many books he/she has written was translated into a language I can read (I’m only bilingual).

tt August 15, 2012 at 8:17 am

lesson 1: ‘Spanish’ language not ‘Mexican’

MD August 15, 2012 at 12:59 pm

+1 – I lol’d

Kitiem August 15, 2012 at 8:19 am

I think you mean Spanish. And a good translator can go for hundreds of dollars per hour. Learning the language yourself is saving you good money. How often do you really use math vs Spanish? I myself and bi-and-a-half-lingual.

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 8:34 am

(1) Joke (2) Maybe not a joke (3) Shorthand for the country is right next door as are some of the illegal immigrants and I’ve never needed the skill. (4) I guess I can feel good about the cognitive benefits!

Brian August 15, 2012 at 12:13 pm

Mexica isn’t a language with a large literature output that would require translation. It’s only spoken by 5 million or so people in the rural highlands of Mexico. And it’s usually called Nahuatl or Mexica or Aztec rather than Mexican, though all those names are considered correct.

Most everyone I’ve met who speaks it natively also speaks at least some Spanish. I have encountered public notices posted exclusively in Mexica in some rural towns technically inside the borders of Mexico City, so it’s common enough to be useful somewhere.

Anyway, the effort involved in learning an indigenous American language like Mexica and its very different grammar and speaking patterns probably expanded your imagination as much as a little more math. And you can enjoy understanding the origin of words like chocolate, chili, and tomato. Nano toka!

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 6:33 am

3. Note: math IS a foreign language. And there seems to be emerging evidence that learning numeracy young is very important. So, your low opportunity cost for the very early education may just be us doing it wrong.

Seth C August 15, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Math doesn’t use the same neural pathways and regions as language. It’s an old and tired metaphor.

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Hmmm, I’d bet it uses some of the same brain resources, but I have no idea. That is not what I’m talking about. The important thing is that it uses the same class time, study time and critical development period as what people suggest would be ideal for learning languages.

Miguel August 15, 2012 at 6:46 am

“If we had enough really good traslators specialized in the job, would I really have had to spend years learning something I never use even though I “learned” Mexican.”

This kind of sentence always shocks Europeans (I’m Spanish). I wonder what would we do if we didn’t learn English. For example, a Spanish mathematician wouldn’t be better off if he took more Math classes instead of English ones since most of the interesting math literature is English. He would be a worse mathematician.

Unfortunately, the Europeans also do things wrong when we want to learn another language.

Many people in Europe still think that the choice of learning another language is only an economic decision. Most parents who encourage their teenage children to learn English only do so because they are sure that their kids will have better working opportunities once they are adults. However, this kind of thinking doesn’t motivate children. Learning English ends up being a bother and many people try to do their best speaking English, but very few develop any kind of interest in English literature or Anglo-Saxon culture. The same happens with other languages. This kind of approach is a pity.

Why not learn another language for the sake of learning?

In the end, the pleasure of reading another language cannot replace the effortless work of reading a translation.

Andreas Moser August 15, 2012 at 6:58 am

I absolutely agree: learning a language is fun, it’s exciting, it’s like a constant holiday in a far-away land.

Rahul August 15, 2012 at 7:37 am

Learning a language is hard work. And practice, lots of practice.

JVA August 15, 2012 at 7:44 am

Isn’t it amazing that every human has learned at least one?

Edward Burke August 15, 2012 at 8:44 am

And often by age five . . . .

Dan Weber August 15, 2012 at 9:26 am

“Maybe I’ll take french, I said. How hard can it be? French babies learn it.”

Rahul August 15, 2012 at 7:35 am

a Spanish mathematician wouldn’t be better off if he took more Math classes instead of English ones since most of the interesting math literature is English.

That’s sort of the point though. A Spanish engineer who reads only Spanish material is decidedly worse informed than someone with access to English. That argument is not symmetric in today’s world; an engineer reading only English will not be missing out on as much.

Of course, this is a purely utilitarian argument. But I nevertheless feel it is an important one to understand why Americans don’t have a high enough reason to learn a foreign language but other nations do.

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 10:16 am

Actually, I’m fluent in neither Spanish nor math, which is the problem.

Tyler is arguing that people should Learn a language.

Bryan is arguing that people shouldn’t TAKE a language.

They can both be 100% right.

Sol August 15, 2012 at 3:43 pm

That’s exactly it. There may well be great cognitive benefits to being bilingual. As I understood it, Bryan’s point was that something like 98% of the people who study a language in school don’t learn it in any meaningful sense, so it’s really hard to argue there are significant cognitive benefits to encouraging / mandating everyone study a language in school.

Case in point: my two years of high school Spanish and two years of college German left me with about enough of each language to follow the “color non-English dialogue” thrown into English language spaghetti westerns and WWII flicks. I’d be shocked if that was the most efficient possible use of my class time…

ThomasH August 15, 2012 at 7:13 am

As Tyler mentioned, the comments so far have not addressed the cognitive benefits of learning a second language or more. We do not reason about it; English speakers just KNOW that people but not objects have gender. Yet speaking a language as similar to English as Spanish reminds a speaker there is a whole other universe in which tables are feminine. How can that not make one more open to other points of view?

Taeyoung August 15, 2012 at 8:32 am

“English speakers just KNOW that people but not objects have gender. Yet speaking a language as similar to English as Spanish reminds a speaker there is a whole other universe in which tables are feminine. How can that not make one more open to other points of view?”

Related point — would be lovely if more gender activists spoke Japanese and Korean. Because maybe then they would recognise the stupidity of the notions that

(1) eliminating gendered pronouns would reduce gender bias, and
(2) having women keep their father’s name after marriage affirms female equality.

You don’t see people trying to make these points so much nowadays, but you do still see it. And every time I hear someone make these kinds of wacky Whorfian claims, it makes me think they know nothing of the world outside our borders.

F. Lynx Pardinus August 15, 2012 at 9:38 am

“(2) having women keep their father’s name after marriage affirms female equality.”
I like the Portuguese (First Middle Mother Father) and Spanish (First Middle Father Mother) naming systems.

Dismalist August 15, 2012 at 7:21 am

I’d be happy if Americans actually learned some English.

Eric H August 15, 2012 at 8:01 am

All Americans, or just North Americans living south of Canada?

eddie August 15, 2012 at 12:24 pm

In English, “American” means “person from the United States of America”.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_for_United_States_citizens

Eric H August 15, 2012 at 10:29 pm

“…but there is some linguistic ambiguity over this due to the other senses of the word American, which can also refer to people from the Americas in general.”

Same article, past the first sentence.

eddie August 16, 2012 at 11:43 am

Your snark wasn’t relying on the fact that the term can in some cases be ambiguous. Dismalist’s use was in no way ambiguous, and the point you were trying to make was wrong.

Edward Burke August 15, 2012 at 9:06 am

In the US the performance of primary and secondary schools is so superlative that post-secondary institutions are required to operate remedial English (and math) programs: most systems of public education in the US are so poor at providing “the basics” it is pointless to think or hope they will be able to competently provide (second) language instruction . Most state systems seem to offer foreign language instruction only at the secondary level, so as not to “waste” time and resources instructing primary students who will go on to drop out or go into “vocational training”. Education in the US would be unrecognizably transformed were dual language instruction mandated throughout the primary grades, and without data to cite I would still guess that with such policy student proficiency in English would be similarly transformed.

Sergey Kurdakov August 15, 2012 at 7:24 am

I think adults could also learn foreign languages, while my english is far from perfect – it is how I got to speak it -
I took a dictionary of 3500 most common words, made cards and learnt as much words as I could per day.

Then I read some grammar and also a lot of online materials.

Of cause there are more online English materials than in any other language, so the choice what to read is great, but some other languages have at least comparable amount of thing to look at.

now I think due to availability of wiki dictionaries and similarities in frequencies of words for modern languages – it is possible to make a site with excerpts for 3500 words ( including audio – wiki dictionaries already have it ), links to card-words software ( now could be used on phones ) , a forum with links, and a learning community for languages could be started.

Newerspeak August 15, 2012 at 7:26 am

“Just toss out some of the other material…”

This is the real problem with public education: anyone with a signal to send has something to say about what we should do in Our Schools. Not knowing what works — or even just what’s being done — is no barrier.

But the truth is that we’ve already tossed out a lot of things to make room for art, music, gym, self-esteem, character-building, good citizenship, service projects, following directions, communicating with peers, understanding other cultures, being part of a group, resisting the temptation to smoke marijuana, developing critical thinking skills, being an informed consumer, dealing with emotions in constructive ways, understanding the benefits of personal hygiene, making good decisions, filling in bubble sheets, and getting back to basics.

Edward Burke August 15, 2012 at 9:14 am

More sound reasons for the outright abolition of public education in the US; or, as I’ve condensed my argument for bumpersticker display: “Promote Multi-culturalism: Abolish Public Education”.

ThomasH August 15, 2012 at 9:35 am

But learning a second language does not have to be “instead of.” Just teach half the material (anything except reading in English) in the second language from kindergarten, or even better, from pre-school on.

Emily August 15, 2012 at 2:41 pm

Where are you going to find the massive number of bilingual teachers required to pull that off?

salicorne August 15, 2012 at 3:06 pm

Mexico

Bender Bending Rodriguez August 16, 2012 at 5:55 am

I sent two of my kids to this school for ~ 3 years: http://www.isaz.org/

They’re holding their own in CE1/CE2 right now, with the oldest on track for being promoted to CM1 next year. Not bad when dear old dad knows about 5 words of French and mom isn’t much better.

Science Teacher August 15, 2012 at 7:36 am

Do mathematics and programming languages count as languages, for the purpose of being “multi-lingual”?

Wimivi August 15, 2012 at 9:42 am

According to mathematicians and programmers, yes. According to everyone else, not really.

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 1:55 pm

It is not whether they are a language, it is how they compete with what most people consider foreign languages. Even if it doesn’t compete with the same brain resources, it competes with class and study time. The issue is whether requiring a foreign language is worth the opportunity cost. The answer is probably “it depends.” It depends on how poorly the various options are taught, among other things. Does the kid like it? Are you in Europe where there is obvious utility or in the US where the benefits are mostly 2nd order? Etc.

ladderff August 15, 2012 at 7:38 am

Thanks. By now you know you have Bryan’s smarmy response to look forward to, replete with “I’d bet”s and “obviously only a benighted clod could disagree with me”s, but I’m sure you’re as used to it as the rest of us. Caplan also thinks people shouldn’t do real exercise, shouldn’t pay much attention to what they eat, shouldn’t climb mountains, shouldn’t learn basic math skills, and presumably shouldn’t learn things like piano (because, hey lots more people take lessons than even gain proficiency). Apparently I’m doing it all wrong! Thanks Bryan; you are truly an inspiring figure.

Rahul August 15, 2012 at 7:42 am

And most of the very great thinkers of the past were fluent or semi-fluent in multiple languages.

That’s an anachronistic argument though. The were multi-lingual because that had to be in their times! If you were a mathematician or a physicist around 1850 or even 1900 the amount of results being published in German and French were truly enormous.

Not so today. At least in the sciences I’d say an overwhelming majority of contemporary work is transacted in English. The relative academic benefit of learning a foreign language is lower.

Dan Weber August 15, 2012 at 9:32 am

Someone posted (I think here at MR, but I might be wrong) the report card of Alan Turing, and he was learning Latin and Greek — because that’s what educated people learned.

I have strong suspicions about foreign languages expanding one’s worldview, but looking to the past we might as well conclude that powdered wigs enhance one’s diction.

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 1:58 pm

We can’t expand someone’s worldview cheaper than 1000+ hours of (excruciating for some) instruction?

My wife still has nightmares about her language courses.

E. Barandiaran August 15, 2012 at 7:42 am

Tyler,
Regarding your claim about the cognitive benefits of bilingualism, the real issue for all parents is how to develop their children’s cognitive skills. New studies may have shown that bilingualism doesn’t have the negative effects that some people had claimed and they may even claim some net benefits. But as we learn in Econ 101, what’s the alternative to bilingualism as an instrument to develop cognitive skills? And since children spend time at home and time at school, the question arises about parents’ choice of a school that complements their own skills to develop their children’s cognitive skills. In other words, before discussing the benefits of a hammer to build a house, we should be discussing how best to build a house.

Let me challenge you to relate what I have just said to C. Crook’s new column on the U.S. election
http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-08-14/ryan-starts-a-great-debate-on-the-wrong-subject.html

dearieme August 15, 2012 at 7:46 am

I heard once about the graduates of a degree at Edinburgh in the late 50s. To be admitted, they’d all passed Latin and French exams. In their Finals (British sense, i.e. the Big Deal exams at the end of their course) they had to do a paper in German.

The course in question was Chemical Engineering.

Rahul August 15, 2012 at 8:05 am

At Wisconsin too till the 90′s all PhD Chemical Engineers had to pass a fairly rigorous foreign language technical-translation requirement.

Finch August 15, 2012 at 10:53 am

Germans and the German literature dominated chemistry through much of the last century. As more and more highly educated Germans speak and publish in English, this requirement has become less and less important. But I can’t think of another technical field in which language requirements were so important.

Eric H August 15, 2012 at 8:17 am

Whereas I think that the benefits to learning other Romance languages include greater English proficiency, it seems to me that a more significant benefit might come from learning a really different language like Chinese. I’m not sure how much of the Asian tendency to think holistically (vs. the Western tendency to categorize) depends on language, but it should be worth learning Mandarin for both that reason and the possibility that Chinese may eventually dominate the web as much as English does now. Plus, Captain Mal frequently curses in Chinese.

Ed August 15, 2012 at 9:54 am

The first part of this comment is infused with the Sapir-Whorf fallacy.

Future generations of Americans may well want to learn Chinese if China becomes top nation, but we have time to see if that winds up happening first. Its better to be a late adopter with these things.

Eric H August 15, 2012 at 10:36 pm

You mean the second part? The fallacy of the first part is covered below.

Matt August 15, 2012 at 10:51 am

I think it is safe to say that Chinese will never dominate. Without romanization it is certain, and even with romanization it offers nothing in particular over English, which practically every educated Chinese person tries to learn.

AB August 15, 2012 at 11:16 am

Knowledge of “other” Romance languages will expand one’s English proficiency? English is not a Romance language, though it contains a considerable Latinate vocabulary which might be easier to acquire or analyze if one knows Latin or French.

Eric H August 15, 2012 at 10:33 pm

Fair enough.

Taeyoung August 15, 2012 at 8:21 am

“3. Ideally foreign languages can be taught to individuals when they are young, well before high school, thus very much lowering the opportunity cost of such instruction. Just toss out some of the other material, making sure to keep mathematics and English literacy. Most of Western Europe does this quite well, and I hardly think of those children as miserable. I don’t see why this has to cost anything at all.”

Practically speaking, where are the language teachers for these young children supposed to come from? In the US, we already have a situation in public schools where foreign language classes are taught by teachers who barely speak the language being taught.

Dan Weber August 15, 2012 at 9:39 am

That’s probably more of a problem of weird career requirements on teachers. The US could probably import thousands of fluent Spanish teachers overnight if it wanted them.

ThomasH August 15, 2012 at 9:46 am

We don’t need “language teachers.” We need people who can teach in a second language. Without requirements for having taken endless hours of “education” courses, finding enough such people should not be difficut.

Jim August 15, 2012 at 4:49 pm

This is the old native speaker as the best teacher fallacy. In fact native speakers are often so poor at expliining thier languages to students, since to them it is all just natural and obvious, that probably every language student has at least one horror story. In fact learning a language from a native speaker is a specialized skill among linguists.

And It’s not hard to see why: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Navajo_language. Imagine having to explain Navajo grammar to an Englsih speaker.

“….finding enough such people should not be difficut.”

Really? Have you ever tried to teach English to anyone? Can you explain to a Chinese speaker the very clear semantic difference between “I eat” and “I am eating”? Could expalin to a Korean speaker when to use the definite and indefinte articles, and when no to? (This seems to be especially confusing for those particular students, don’t know why.)

Alex August 15, 2012 at 9:31 am

I got more cognitive benefits out of 1 college calculus course and 1 college philosophy course than the 6 consecutive years of German that I took. I even did well in German, usually near the #1 spot in my class but it hasn’t helped me once. Unless I want to take the next 4-6 months and live in a country (Germany) where I can’t stand the people, German is a sunk cost with lower than expected benefits. If only I put the 6 years of German into more math and stat.

Finch August 15, 2012 at 10:57 am

I’ve got 10 years of French, which I have used exactly once in my adult life, helping a tourist order at a fast food joint.

Finch August 15, 2012 at 11:00 am

I’ve taken 10 years of French, and I’ve used it exactly once in my adult life, helping a tourist order at a fast food joint.

I would trade those years for more math in a heartbeat. Or even for a shorter school day.

robert August 15, 2012 at 9:32 am

As someone who is teaching himself Russian, I can say that is a native U.S. citizen whose first language is English. A second language is a luxury good. Because they were required, I studied languages throughout my years of schooling, and it was mostly a waste of time.

The biggest benefit I’ve found to learning another language has been to create a connection to someon from another country. Like most Americans, I’ve not had the resources to travel the world, so no help there. When I lived in Miami there was no point in learning Spanish for work since if the companies could easily find people with more proficiency than myself. Also, since English is the default international language, there is less utility for me to learn other languages compared to someone learning my language. What language should I learn?

Now, if the the education system could improve the way they teach languages maybe it could be beneficial. For example, I studied German at university, and my professor with a Doctorate from Yale was horrible, and I did not get anything from the class while a guy from Croatia was terrific. Pimslear is terrific. University courses are terrible. There is too much focus on grammer and not enough focus on actually saying something. There is not enough focus on teaching people how to memorize words, which is one of the most important skills to have to learn a language. The new technology will help with languages, and if someone could develop something like the old Sesame Street for languages that would be wonderful as well. The new Sesame Street is more focused on celebrities as opposed to learning. They are trying to teach my 2 year old daughter the word disduous?

Languages only help once you get to a certain level of competence, but that takes a lot of time. I learned more getting my Eagle Scout, which probably took as much time as the time I spent trying to learn different languages. It is about trade-offs.

GW August 15, 2012 at 10:56 am

Robert, with all respect, the text you entered above is an excellent bit of advertising for the utility of learning a foreign language. While a native English speaker would likely be able to mentally correct most of the errors in your text, it is no courtesy to your readers and puts the writer’s education in a questionable light. If you had had the experience of attaining fluency in a foreign language, one of the corollary benefits would certainly have been an improvement in your writing skills in English.

Eddie August 15, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Huh? His English above is excellent..

gab August 15, 2012 at 2:44 pm

“When I lived in Miami there was no point in learning Spanish for work since if the companies could easily find people with more proficiency than myself.”

Perhaps you should have spent your time learning English.

Cliff August 15, 2012 at 2:58 pm

Yeah, because you have never, NEVER accidentally inserted an extraneous word into a sentence

David C August 15, 2012 at 9:33 am

In a meeting with American coworkers, I heard a statement about a Swiss colleague: “We have to cut him a bit of slack, after all, English is his second language.”

I just about bust a gut laughing. Here are the languages the Swiss fellow knew, and the order in which he learned them:

1. Swiss German
2. High German (really a different language than Swiss, different grammar, different vocabulary)
3. French
4. Italian
5. English

And his English was very good, indeed. I don’t think he needed to be cut any slack.

Jim August 15, 2012 at 5:01 pm

“1. Swiss German
2. High German (really a different language than Swiss, different grammar, different vocabulary)
3. French
4. Italian
5. English”

Swiss and High German are indeed different langages. One is a form of Alemannic and one is more closely aligned with the Saxon of Dresden andthat region.

Those are all pretty closely related languages, and they all resemble each other in various ways. For instance the system of verb tenses in French and German have been converging for some time now. In fact English is probably the most divergent of the bunch, so it is not so strange to think he might have a little extra diffivculty with it.

And simply knowing a lot of langauges does not gurantee that a person issomehow going to have an easytime with one more. Someone who speaks Mandarin, Hakka, Shanghai and say Fuzhou is going to have a wider lingusitc spread than yoyur colleague, but might still have some difficulty with Englisih.

Alex Godofsky August 15, 2012 at 9:37 am

It’s funny how Tyler barely touches on Caplan’s core point, which is that we aren’t actually getting any bilingualism for all the effort we spend and therefore we should assume it would take many times as many resources committed to see any actual benefits.

Dan Weber August 15, 2012 at 9:43 am

That assumes that the point of learning French is to talk French. Tyler is arguing (maybe incorrectly, but still) that learning a foreign language is cognitively good for you even if you hardly use it.

(PS: I’ve found the best way to avoid the “you are posting too quickly” is to take a deep breath before hitting Submit.)

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 2:01 pm

The purpose of language instruction is “you have to fill their day with something.”

The Other Jim August 15, 2012 at 9:50 am

>”I believe that good fluency in a second or third language significantly expands one’s ability to see and understand and also articulate other points of view. ”

Well, that certainly supports the other data showing that George W. Bush is an enlightened, compassionate man of the world, while Obama is a bumbling yee-hah cowboy fool. So you may be onto something.

But I still suspect that the only non-practical benefit of learning a second language is that you get to brag about it, and claim superiority over others, primarily Americans.

If you were raised to worship Europeans (Hey, 17 years without a genocide!!) this will certainly appeal to you.

Wimivo August 15, 2012 at 9:52 am

One of the problems with the claimed benefits of bilingualism is that most of the studies have been performed on children. Yet, as Steven Pinker is so giddy to point out, these types of cognitive benefits tend to vanish by adolescence. So it’s still reasonable to question where there are any long term cognitive benefits.

That being said, I don’t really regret having had foreign language requirements thrust at me as an undergrad. (You want a practical use of a foreign language in the US? The ladies loooove French.)

byomtov August 15, 2012 at 9:59 am

Caplan is basically saying that since Americans are insular they should stay that way.

Ed August 15, 2012 at 10:05 am

As a sort of compromise, why not teach Latin in primary school? You get the cognitive benefits of learning another language. But Latin is a big help in learning several other languages later, and to a lesser extent also improves proficiency at English. And students will get more exposure to classical history than they would otherwise.

There is sort of an opportunity problem with trying to teach modern languages in schools, in that the value of a modern language is heavily dependent on whether you are actually going be spending extended periods of time later in life with the people who speak that language. If you guess wrong on this, that means lots of effort for little benefit. Ancient languages are at least roots of several modern languages, so while its an indirect approach, it makes sense to learn an ancient language early and then use it to increase proficiency at whatever modern language you turn out to need (French is a partial exception since so much English vocabulary comes from French, but first the root is medieval Norman French which is not what gets taught, and second the pronounciation is a barrier).

libert August 15, 2012 at 10:07 am

Tyler said “3. Ideally foreign languages can be taught to individuals when they are young, well before high school, thus very much lowering the opportunity cost of such instruction. Just toss out some of the other material, making sure to keep mathematics and English literacy. Most of Western Europe does this quite well, and I hardly think of those children as miserable. I don’t see why this has to cost anything at all.”

I get nervous when I see a topic discussed without reference to the main costs.

Andrew' August 15, 2012 at 2:05 pm

The Straussian reading has Tyler slighting languages at the same time he is savaging public schooling.

gwern August 15, 2012 at 10:24 am

> 1. There is a sizable literature on the cognitive benefits of bilingualism. I get nervous when I see the topic discussed without reference to the main claimed benefits.

Leaving aside the main point being people aren’t even getting bilingual in the first place… Those benefits are generally pretty trivial or vastly delayed in time – don’t look at p-value significance, look at effect sizes!

(What’s that, you say, papers rarely report effect sizes in a comprehensible way? I’m sure there’s no easy economic explanation for such a phenomenon.)

Dana August 15, 2012 at 10:31 am

Great post, Tyler. Of course, it’s difficult to show exactly what the returns are on the investment costs of learning a second language, no matter how low those costs may be. And since certain people in certain professions have convinced so many in our society that value is best (or only?) measured in dollars, it seems optimistic to think that this assessment would have much traction with readers here, no matter how totally obvious it is to anyone who has ever learned another language.

Bob from Ohio August 15, 2012 at 10:39 am

How many Romans learned a second language?

For most Americans, a second langauge is not needed. Hence, the reason few learn one.

Mike August 15, 2012 at 11:47 am

In ancient Rome, huge numbers of Romans spoke Greek. But Greek was sort of the English of its day (more people spoke Greek than Latin in the Roman Empire at its speak).

Go Kings, Go! August 15, 2012 at 10:47 am

De gustibus non est disputandum.

Matt August 15, 2012 at 10:59 am

I taught myself Italian as an adult. It’s hard, confusing, and full of boring repetitiveness. I understand why more people don’t want to do it. For most people, bilingualism has to serve some utilitarian function beyond an abstract “cognitive benefit”–they have to have people around to speak to (Italian fails very much at this). This would lead to Americans learning Spanish, as that is by far the most likely language they will ever have to speak other than English.

But then, I wonder how long it will be before the Mexican government is passing measures to protect Spanish as the language of Mexico.

Roy August 15, 2012 at 11:55 am

The Mexicans already have laws like this. Mexico has an a very strong xenophobic streak.

Ramon August 15, 2012 at 3:52 pm

The constitution of Mexico does not establish spanish or any language as the official language of Mexico. Yo find some reference in lower laws, as for example administrative laws that require documents in a foreign language be presented traslated to spanish.

As for the xenophobic streak, it is true that there are the usual anti-american lefties and some nationalistic or chouvinistic people mostly in academic circles.

Right now, Mexico is less anti-american than most countries. People don´t react to the discourse very coommon in newspapers and magazines of the 70s and 80s of blaming americans for everything. Even the same demagoges, some of whom are alive today, don´t find it profitable to play that card.

Seth C August 15, 2012 at 12:06 pm

One point rarely brought up, but immediately compelling from my point of view: Half of the people who don’t speak English are women, some of whom find an American accent appealing.

Dana August 15, 2012 at 12:45 pm

+1000 to Seth.

Yossarian August 15, 2012 at 12:49 pm

My kids will certainly be learning a second language: C++ (?) or similar computer language that both trains them to think logically and is practical. Something like Spanish might also be useful. Something like French or German seems like it will be as useful as Latin in 30yrs (not very).

Claudia August 15, 2012 at 12:56 pm

On the benefits of language study, I especially liked Arthur Goldhammer’s section in the New Yorker article (the link at the bottom of the post). He argues that learning a foreign language supports us “…working hard to see ourselves as others see us.” I almost never use my second language at work, but it’s been useful to understand how differently people often approach the same problem. Cultural differences crop up a lot, but cross country comparisons are particularly stark and thus a good way to learn the lesson. Goldhammer does concede that learning a language isn’t the only way to achieve this outcome of self awareness, so maybe there is a more cost effective way. The idea that foreign language studies have no net benefit if you don’t use the foreign language as an adult strikes me as far too narrow a definition.

To take on Caplan’s closing argument (in the first link), I would argue that the foreign language instruction probably does open up people’s minds. Does the typical high school French student end up being a passport-carrying, cosmopolitan worker? No, but they understand that there’s another country out there where they speak different and dress different. Subtle effects probably, but there’s not much else to tell those students they aren’t the center of the universe.

R.Mutt August 15, 2012 at 1:21 pm

I find (1) to be a little confusing, or confused, or both. Bilingualism is not at all the same thing as learning a second language, even at an early age.

freethinker August 15, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Anyone who was schooled in India will agree with Tyler that it is easy to teach more than one language at an early age. Many of us in India learn at least 3 languages unto the 10th grade ( the official language of the state where one is residing, Hindi, and English, which are the 2 official languages of the country.) I have friends who are fluent in 4 languages: the 3 they were taught in school plus their mother-tongue. And the noted classical music singers in southern India perform fluently in 5 or more languages.
However I wonder about Tyler’s argument that ” a second or third language significantly expands one’s ability to see and understand and also articulate other points of view”. We don’t see that happening in India. If anything, this adds substantially to the burden of our school students since the math and science requirements can be quite strong. The only skill we cultivate is quoting proverbs in different languages so we have an apt one for any occasion!

Rahul August 16, 2012 at 9:13 am

I wonder if a set of Indian languages are more synergistic to learn versus, say, something from the family { English, French, German, Spanish } etc.

I myself speak 3 Indian languages fluently but am not sure how well the acquisition experience extends to Western languages (especially the lack of immersion). By Grade 12 I’d already had 3 Indian languages English and German; catching us young helped I guess.

Misplaced regional linguistic patriotism (Indian states were carved on a linguistic basis) has had unintended benefits in the Indian educational context.

JonF August 16, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Are your Indian languages from the same family? (Indo-Aryan or Dravidian). I believe that it’s generally easy to learn a language closely related to one already known. I can more or less read Portuguese, Italian and Catalan based on already knowing Spanish and French.

Rahul August 17, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Same family: all Indo-Aryan.

But is the relative similarity between, say, {English, German, Dutch} more or less than say, {Hindi, Marathi, Konkani}

IVV August 15, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Has anyone performed a study of the total economic activity conducted in a language over time? Kind of like a “gross linguistic product”?

Floccina August 15, 2012 at 4:06 pm

Wasn’t Bryan talking about high school foreign language requirement which cause very few people to learn a foreign language?

Vernunft August 15, 2012 at 4:12 pm

Europe has tracking. We flee from it. If certain demos lack the IQ to do it. we won’t.

Come on, how am I smarter than you?

axa August 15, 2012 at 6:32 pm

lots of people is upset about the 1-99% issue.

bryan caplan just tells you don’t need to learn something new, stay there on the 99%, be happy there.

dieter August 15, 2012 at 7:19 pm

3. Ideally foreign languages can be taught to individuals when they are young, well before high school, thus very much lowering the opportunity cost of such instruction.

This is both incorrect and an excuse. Adults are more efficient at acquiring foreign languages if they are dedicated. I know this from experience. But most adults don’t care and neither do children. Kids notice that adults don’t care about and don’t need foreign languages, so why should they be interested?

Kids retain next no nothing from foreing language instruction, just like they don’t retain much of chemistry, history or any other subject they don’t really care about. English instruction in most european countries is intense and a major component in school, yet despite this emphasis only few Europeans are capable of understanding, let alone engaging in basic everyday conversation or with written material. It’s good enough for basic economic transactions, travel and so forth, but not much more.

Language learning is a personal hobby of mine, but I don’t seek to convert anybody. The idea that everybody should speak foreign languages sounds good on paper, just like countless other ideas about knowledge and skills everybody should have, from playing musical instruments to economics to appreciation of high culture, history, workmanship and a thousand other subjects. But the day has only 24 hours and you can’t do everything.

freethinker August 16, 2012 at 7:38 am

Does Tyler’s statement that “most of the very great thinkers of the past were fluent or semi-fluent in multiple languages” apply to the “great thinkers of the past ” among economists ? Deirdre McCloskey refers to the fact that Edgeworth, Keynes and Gerschenkron were fluent in more than one language. Was this is the case with the other outstanding economists?

Owen R August 17, 2012 at 3:47 am

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