The benefits of learning a second language

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.


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