What is the value of studying a foreign language in high school?

Bryan Caplan writes:

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?

My view is this:

1. Learning at least one language is of high value for America’s elite.  It helps them see different points of view, and prepares a small number for careers in the foreign service or in other international capacities.  It makes intellectuals deeper and improves their scholarship.  This is a sliver of the population, but the global rate of return to having it is very high.  And I suspect a significant portion of this population received its first exposure to a foreign language in high school (or even junior high), which in turn may have helped them do “study abroad.”

2. If we could target foreign language acquisition to this future elite, I would gladly let the vast majority of the student population off the hook.  One move toward this end would be to use foreign language “tiebreakers” for those wishing to finish in the top quarter of their high school class.  I would like to see a study of whether this would produce sufficiently accurate targeting.

3. Here is an estimate that knowing a foreign language brings a wage premium of about 2%; I have not read the paper, but I do not wish to overclaim on the causality front.  It still is measuring something about quality.

4. Many European countries teach their citizens English (above all), French, and German with reasonable success and high returns, especially for English.  So it is possible to succeed with this endeavor within a public education system.

5. As English is the closest we have to a global language, the imperative for Americans to learn another language is surely smaller than for say Danes to learn English.

6. I do not think opportunity costs during high school are especially high.

7. Overall, not only is education signaling, but an educational system itself is part aspirational and is also a signal.  I see high returns to America having relatively cosmopolitan aspirations, and signaling that it does not take its dominant status, linguistic and otherwise, for granted.  I do not mind commandeering language education toward this end.  Let’s send the right signal rather than acquiescing in a civilizational retrogression.

8. My casual impression is that elite private high schools usually take foreign language training pretty seriously.

So I do not see big gains by eliminating foreign language requirements in American high schools, though I would consider moves toward more effective targeting.  Most of all, I’d like to see the whole thing followed up more with additional study abroad programs at the later undergraduate level.

Addendum: Disagreement aside, I am so pleased that this year the two big exciting economics books so far are by Bryan and Robin Hanson.  Do buy and read both!  As for Bryan, maybe some of you are thinking you just can’t accept his argument about education being so wasteful.  But I’ll say this: Bryan always defends his “absurd” views much better than you think he is going to be able to.  Trinity College just announced it will be charging $71,660 next year — do you really think the value-added in terms of learning has gone up so much?


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