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?


Not mentioned: AI will drastically reduce the utility of foreign language knowledge within 5-10 years.

Machine translation and voice recognition technologies are getting very good very quickly, and the first devices that do live voice translation already exist. I would be shocked if technological aids for interacting across language barriers were not ubiquitous by the time today's children are adults.

Will it? The internet was supposed to introduce telecommuting and nobody would ever have to actually physically go to work and stuff. But we still have people going to work, meetings, conferences, etc.

The internet did introduce tons of telecommuting. I'm working from home right now (well, after I finish this comment), enabled by the internet. Working at home for at least part of one's time is extremely common. And there are many people who work remotely most or all the time (admittedly still a small percentage of the workforce).

The change has not been as rapid as some predicted, because there is still value in face-to-face interaction, as well as a lot of corporate inertia (office buildings that still exist, old guard bosses that want to work in traditional ways, etc.) slowing things down. But it's definitely a change that is happening, and is likely to continue to progress.

I expect the transition with translation software to be faster, though, because there is an urgent problem that needs solving. Millions of interactions occur per day where people can't communicate with each other due to not sharing a common language. I don't see any real barriers to adopting a technology to better facilitate communication.

I agree working at home is more common now, but a lot of it is in addition to normal working hours at work. I.e. people get work related emails at home after work and then do stuff on their computer.

For some people it is in addition to working at work, but for others it is legitimately replacing time spent in the office.

Bill Gates said "We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten."

"The internet was supposed to introduce telecommuting and nobody would ever have to actually physically go to work and stuff. "

I work from my office. But much of that time, I'm remotely accessing a customer's system. Thus saving an immense amount of time and money on travel time and costs.

I just started a new job as a mgr in Silicon Valley. I have six direct reports, 3 in a Chicago office, one wfh in Kentucky, and 2 ostensibly in my office in SV, but of the two in my office one wfh 4 or 5(!) days per week and the other 2-3! Most of the time I am alone except for colleagues in other departments. The world has changed.

Pocket calculators are from th 1970s. An smartphone today can connect to wolfram alpha and do complicate symbolic operations on the cloud. Why bother teaching Math?

This kind of technology seems to help individuals who understand what the machine does.

When I had calculus in high school, a large percentage of our time was spent learning various methods to solve integrals by hand. I don't think it was time well spent, in a world where technology to solve integrals by machine exists. The methods for hand calculation were complicated, not used after the class was finished, and contributed to the inaccessibility of calculus as a subject.

I do think there is a strong case that basic arithmetic is a foundational skill that informs our ability in a number of areas, but should kids be learning how to calculate square roots by hand, or spending a lot of time on long division problems? I'm not convinced.

If the existence of wolfram alpha and pocket calculators doesn't change the way we are teaching math, we are doing something wrong.

It has changed.

At home, I keep on vitrine my father's slide rule, logarithm tables and a nice pocket book with unit conversions and common equations solved. I learned to use every one of these objects by nerdiness, not by high-school requirements.

And that's great. But meanwhile, millions of kids are still being forced to learn cursive for some reason.

"And that’s great. But meanwhile, millions of kids are still being forced to learn cursive for some reason."

Not my friends kids, which is a shame. Cursive is beautiful and a lost art. Are you an engineer Dan? I sense an overemphasis on the practical out of you. Life is more than just doing things the most efficient way we can.

Cursive may or may not be useful, but penmanship absolutely still is.

There will be devices that work well in a construction, farm, or noisy factory environments for people doing manual labor, ie moving around freely and actively?

Probably, yes.

However, my claim is that the requirement for learning other languages will drop dramatically, not be completely eliminated. And those aren't exactly the expected use cases of foreign language for American students.

Well, there was never much point in learning many languages on account of how a translator could be hired for peanuts in many places. But even if your translator was top notch, very cheap, and very hygienic, there was still always value to be had from learning the local lingo and that was learning how people think. Culture and language are inseparable. I'm not saying it's impossible to get a good understanding of a foreign culture without speaking the language, but that is a second best solution followed by people who are either really bad at learning languages or too shy to practice speaking with people.

If trading with other cultures is going to be important in the future then knowing other languages is important. Of course, this doesn't mean US high school language instruction makes sense and it doesn't mean AI won't be able to translate culture for us in the future.

The barrier for hiring even a cheap translater is still much higher than, say, being able to use an app on your phone.

Beyond that, I think you are basically making a case that a small subset of people should get a very deep knowledge of languages. I agree. However, I don't see a case that everyone should get a basic knowledge of foreign languages, because I expect AI to be able to match an eclipse that basic knowledge very quickly.

It's certainly helpful but not necessary to know other languages so much as needing to know the lingua franca. Thanks to the British Empire, the global lingua franca is English. Maybe, decades from now, it will be Mandarin but I doubt it.

In 1997/1998, I studied Japanese intensely at Yokohama for a year and at the end the students gave a 15 to 20 minute talk. I chose to make an argument that due to exponentially increasing computer power, human translation of Japanese to English would end by 2015 apart from literary works and that it would no longer be that useful for non Japanese to even speak Japanese for jobs in Japan after 2018 to 2023 because machine interpretation like a Babelfish device would developed while a small but still significant pecentage of well educated Japanese would be much better at English by then.

The 2015 predicition has been off by 3 years and counting although full time J>E translators' real wages have fallen about 40% since 1998 for Westerners working in the US and Western Europe in part due to
Indian and Chinese translators working with much improved machine translation at 1/4 rates.

The 2018 to 2023 prediction may not reduce the usefulness at the high fluency level for non Japanese in Japan but in five years machine interpretation will likely change how non Japanese interact with non Japanese at the lower end. I assume the same will be true for Korean and Chinese.

That was a bold prediction to make back in the late 90s, when machine translation was in its infancy. The timescales may have been a bit optimistic, but I think you are largely going to be correct about developments.

Japanese English translation is a special case. The market was flooded by weebs.

I'm afraid you are right. In the future, AI will do all the thinking for humans. And, humans won't be able to know when AI is messing with them. I was recently hit with an ad for a comuter program that "corrects your grammar as you type". This already exists, of course, producing often ridiculous "corrections". The thing is that even currently most users wouldn't know if the "correction" is warranted or not. The scary thing is that most people are comfortable with turning over more and more thinking and decision-making to programs and their programmers, not as a convenience but as a substitute for learning. Caplan should soon also be arguing "why waste time in learning economics"? There will be a program for that!

The same argument could be made about many past innovations, such as calculators (and it was).

However, turning over tasks to computers enables humans to concentrate on other, higher-level tasks. Was the world really a better place when millions of person-hours had to be spent doing arithmetic? Will the world be worse off if millions of person-hours are freed from the task of translating between languages to focus on some other problem instead? I don't think so.

I expected that very response.

There is a difference between using automation to perform routine tasks and as a substitute for learning and thinking. Calculators can be a useful tool but, I submit, only to the extent that they do not inhibit human understanding of what they are doing. If you don't know what the program is doing or why, you can't check the results and your understanding is inhibited, not enhanced. We are at the stage where automation is a substitute for learning, thinking, and understanding, not merely an aid to enhance it.

Most people use programs now to prepare tax returns. That's a real time saver. But, how many of those users understand the alternative minimum tax, the foreign tax credit rules, etc., or the policies that are behind them without doing the actual calculations? My point is that there is a cost to turning over everything to Al. And that cost is getting higher and higher. We've already crossed that threshold from turning over merely routine tasks to "higher-level ones". I submit that language is one of those "higher-level tasks" because it is at the core of understanding and communicating everything.

I have this quaint idea that I want to retain some control over my own thoughts and destiny. Good luck with your "higher-level tasks", whatever they may be. More realistically, I'm afraid, for most people these developments will mean a reversion to much "lower-level tasks". For example, the commenter at Nr. 42 below will likely be smoking dope at the skatepark with all that extra time on his hands.

I work in a official two language environment and from my experience, I think AI will help mostly with translations of text and perhaps it will replace those translators at international events who sit in the booth and translate speeches. I think it will definitely do well for languages that share syntax and script, like European Languages.

A lot of language skills in international contexts tend to be from conversations and I wonder how long will it take for a)the quality of real-time language translation to be good enough to trust for say trade or business deals and b)it becomes widespread enough and normalized that a businessman or politican is annoyed by you using it.

Translating text is one thing-- translating speech is vastly more complex.

Item 1: Anyone who has an Amazon Echo knows that you have to speak very clearly and simply to Alexa, and she only responds to a limited set of commands. Vary your word order even slightly, or use synonyms or slang terms and you've left her utterly flummoxed.

Item 2: Closed caption representations of speech (when not dubbed before the fact) are often filled with unintentionally hilarious bloopers. A friend and I sat in a bar one evening watching the bar TV which had the volume off but the closed captioning on. We laughed ourselves hoarse at some of the nonsense that spewed across the bottom of the screen.

The echo actually has to understand your grammar and decipher what you mean when you give it a command. This is not required for translation using advanced AI, making it a simpler problem.

It already has. Google translate works well enough to exchange email with speakers of other languages and get the gist of foreign language news. But, I am skeptical of direct translation active voice conversations. I don't see that being very useful anytime soon at all.

We'll need to learn Mandarin to read the comments in the source code.

My own dumb story, despite knowing the signaling value of a completed undergraduate education credential:

I have two years of high school spanish and two semesters of college Latin under my belt. Unfortunately, the college of Letters and Science at UW Milwaukee requires four consecutive units of a single foreign language. An alternate to this is 2 and 3 units from two separate language programs.

I may never graduate college owing only to this foreign language requirement. A real shame, the time passed since I initially took my languages means I haven’t retained anything.

When I talked to a guidance counselor, they suggested I try three consecutive semesters of American Sign Language as this program is “where all the people who are bad at foreign language go”

Grew up in Europe. They started teaching us a foreign a language when I was in 2nd grade, not high school. I did not go to a private school (read: public school if in Britain). To wait until high school to be exposed to a foreign language seems bonkers.

According to John D'agata, only 5% of the world population speaks English. Learning a foreign language is a core tenet of the liberal arts degree. It has in common with math that it must be practiced routinely and cannot be put off until the last minute like history or English or decision science. Language is a core tenet of the plasticity of the brain. It causes more blood to flow than other subjects, therefore, it reduces the risk of cancer by 9%.

In other news, Robbie Collin is an idiot. Studying film should be abolished in college. I repeat, studying film should be required in college. Jonathon Franzen and Barack O'bama were right. Machuto Kanataki is an idiot. Stop firing at liberal arts and fire at liberal elites.

therefore, it reduces the risk of cancer by 9%.


It's early but I'm sure I have a winner in the most ridiculous statement of the day contest. Even if it happened to be true.

Oops, you accidentally responded to a gibberish comment.

Learning a foreign language is useful for the best students, but wouldn't a course or two in economics and international trade (which is far from universal) or world literature be better for most students?

The irony is a second language in high Scholl is for the college track to prepare for a 4 year degree with a language requirement, but it's the non-college trade, working class track in high school that needs the second language to prepare for the common labor market.

Those headed to the white collar profession in the US will be unlikely to spend time outside the US because businesses will hire immigrants, as Trump advocates.

The second language 90% of the time will be Spanish, but in some communities it will be an African or Asian language due to the refugees being sponsored by meat packers, or certain custom manufacturing plants, both types of jobs US born people hate doing, ending up as drug addicts.

Note, the people headed toward management should be required to learn Spanish so they understand the people they will be hiring. Technical people will be unlikely ever master the language of those immigrants taking over their jobs as well as their replacements know the technical English.

If US industrial policy returns to the high growth leadership of the 50s and 60s, the language situation would change as many US born people head overseas at some point, say as exchange students, Peace Corp, etc.

Learn German and get your master studies free of student fees. See DAAD Database for foreign students.

Many master programs in Germany are in English nowadays...

Not that many, actually.

I easily found online search sites that returned over 1000 master's programs in English in Germany. Including the link caused my comment to be blocked as spam, though.

And searching for 'master Deutschland' in google, I found a link saying that there are 9,000 master degree programs in Germany. https://www.studis-online.de/StudInfo/studienfach.php?abschluss=Master

Take your pick - 1,000 is a lot, or somewhere around 11% is not that many. Oddly, at least in Frankfurt, a German medical degree involves absolutely no English at all - according to a medical student I talked to a couple of years ago.

1000 is not a lot? LOL. Classic prior response.

The good ones are.

Maschinenbau is not really something done in English in Germany, definitely not around Karlsruhe - at least not for free. KIT has an English language mechanical engineering program, but it costs quite a bit.

And though an MD is not really a master's, at least one MD student I talked to said that English had precisely zero relevance to becoming a German doctor - it was a bit surprising, to be honest.

Relevance at med school, that is.

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

I think that's the important point. It's a sort of comparative advantage problem. What else could the kids be doing with that time?

One possibility is kids could just be having fun with this time. But in my experience foreign language classes in high school *were* fun...mainly just a bunch of projects and trips to mexican restaurants and such. They didn't involve a lot of hard homework and weren't stressful. Also, you got to pick which language you wanted, so at least the kids are in whatever language they think will either be most useful or have the easiest teachers. US education is already very laid back in much of the country...maybe not in Fairfax or Palo Alto but certainly in Alabama where I grew up.

Another possibility is the kids could be working instead of going to school those hours. But I dunno: I don't think teenagers are that productive. Also, letting teens work during what is now their school time seems like a recipe for needy parents to exploit their kids or for kids to buy drug money. I come from sort of a trash family, and that's what a lot of parents and kids in my family do already. I am glad we come up with things for kids to do until they age into being less insane and stupid...or at least less energetic.

The last possibility seems to be vo-tech. That could be good except I don't know if it's actually successful in the United States. It's hard to say because currently we only put bad kids and dumb kids in vo-tech. I hear a lot of comparisons to Germany or other countries with apprenticeships ("we should do what they do!"), but compare a US bus system to a German bus system.

I am gonna buy this book but I hope Caplan has some detailed theories about what the opportunity costs of all this time are.

Personally, I think "the opportunity costs are not that high" is a terrible argument. If we are going to mandate that people spend hundreds of millions of hours per year doing something, we ought to have a compelling reason that the activity is valuable, not just "they probably wouldn't be doing something better".

Clearly there's a greater need for more math classes than for foreign languages, if people don't have an intuitive sense of how much "millions of hours" adds up to.

Actually, I guess you were referring to the sum of time across all kids. Sorry.

No problem, I found this funny.

Agree. Jesus. First, I think the opportunity cost is actually really high. Everyone complains about how useless and whiny this generation is. Kids certainly don't need to increase the amount of time they spend doing basically nothing and socializing with their peers.

Maybe they could exercise, or appreciate nature instead of their smartphones. This seems like a good use of time since their generation is expected to grow up to be obese and stressed out living in some urban matchbox apartment.

And if "opportunity costs are low" is a good justification, well, millions of adults aren't doing much of anything either. May as well have them learn French in case one of them turns out to be a supergenius!

Funny thing is that Mulp's first paragraph above is right.
"The irony is a second language in high Scholl (sic) is for the college track to prepare for a 4 year degree with a language requirement, but it’s the non-college trade, working class track in high school that needs the second language to prepare for the common labor market."

The supergenius, or the 'elite', has no need to learn a second language.

You see no reason that learning a language is valuable? That's pretty sad. Isn't communicating with another part of the world something worthwhile? Which subjects are worthwhile to spend time on? Should we throw history out the door too? What use is that? Or physics and chemistry? What percentage of Americans make use of what they learned in their science classes? How about English literature?

Here I was responding specifically to the argument that kids might as well learn foreign languages because "the opportunity cost is not high". I think that is a terrible argument.

There is certainly value in "communicating with another part of the world" and value in learning a language in order to do that. I am skeptical of foreign language mandates in school, though, because I don't think they actually enable that much at all.

All of the subjects you mention are important. But if people are not actually learning the subjects, or not using them in a beneficial way in their lives, then we absolutely ought to revisit what is being taught in school. The mere fact that history or physics is important does not validate forcing kids to take classes in those subjects where they don't really learn the subjects and don't value or use what they do learn.

Except all this high school or college foreign language requirement doesn't result in many student at all being able to communicate with another part of the world, especially a few years after graduation.

If language proficiency was really the goal, they would do intensive immersion programs like the State Department and DOD use for those being deployed to embassies and such. Instead, foreign language is just another class where you get a bit of lecture and reading before moving on to the next subject the next hour and don't speak the language again until the next class. Those who develop a real interest excepted, but also they are isolated with few opportunities to use the language unless they live in an immigrant community.

That depends on what you mean by opportunity cost.

We could let them sleep an extra hour or go home an hour earlier.

Re. BC's two reasons.
And he considers himself being educated? Has he never read an article in, say, Italian aloud and enjoyed the sound. Or French. It is music. I never considered learning a foreign language a waste of time.


Instead of teaching languages in school you can work at it from the other end by importing native speakers of foreign languages and letting them figure out our krazy Inglish langwidge.

One of the most successful entrepreneurs I know is making sure his kids learn Mandarin. So did Mark Zuckerberg.

Should I believe they know what they are doing, or a university professor who is by his own Calhounian admission the “scion of tax consumers”?

well, are you learning Mandarin?

No, at the moment I am learning Hebrew, recreationally. I will make sure my daughter learns Mandarin when she is old enough, however.

Americans who are currently high-school age yet think they can coast along being monolingual because the world is an English-speaking oyster are in for a rude awakening.

Don't be surprised when Zuck's kids do basically nothing. Just like all the other famous peoples' kids you've never heard about.

Maybe emulate what George Bush Sr. did with George Bush Jr. Lots of sports and coccaine.

Opp cost is extra math hour, or supervised study hall / reading hour with supervisors informed about student homework schedules, or walking / jogging

Within a very new of the possibilities, perhaps. But personally, I think "supervised study hall" is not an opportunity cost of anything.

What about teaching everyone how to code, or at least how to touch type?

Not sure how that happened. It was supposed to be "Within a very narrow view of the possibilities..."

Absurd is that Caplan talks about U.S. schools when states have the constitutional right to decide on academic programs. What about South Texas and Spanish? Or Maine and French? There is people who takes an 8 hour flight to other country (the "elite") , and there is people who lives next to the other country.

And yet, there is practically no difference in education practice from Miami to Juno

I suspect in Juneau they practice spelling state capitals. Maybe not in Miami.

Regarding translation technologies making language learning obsolete, they may actually have the opposite effect. The technologies may discourage people around the world from learning English and other dominant languages, and thus preserve more languages around the world. With less language homogenization and more different language communities around the world, there'd be greater return to learning other languages, especially less common ones. If fewer people around the world have to learn English or another dominant language because of technology and they can rather stick to their native languages, then learning those native languages becomes more valuable.

There was something similar that happened with Chinese characters. In the 20th century, Chinese reformers seriously considered abolishing Chinese characters because they were regarded as too cumbersome for modern times. But paradoxically, computers have actually made Chinese characters easier to use as people just type in alphabetically and the characters pop up automatically on the screen. Computers basically made Chinese script reform obsolete.

Also, Caplan forgets about the US Army. Any veteran around here who can share the experience of needing/speaking foreign languages?

Yes, but what language? Do you know where you'll be deployed? Maybe learning a second language make learning another easier, but I'm not sure its worth it.

How many of the got Arabic or Farsi in high school? Or one of the dialects that are needed in Afghanistan or Iraq? Or Sudanese? Schools at the height of the Cold War did not teach Russian, they taught French, Spanish, maybe Latin. If you were in a real well funded school, maybe German, but not the languages of the former Yugoslavia or Vietnamese.

I think what Caplan is missing is that beyond the skills you acquire at school, schooling makes you smarter and teaches you self-discipline. Considering the type of skills needed in the job market, most teenagers would have a very low productivity.

(1) Actually I think opportunity costs in high school are the highest in life, maybe second only to college, or maybe working moms with children under 3 years old. Especially for the elite students Tyler references - my observation is that these kids have almost zero free time.
(2) It's so much easier for foreigners to learn English when so much of pop culture is English-oriented. The only vaguely similar situation in very limited parts of the US would be Spanish, and I bet the Spanish language instruction for English-as-first-language kids in Hispanic-rich areas is highly effective.

I think that if high schools just taught rhetoric, astronomy, and Latin it would be about as valuable as it is now, if not more so. You don't have to master any particular material; you have to do something hard, do it well, and learn how to learn.

It is very misleading to state, without more, that Trinity College "will be charging $71,660 next year". Who will be paying that amount and what percentage of the overall student population does that represent? According to the article itself, the purpose of the high "sticker price" is to allow Trinity to redistribute significant sums from the parents of wealthier students to the students with more modest means (and, of course, although not in the article, the college administrators). Per Kiplinger, the average need-based aid at Trinity College (presumably last year when the "cost" was $69,970) was $44,812 and the average non-need-based aid was $29,420 and the average debt at graduation was $29,506.


This unregulated scheme of redistribution, controlled mostly by un-elected and un-accountable college and university administrators, manages somehow to operate below the radar of even relatively sophisticated economic bloggers. Keep this in mind the next time the discussion comes up about the "progressivity", or lack thereof, of our (official) system of taxation. You should also keep this in mind when evaluating the overall cost of higher education. The media normally focuses only on the sticker price rather than the "average cost". Data for the latter are hard to come by and are mostly ignored in the policy discussions.

According to that website and the Trinity website, 45% of students get need-based aid, and only 6% of those who don't qualify for need-based get the non-need-based aid.

A quick calculation from these numbers suggests an average price of $58,300 that students were paying to the college last year--83% of the sticker price, with over half of students paying the full sticker price.

Your point is taken, and I would like to see more analysis of the real cost to students. However, I'm not sure it is so misleading to quote the sticker price to highlight the rising cost of college.

Can you show your work on the numbers, dan1111?

Whoops, I had a typo, and the average cost should have been $46,254 (or 66% of the listed tuition). Sorry about that.

I thought so. But, then again, I didn't rely on a calculator without thinking about the results and whether they made sense. Basic training in arithmetic was quite useful. Dan, does this (and your comment above at 43 regarding a similar lapse of technology, which you fortunately caught) tell you something about over-reliance on the sort of tools you want to turn yourself over to, as exhibited by your other numerous comments above? There seems to be a disturbing trend....

Or, are these not examples of "higher-level tasks"?

Heh, I suppose you have me here :)

I should have noticed that the result was not plausible.

Dan was using a calculator + Wolfram Alpha + Alexa + deep AI for this task so he could focus on higher level tasks but something went wrong ?

I was focusing on the higher level task of commenting on the internet, rather than doing my work. Sadly, no AI is doing my work for me, though.

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

How about just considering that modern day high school students have next to no unstructured free time. Many of people's fondest memories and most formative experiences are from their high school years. As often are lifelong friends, and even spouses.

The opportunity cost is a kid missing out on getting his first girlfriend, going on a road trip with his best friends, or smoking a joint at the skatepark on the first sunny afternoon of spring. Trust me, 99% of people, even 40 years later, would not trade those experiences to have learned the subtleties of the Spanish subjunctive tense.

It's not like we would cut the school day without the language classes. We'd just fill that hour with some other academic subject.
And if kids have too little free time these days, school itself is not the issue. Too many structured extra-curriculars is.

Most Americans can't even speak colonial english (the bill of rights) and you want them to learn spanish or french? good freakin luck

'not only is education signaling'

So, pretending to speak French is the same as speaking French? The idea that actually possessing a skill is only signalling might just be an explanation why some people believe that a lack of skills is unimportant.

Taking French classes in school is not the same as speaking French either. The fact that most students are not actually gaining competence in the languages was one of the main premises of the argument.

My father studied Spanish for a couple of years in high school and said he didn't have much to show for it. He later joined the Foreign Service and had language training at the FSI, first in Spanish, later in Portuguese (6 months intensive study). He went on to achieve near-native fluency in both. It could be that high school language teaching would have better results with different methods.

Given that university education is so much cheaper in many other countries (tuition free in Germany, for instance), I'd have thought competence in a well-chosen language could offer a more direct, immediate benefit than many of the other things taught in high school. It's not completely straightforward, because study at foreign universities doesn't qualify for Pell grants and usually doesn't qualify for federally financed student loans - but then we might ask, Why not? Most of these universities ARE eligible for study under the GI Bill; how hard could it be to extend that?

"Given that university education is so much cheaper in many other countries (tuition free in Germany, for instance)"

Somebody's paying for it.

The key point between a high school language class and the FSI course you talk about is immersion. No one will ever learn much of a foreign language without having to use it on a regular basis and that is what the Foreign Service, military and Peace Corp programs do. Interesting, in the Peace Corp language course they take a full day on profanity. Not that they expect you to learn to use it, but they want you to be able to recognize it when you hear it.

What if foreign languages were moved from high school to grade school? The human ability to learn a new language falls off sharply at puberty: I enjoyed learning Spanish in first and second grade, but then our school had a budget cutback so I didn't take Spanish again until 9th grade, when I was terrible at it.

Late in my sophomore year my dad and I went to Mexico on spring break. I could read a little Spanish and I could ask questions, but I couldn't understand the replies. Unfortunately, I couldn't remember the word for "slow down" ("despacio," a valuable word to now -- I'd end up saying, "No rapido, por favor, senor," which, for some reason, didn't work.)

But if you learn a language before puberty, do you forget it? A college friend learned Japanese living on a military base in Japan when he was six, but by age 20, he could only remember Domo, Arigato, Mr. Roboto level Japanese.

So maybe we should try a foreign language in fifth and sixth grade and then continue in seventh and eighth if pretty good at it.

Are the benefits of early foreign language training limited to learning a foreign language? Or, does this habitual early mental training in an additional language eventually result in higher overall IQ?

See, for example, The Bell Curve by Murray and Herrnstein suggesting that Ashkenazi Jews in the US and Britain have, on average, an IQ somewhere between a half and a full standard deviation above the mean. This appears to be due largely to the verbal element. Would early language training in Hebrew and/or Yiddish (in addition to the local language during the diaspora) explain at least some of this difference? Does the mental exercise of early learning of a "foreign" language (or languages) eventually work its way into the gene pool?

I remembering being told in a psychology coure in college that if you don't learn a foreign language before the age of ten (or some low number) you won't be able to speak it without an accent.

"But if you learn a language before puberty, do you forget it? "

A French friend was talking about that. His daughter was fluent in Spanish at age 8. Then moved to Germany, she's 11 now and German replaced the Spanish knowledge. Children learn fast, but they forget fast too.

My kids learned French and Spanish in grade school. I think they are backing off on it for that reason.

The 11-year-old will likely do just fine if they move to Spain next year. She'll even use the subjunctive correctly.
'Tis better to have learned and lost than never to have learned at all.

I had a high school friend who was Canadian (English variety). He told me when he was younger he could speak very "colorful" French. But then his family move to the US and by high school, he was no better at French, other than the odd rude word, than I was with 2 yrs of high school French.

The problem here is that you aren't even particularly good *at your native language* at that age...

I think the real value of a structured education system for high achievers is that it puts them in a competitive environment with rewards and some public recognition. This could be reproduced at lower cost perhaps.

Steve Sailer touches on the absolutely crucial point here: in the US, students usually aren't introduced to foreign language study until after the developmental stage in which it's easy to acquire languages. When you're a child, just being around people speaking a foreign language will enable you to pick it up, while once you've turned 13 or so, fluency is hard to achieve even with considerable study. Start language study in first grade, not in high school, and all children will be able easily to acquire fluency in another language.

This is actually not at all true and the legions of students world wide who learn English throughout primary school and have almost no fluency to show for it can attest to this fact. It is a common misconception of second language learning that being young means automatic fluency. In fact, what is most often the case, instances where young people seemingly "pick up" a language is nothing more than increased exposure. It may not be exposure in the sense of hours of foreign language study, but i can assure you in the cases cited above where children learned a languAge while living in a different country only to lose the language later, they were undoubtedly exposed to many more hours of comprehensible input (see Stephen Krashen for explanation on comprehensible input) than most high school students studying a foreign language. The "young people pick up language easily" is largely a myth in second language acquisition.

Actually the ability to pick up a language effortlessly simply by being surrounded by it wanes after about 7 or 8.

Good lord, along with Driver's Ed and Typing, my foreign language class in high school was in the top 3 of the MOST or ONLY USEFUL things I learned there. I used to sit in that class in awe that they were teaching us something with PRACTICAL APPLICATION as an academic subject.

Rarely taught in high schools, but Mandarin surely is a language Americans ought to learn. My godchild has always been fascinated by China and its culture, and has studied both Chinese martial arts and Mandarin since he was a child. I suspect that Cowen has studied Greek (because of his interest in the ancient Greek philosophers). Likewise, anyone who wishes to devote her scholarly pursuits to the study of the New Testament should learn Greek. I agree with Caplan that the return from learning the typical languages taught in high school may be low, but I agree with Cowen that one learns more than a language when one studies a language.

I think learning a foreign language (probably Spanish) might be worthwhile, but we don't do that.

We require a smattering of language classes that develop nothing like mastery and most of it is quickly forgotten.

Given the way it is taught and the results it delivers foreign language should be taught as an elective.

Personally being dyslexic and struggling all through school, I do not believe American schools and colleges teach languages very well. I truly believe that immersion programs work much better. I have found that Pimsleur language tapes have been much more effective in teaching me a foreign language. As far as Mandarin, I think it would be incredibly helpful, and it would be nearly impossible with the way that languages are taught currently.

I may be wrong; however, I feel that schools and colleges are too focused on subjects that are not practical and are based on the tastes and desires of the high status people in charge of determine the curriculum. My life changed when I learned project / time management after high school, and I think that learning how to learn would be even better than learning a foreign language. For example, the schools could teach project management, speed reading, memorization techniques, studying techniques, interpersonal skills (like Dale Carnegie or sales training), public speaking, etc. In my experience, school and colleges are too focused on testing, i.e. if the subject can’t be put in a test, then it can’t be taught. I talked to a college department head about teaching communication skills, and he stated it was hard. I told him, it is easy. One just has to create exercises so the people can role play, video tape the student, and review it with the student. I got the feeling that it was hard because it couldn’t be put in a multiple choice exam. It may be the issue with foreign language. Lastly, in my experience, learning a foreign language is not about communicating; it is about connecting. It is an amazing interpersonal skill that creates a connection between people.

Love the blog, thanks - Robert

I needed my high school Spanish knowledge to read some dialogue in the border trilogy.

Talking years ago in Austria to a young person, I learned that Austrian schools have a foreign language requirement AND an English language requirement. English isn't a foreign language. It is a requirement like math. The foreign language requirement is for another language besides German and English.

It is common in the Netherlands for young people to learn English, French, and German.

Foreign language is something US schools do badly, like with every other topic also.

The Mormons have developed effective ways to teach other languages, an outgrowth of their missionary activities. Schools could use their approach.

To be a little snarky, a large number of Americans ought to be learning English as a foreign language. There are times I think English is disappearing and being replaced by some strange new language, something Burgess anticipated in Clockwork Orange.

Finally, Paul Samuelson insisted that math is a language. Maybe students could take math as a foreign language.


I enjoy languages and I thoroughly enjoyed the German that I took in high school and college, but sadly, I never got any use out of those classes and I can't speak a lick of German today. I think that the language requirement is mostly a waste of time. However, if you drop that requirement, it will be replaced with something else probably more useless rather than lightening the load on students. So, it could be worse.

Besides, the way they teach foreign language in both high school and college is terrible. Had the internet (and Pimsleur) been around when I was in high school and college, I'd could probably say a lot more in German today.

People like to cite European schools for teaching foreign language from an early age. That's great, but see how that has worked in Puerto Rico. For decades Puerto Ricans have been taught English from first grade, yet surprisingly few can use the language well upon graduation from high school.

I hate comparisons with Europe when it comes to language. If each state in New England spoke a different language, you'd have more foreign language taught and used there too.

Sure, there's an income opportunity to knowing another language. But the catch is to be actually fluent in the language.

I retain much of my high school German, even though I've hardly used it since then. Much of that is because I made songs out of it. [singing] Aus bei gegenuber mit nach von zu! Durch fur gegen ober um! An auf hinter in neben uber unter vor!

Zwischen! That would always come as sort of a thud after the rest of the song.

Und noch mit dem Dativ : ab, dank, entgegen, gemäß, laut, seit, zufolge (qui est en fait une post-position, mais on ne va pas pinailler).
Mit dem Akkusativ: ohne (ober is not a preposition).

You're right, it was ohne. Durch fur gegen ohne um!

It would make more sense for children to learn Latin, starting in 2nd grade, rather than a living language. It would improve their English, give them a much deeper insight into Western culture as well as a sense for how foreign another culture can be, and give those who really want to learn a living foreign language a foundation to do so. The problem at this point would be finding good teachers.

This makes little sense. I have Latin and am deeply attached to its literature, Ovid, Virgil and Horace in particular, but Latin is no more foundational in grammar or syntax than any other language and, in some cases (grammatical case, in particular!) may be more confusing. I do believe that learning another language provides a tremendous boost to grammatical skills in the first language, but that benefit comes just as well from learning a living, spoken language. From utility alone, it makes much more sense to begin early with a language that is actually spoken by a large and living population somewhere on the planet and, as second graders will still be at the beginnings of their reading and writing skills in their first language, it makes considerable sense for a foreign language introduced so early to be one in which early teaching can be primarily conducted in acoustic forms.

Latin can prepare you for learning other Indoeuropean languages (Greek, Russian etc.) but it's of no help with, say, Arabic, Malay or Swahili.

I am so pleased that this year the two big exciting economics books so far are by Bryan and Robin Hanson.

Collective egomania strikes again.

Learning a second language has benefits not mentioned here, and not least is that a the skills required for learning a second language become skills in mastering the first language in both precision and range of expression. (I go with Goethe here: " He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own.")

Above and beyond all practical reasons for learning another language, knowing another language and something of the cultures that use it and the literature produced in it simply makes one a more interesting and — in the best cases — curious and interested person. This is not necessarily something with any immediate or even long term economic benefit, but the benefit in having a population that is curious and interest and has skills useful for pursuing curiosities and interests, whether touristic or intellectual, is both a life-long good for well-being of the individual and a resource for her/his community.

Language learning in US public education today does serve a major economic and security interest in that a pool of foreign language speakers is maintained for economic and security interests above and beyond that which comes with immigration. (It should be self-evident that a nation does not want its linguistic access to its allies limited to immigrants!) The method of learning (in which a large number of students never learns the language, but provides the bodies in seats to justify the cost of educating those who actually do learn) could be improved (the model, in many states, in which a foreign language is not required for high school graduation but is offered to insure that they are available to those who can and want to go on to the top-level universities which require a language for admission is a reasonable one) as well as the range of languages offered (i.e. it should be a goal that each of the economically critical languages in the foreseeable future are offered somewhere in the country with preferences to communities with local opportunities for exchange with native speakers of the particular languages.) This likely means less French and more Mandarin but also, at the margins, this means more Cantonese and other regional Chinese languages, this means Arabic, this also means some of the local languages in countries in which English appears to be lingua franca: Hindhi/Urdu, Tamil, Malay, but also Dutch and Danish! As Willy Brandt put it: "If I’m selling to you, I speak your language. If I’m buying, dann müssen Sie Deutsch sprechen.”

Your first point is exactly why foreign language is fundamental to a good education, even when done poorly.

I learned more about syntax, parts of speech, and word meaning than I did in years of English and grammar.

I took four years of Spanish in high school as part of my middle class upbringing in a good school district. Realistically, I never had a command of the language, I just knew some words and grammar. But 15 years later it allowed me to actually learn to speak Spanish when I moved to Puerto Rico and later married an Argentine woman.

Contrast that with my 2 year old nephew, who already speaks English, Spanish, and American Sign Language.

I see much more Spanish in our culture now than just 10 years ago (I guess that may be anecdotal given my exposure). I'm curious how you see that development changing the calculus.

It's a serious problem that, no matter how many languages you speak fluently, you will someday be interviewed by someone like Trump who speaks ungrammatical English and can't appreciate the time and energy you have put in to becoming fluent in a valuable foreign language.

These are the same people who go on to write legislation or product user manuals that are unreadable. Requiring all students to study a foreign language in high school would go a long way to solving this problem. Many students only master English grammar by way of study of German, Latin, Greek or Hebrew.

Tyler just typed hundreds of words, and all of them state that Bryan is right, foreign languages should be an elective. But we thank you for taking on the strawman that they should be eliminated. You really nailed it.

For sure, learning a foreign language in American high school is all about signalling. But you know what is even MORE about signalling? Studying abroad. (I'm rich! I've gotten drunk in Belgium and I'm only 17! I'm better than you!").

Naturally Tyler is even more excited about that.

I received greater benefit from 2 years of Latin in a Catholic middle school than 4 years of Spanish in high school.

But, if we can provide a platform for those elites who might elect to work in the foreign service to learn a second language, by all means, let's spend public dollars on it.

I for one am surprised at the casual acceptance of elite students and elite futures on this page.

What would be the future neoliberals want?

For what it's worth, my California elementary school had a little light Spanish. My high school had nothing fancy by the standards of the day, Spanish, French and German.

I thought everyone loved/hated it about the same.

I took auto shop as well.

I have spent the last 20 years living and working overseas. I studied lots of foreign languages over the years but have no real competence in any of them. It has made no difference. The primary reasons foreign languages are still taught are probably inertia and that there are way more people out there who can teach Spanish or French on the high school level than computer science.

I didn't understood English grammar until I took French in the fifth grade. I suspect that the natural compare-and-contrast taught me.

I enjoy learning other languages. They all seem to have their own tones and flavors. Learning them actually broadens my thinking. Don’t any of you simply enjoy learning? Does it all have to be some job related thing? Isn’t there a life of the mind that has an intrinsic value?

A note about Europeans learning English. Having lived in both France and the Netherlands, I know that the level of English proficiency in each country is dramatically different (much greater in the Netherlands). Rather than attributing that to the skill of teaching the language, I would argue that the level of proficiency has more to do with availability of entertainment content.

If there are 220 million native speakers of French in the world, and 23 million native speakers of Dutch, there's a much greater return on creating French language content. Not coincidentally (I think), there is much more content in French on French television (including overdubbed voice actors as opposed to subtitled television) than there is Dutch content in the Netherlands. Certainly the Dutch learn English from an early age in school, but they also watch a lot more television in English (subtitled in Dutch) than the French do. It's important to have a "normal" thing that gives you a reason to learn a language at first, as opposed to "getting good marks". The Dutch have also reached a critical mass with English ... if China had been a greater world power in the past 70 years (and done more to export their culture), some Chinese dialect could certainly have become the 2nd language of choice for the Dutch.

In the United States, there are few social reasons to learn a second language which appeal to a 14 year old forced to take Spanish 101, and so students attempt to get good marks and move on. All the "normal" entertainment and "normal" jobs are in English, while the foreign language content/jobs to which we're exposed are the "elite"/"highfalutin" ones. Being able to speak French fluently is something I enjoy because French literature, films, and culture are interesting (to me), even the lowbrow stuff ... but it's never gotten me a job. Largely, it has improved the quality of my vacations.

It may also help that Dutch is the closest major language there is too English (I am not considering Frisian of course). While retaining some of complexities of German word order it has dumped the German case system and the complex set of adjective endings that frustrate in that tongue. It's also absorbed more Romance vocabulary than German.

My mother, who learned French in high school and could speak it quite well (along with English and Italian which she learned at home, he mother did not speak English) though none of her classmates did, said that the problem is that foreign languages in the USA are taught as an academic exercise and not in such a ways to teach the students to learn the language. I took 3 years of Italian in high school and learned the weekly vocabulary words for test but could never speak the language. My assumption is that to make it a reasonable test where the good student get a good grade and the poor students a bad grade rather than a class to learn from you need to do it that way. testing squeezing out education.

IMO we need to separate testing an education, the teachers have a duel mandate and that makes it difficult to educate.

I think Deming wrote about the idea that employees should not have 2 goals, in this case to get the students to learn and test in order to credential. I think this is a big problem the teachers should be on the students side but are called on to test them to mark the lower performers for others to see.

1. Learning at least one language is of high value for America’s elite. It helps them see different points of view,

Stop it you're killing me.

Yeah. It's more value as a piece of vanity. A signal that your family was so rich that you didn't have to spend time learning practical things, but instead frequently vacationed in Italy and learned the language to boot.

Why are foreign languages not taught in US public schools in primary/elementary grades, when students' language acquisition abilities are higher than they will be in secondary/high school grades?

MORE evidence of just how un-serious US public education has been permitted to become.


Well, what should be dropped from elementary/middle school? They'd probably drop the Algebra and fractions before they would drop the sex practices training.

They should drop mixed fractions, anyway. When the last time any adult had to multiply 3 1/3 by 5 1/7? It's like cursive writing. Or my mom used to know (maybe still does, despite the Alzheimer's) how to derive square roots by hand. I don't know the technique, but I do know it spits out one digit at a time and it is not successive approximation. Is that useful? If you have a calculator that lacks a square root function, successive approximation gets you there pretty quick and the algorithm is much simpler. I'll have to ask mom if she remembers how to derive square roots.

Let’s find every positive reason to make kids learn languages! Not the best mode of thought, but I have one to add:

Learning another language helps you learn your own. Since most learn English passively, English grammar never really sticks for most until you get a side-by-side comparison to another language.

The reason to rule them all: most kids don’t know it’s a big world. A new language is inaccessible and hard, but it does teach kids that there are people and places out that are uncorrelated with their current environment.

If that is the case it would be better to have English teachers say some thing like: In Spanish the double negative works like this but in English...

A note to Bryan Caplan:
- no need to make Americans even more ignorant of the rest of the world
- no need to make Americans even more dumb

So, you think that making someone marginally competent in two languages somehow makes him smarter than taking that same time and brain power and teaching him, say higher level math in his own language?

There are trade offs. There's only so much someone can learn. Language acquisition- even though I am trying to do it myself- doesn't magically make people smarter.

Men kan heel wel vreemde talen leren en tegelijkertijd hypercohomologie van komplexen van schoven verstaan.

Many of your points necessitate the elite learning a language far more completely than anyone high school normally does.

I grew up around Spanish, took Spanish in school, still didn't get very fluent in it. Later I started using anki (spaced-repetition software) with a view to getting good enough to read it. That plan fell apart as the paucity of decent stuff to read became evident.

So now I am trying the same thing with Japanese. But here's the thing dude- it takes an amazing amount of time and dedication to get to the point where I can read the smart peoples' stuff that I want to read. Instead, elites are slacking, learning enough Spanish to order their servants around, or enough Chinese to squeak through a business exchange. Startlingly few people are working up to a high level and getting to the good stuff in their target language. Especially if they are English speaking elites.

Personally, I agree with Caplin. The people who would benefit from learning a foreign language can safely be self-selected. I think it’d be better for high schools to teach English grammar exceptionally well and then have students learn another language in college if they want (like HS math leading to computer science in college)

Ten years ago I would have agreed with Bryan, and on average, he is probable correct, but I was shocked that two of my three children became fluent Spanish speakers in high school, and have made use of their fluency both in work and travel. Good language teachers today take a much more conversational approach than they did years ago when I took a language in high school. So much depends on the school/teacher/student. I believe my children benefitted immensely from the foreign language requirement, especially being Southern California residents--there was an opportunity to make use of the knowledge. However, I can see where the requirement would be onerous and nearly useless in some contexts. I will confess that my general, unscientific feeling on the matter, is that exposure to a foreign language, even if we don't master it, is on the whole a good thing.

I really like Bryan Caplan continued war on the US education system. And I wish him well. His approach would even solve the issue du jour of school shootings. No school = no school shootings.

Well, it's also true that hardly anyone ever uses high school geometry (let alone calculus) in their adult life. Is that a reason not to teach it?

By your "anyone", you mean Liberal Arts majors, right? Because geometry and calculus are used all the time in the trades, although not in the pencil and paper form of the academic classroom. Similarly with trig.

And Brian's use of the Pythagorean Theorem as and example of learning not being used demonstrates how out of touch he and others discussion this topic are from people who create "things" for a living. The Pythagorean Theorem is how builders make things square, electricians and others shift between polar and rectangular coordinates, etc.

I was a physics major in college. I work in IT. I cannot think of the last time I used geometry (that is, actual calculations based on geometric theorems) for anything.

I've used trigonometry to calculate the length of boards for construction projects, and a friend of mine who is a machinist always struggled with dimensions when prints described parts by angle. Sometimes, he would put a part in a rotary table and shave off a little bit at a time, remeasure, then adjust the table until he got a part that matched the print. If you're a designer, you should always call out the dimensions in XYZ and not expect the machinist to know trig.

High school geometry as I learned it was mostly about the logic involved in proving theorems. Of course, along the way we picked up a lot of stuff about shapes, angles, areas, whatnot, that proves useful from time to time.

Is acquiring skill in rigorous logic really worthless? I don't think so.

And calculus? What's the name of this blog again? Even if you don't remember how to get derivatives and integrals the central concepts are important, if you want to able to understand the world, that is.

well, if you can make a "good general knowledge" as justification for higher math, then you can do that for foreign languages too.

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

Yes, after the imposed opportunity cost of being denied alternative learning opportunities, such as work, manual trades, anything not on the approved curriculum, the imposition of one mostly useless requirement or anther doesn't increase that opportunity cost to students.

First and foremost, compulsory schooling deny students the opportunity for other learning paths and they not only consume at least 1/3rd of the day in physical presence requirement, but also schools demand a further number of hours in generally make-work homework.

The greatest tragedy of compulsory and public education provided by the government is it instills the belief that what is taught is what the student needs to learn to be successful in life and never has that been further from reality than these days. It inculcates "school helplessness" in students, i.e., removes initiative to learn school subject in the same manner students do non-academic topics and skills.

But if foreign languages are possibly, probably good for some elite category but a waste of time for others, why not teach them in the folk school method of the Nordic countries: no final exams, focus on self development, etc. That is the courses do not impose academic stress since the accomplishment is up to the student and their interest. Then the "elite" can have their foreign languages but the other students won't have the imposition of the "failure" mindset so popular in school for those who don't excel.

I am an extreme case...six years of Latin and two years of ancient Greek! While the classics are clearly not useful either today (or 100 years ago), I do feel that translating
the letters of Cicero improved my facility with my own language(English). Yes, there were probably more efficient ways to do that!

I learned some basic Greek in Bible class at Christian junior high school. It helped when I got in college and all those Greek letters started popping up in Physics class.

Speaking foreign languages is also: fun. NO, not the German 'spass' (too much 'LOL') or the Dutch 'leuk' (in its most used way too neutral) but the english: 'fun'. One could also use the French 'bien' but that's, i gather, more rational, descriptive and moral..

My second-year French professor noted that French has no word for 'fun.' At the time I was also taking Latin, German, and Sanskrit (the dean objected but my advisor somehow overrode this.) My interest in French (and the other languages) was largely linguistic rather than literary or practical, so I ended up with a Ph.D. in linguistics. For what it's worth, Latin has no word for 'yes' (make of that what you will; remember, English has no word for 'female cousin'--let's not get Whorfian here).

This is a footnote from a book on education published in 1886. It has a truth to it, but alas, the multiplicity of languages persists. I had read long ago that as far as computers go, we would probably speak Mandarin and write in English. Something about the smaller number of sounds in Mandarin and the easier parsing of English. May not be current as to human/computer communications.

"The multiplicity of languages is due to the policy of international hate, inaugurated by the nations of Europe to promote the selfish purposes of rulers. Barbarism is diversity; civilization is unity. The human race is one, provided it is civilized, and it should have but one language. Language is a tool, and time consumed in acquiring skill in the use of more than one tool designed for the same end, is wasted. The standing armies of Europe obstruct the way to unity of language. The time will come when all civilized peoples will speak one tongue, probably the English. Then language will cease to be a mere vain accomplishment, and become what it ought always to have been, the simple means of familiarizing the mind with things, and of the communication of knowledge."
—Charles H. Ham, Mind and Hand: manual training, the chief factor in education

I learned languages for the same reason all guys do things - for the chicks. Now I can flirt in English, Spanish, Portuguese, and Mandarin!
Keeps me busy! ;)

I'm the product of immersion which started at the elementary level. At the time (early 90's) it was one of the few immersion programs in the state--now, it seems that every district around where I live has at least one public language immersion program. Lucking into this program (yay parents! yay pushy neighbors who convinced my parents to do this!) opened innumerable doors for me personally/intellectually/professionally.

Strong agree on HS-level non-immersion classes, but when Future Hypothetical Children enter my life, 100% chance they're doing immersion.

For most people, learning a foreign language in high-school is a waste of time. But that's not because learning languages is a waste of time; it's because Americans don't seem to understand that one learns language when one is young, before puberty. We're programmed to learn languages, and most people around the world learn several -- three or four if exposed to them. So instead of boring bored high-school students with rules of grammar, schools should hire unilingual speakers of French or Spanish or German or whatever, and put them in a classroom with first-graders. Within a month or so they would all be chatting away in that language. And they would have all the cognitive benefits of multilingualism.

There are two basic mistakes which seem to be cropping up in the comments here:
The first is presuming that a recommendation that foreign languages not be mandatory is equivalent to a demand that the teaching of foreign languages be prohibited. This is not the case. Simply by making it an elective rather than a requirement relieves an enormous cost while still allowing for the benefit for those who wish to pursue it. Of course students interested in a language could always pursue it on their own regardless - I certainly learned far more pursuing my own personal interests than I did in following the official school curriculum.

The second erroneous assumption made in many comments is that mandatory attendance in a foreign language class for 2 semesters in high school will provide all the purported long-term benefits of understanding another language and culture. In my estimation those students who have significantly benefited from the language courses are those who would have taken the class as an elective (or may have seen a similarly valuable return on the alternative courses they would otherwise choose), while students who were forced to take them achieve no greater lasting benefit from their 2 semesters of high school Spanish than what they would have picked up while spending their early 20s binging on cheap margaritas at the local Tex-Mex restaurant.

Does the supposed benefit scale with the number of languages they have been exposed to? Bilingual students are not generally exempted from the requirement, so presumably the value is not in merely the exposure to more than just the first language. If opportunity costs are so low, then surely we can jettison some of the other classes students are taking so they may fit in more courses for additional languages. Though if opportunity costs are so low even considering the negligible benefit to the typical student who would not have chosen to take the class in the absence of a mandate, the value of other high school classes must be exceptionally worthless, which simply supports the premise that we should not be spending resources on this low-value public schooling.

If one is so convinced of the benefits of learning a foreign language, why is mandatory attendance in high school foreign language classes the best means of acquiring those gains? Instead of wasting their time in public school, students should spend time living and working with immigrant groups (or better yet actually living and working in foreign lands). Their acquisition of language skills will undoubtedly be far superior to sitting in a classroom reciting vocabulary and memorizing dry grammatical rules - their time would be spent more productively acquiring other marketable skills while also gaining these purported benefits of learning about other languages and cultures.

I know a ton of people that speak a foreign language that used it for a short period of time then pretty much never use again, I’m referencing LDS missionaries. Tyler seems to think the education signaling (pretty much virtue signaling) is beneficial outside of the utility of it all, I disagree. Besides the ones that learned Spanish which can be handy but hardly essential, most rarely use it, but they didn’t learn it for pretentious “hey look at me and how smart I am” reasons it was practical.

What exactly does Caplan think teenagers should do with that time instead? Play video games? Read Ayn Rand novels (she is, according to him, a novelist on a par with Tolstoy and Dostoevsky)?

One purpose of education is to expose students to a number of different subjects and ideas. Does everyone know, at age 15, what they are going to find useful or (Caplan shudders) just interesting? No.

I took French for two years in grade school (from an actual French woman, so I picked up a nice accent) and then again in prep school (high school), two years of Latin, and a semester of classical Greek - and *I don't speak any of these languages*. You have to use it. When I go to France, French comes back to me at a rudimentary level until I leave the country, then it leaves me immediately.

Still, I support foreign language education for Americans.

*sigh* There's a major reason you're missing here. By studying another language, you start to understand that language learning in and of itself is challenging. This makes you less of an asshole when you speak to someone who is a non-native English speaker, and helps you better understand that some minor grammatical slip ups or an accent aren't a sign that the person is dumb or that they're not trying hard enough.

There's a lot of talk in this thread about the importance of language choice, and I think that's also a bit wrongheaded. See, learning language #2, even if unrelated and not to the point of fluency, helps in learning language #3. You think about language, and the nuances of what a word actually means a little differently, and it helps to become more conscious not just of grammar, but how language groups related concepts into words, and the mapping of concepts to words can vary from language to language.

Still, though biased, my general thought is: Lernu esperanton, do lernu aliajn lingvojn.


Arguing for national foreign language 'draft' to serve a government bureaucracy--the State Department?? LOL is very large letters.

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