Against Foreign Language Education

Bryan Caplan is on fire in this excellent podcast with Robert Wiblin of 80,000 hours:

Bryan Caplan: In the U.S. I’ve heard so many times – I learned Latin and it really improved my score on the SAT because of all the Latin roots of the English vocabulary words. How about you learn some English vocabulary words, wouldn’t that be a little easier?

Robert Wiblin: I’m just… I’m pulling out my hair here.

Bryan Caplan: Well if you wanna pull out your hair a little bit more. Out of all my ultra moderate reforms that I suggested, the one that I stand behind more strongly than any other is abolishing foreign language requirements in the United States. Because there, we’ve got a bunch of facts, which are: hardly any jobs use foreign languages, it takes a lot of time to get any good. And furthermore, in this book I’m able to go and snap together a bunch of pieces of data to show that virtually zero Americans claim to… even claim to speak a foreign language very well in school.

So I say, look, even if it did have these big payoffs, the system is just a waste of time, and people spend years doing it for nothing. And even here, I just run against a brick wall and people say, well in that case we should just improve the teaching of the foreign language.

Well, how about you do that and then get back to me, but continuing to fund the thing that we have, this is garbage!

And again, Washington state from what I understand, now allows kids to use a computer language in place of foreign language. Like, why not do that? Then it’s like, “No, no we need to do both.” People don’t have an unlimited amount of time, and shouldn’t teenagers be able to have a frigging childhood! Like how much of their childhood do you want to destroy with jumping through these stupid hoops?

As someone who was educated in Canada I can attest to the waste of much foreign language instruction. I had at least 6 years of instruction in French but my French today is perhaps on par with two or three days worth of Berlitz and that mostly because I’ve been to France a few times. For reasons of national unity and ideology, almost all Canadians have years of French instruction but most of the little of what is learned is quickly forgotten. Looking at bilingual cereal boxes is not enough to maintain skill. If you are French in Quebec there are good reasons to learn English but outside of Quebec there are few reasons to learn French. As a result, the large majority of bilingual speakers are native French speakers (plus a few budding politicians). Indeed, among the Canadians who speak English there could well be more Hindi or Chinese bilinguists than French bilinguists.

Don’t make the mistake of arguing that knowing a second language has many benefits. The point is that foreign language instruction in schools doesn’t teach a second language.

Addendum: And don’t forget this.


This is true about everything. I'm really against math education because STEM education is the biggest BS there is.

I will continue: why teach classical economics since classical economics and the real world bear very little resemblance.

Physics too. When was the last time you fired a projectile through a vacuum or collides two pucks on a frictionless plane.

But physics justifies algebra and geometry, right?

So, those two aren't useless - unless we apply the Transitive Property of Uselessness...

You all beg the question. The only reason foreign language is taught in school is to satisfy the teachers lobby. It accomplishes little to nothing. While proficiency in a foreign language can be useful it is almost impossible to become proficient in a classroom environment especially when the student doesn't really want to be there.

Yes, the dreaded all-powerful teacher lobby, vast armies of scheming, french teachers, demanding the teaching of dying languages to satisfy their socialist agenda.

While that was funny, it was also dead wrong. Now I know you don’t have children in the school system. (For the record I think Caplan is wrong and we’re trying to get our kids trilingual.)

Oh we are in the system alright.

If there’s a union, it’s invisible.

Seems to me the power isin state politicos, federal purse strings, the local board, and the super

I'm a teacher in a right to work state. Unions exist but I don't know what they do.

"Right to work" is up there with "Patriot Act" in terms of titles that reveal the legislative authors don't give an Eff about pretending to be sincere.

Could you possibly be more wrong? Right to work is right up there with freedom from extortion!!

Unions, even aside from their socialist/communist agenda, are oppressive and fascist.


Right to work is simply right to fire. They should at least have the honesty to call it that.

"Right to work is simply right to fire. They should at least have the honesty to call it that."

Yes it is. But neither does the pro-choice crowd call themselves the Pro-abortion lobby nor the pro-life crowd doesn't call themselves the anti-abortion lobby.

But to be totally honest, the "right to work" laws, make businesses more likely to hire more full time people during an expansion period because they can always fire them if things go poorly.

Onerous restrictions on hiring/firing tend to lead to more temps, contractors, part time workers and higher rates of unemployment.

Why wouldn't you want an employer to have the right to fire??? I'm truly stumped. Should an employee have the right to quit?

You joke, but the Chicago Teacher's Union is probably the single most powerful political body in the state of Illinois.

Dude, physics like foreign language is mostly taught as an academic exercise. It is laden down with enough math to make it good screen for the best and the brightest, keeping it beyond the reach of the average student who might benefit in his life by knowing the principles of physics. You do not need to know the math to understand that the 100mpg carburetor some scam artist is trying to sell you puts the ICE beyond the Carnot limit and thus impossible,

An easier example to give chemistry, you do not need to know all the math to know that when a pesticide oxidizes in 24-48 hours that buying organically grow is a waste of money. I know college educated people who fear pesticides to an absurd degree.


"You do not need to know the math to understand that the 100mpg carburetor some scam artist is trying to sell you puts the ICE beyond the Carnot limit and thus impossible,..."

Rather than knowing physics, it would be helpful to know one's car has fuel injection rather than a carburetor (at least if one's car was manufactured in the last ~30 years).


I know your comment was in jest, but the 100mpg carburetor was a long running scam and conspiracy theory. People tried to sell you one, or claimed big oil bought the patent to one so it could shelf it - and make you buy more of their product.

Ah yes, learning ancient greek or latin is the same thing as learning to think analytically (i.e. science and engineering). Got it.

Science and engineering education is just a way to turn people into low-status nerds. Calculus is pretty much worthless except for Nerd Training.

No need to be bitter about that D in Algebra. The Khan Academy is great for learning what you didn't in high school or as a review!

Ha, ha, ... D ... yeah right.

It's time we got honest and bifurcated our education system for real.

Most of the future proles need classes in bail bondsmen, making student debt payments, navigating the public transit system, planning your day around an ad hoc work schedule, preparing taxes as an independent contractor, and the variety of ways to cook Ramen.

The elite can take classes in whatever the hell they want - as long as it include press relations, tax shelter planning, and advanced attorney-client privilege.

You are just posting a strawman argument, because apparently you don't have a logical argument.

What is the logical argument for a 2 year language requirement in high school? Wouldn't most teenagers be better off with 2 more years of science or programming instead.

I'd like to first hear the argument for why 2 more years of science and programming is better

Science and programming skills directly translate into more useful job skills. Additional time spent in high school on those classes directly correlates with higher earnings post graduation.

Multi-language requirements are only correlated with a 5% increase in earnings.

Whereas, math for example, is correlated with a 50% increase in earnings.

Ref: Figure S.3—Median 1991 Annual Earnings, by Highest Math Course Taken

Education is for job training. Which is interpreted as concrete skills for the currently marketable tasks. And nothing else.

We disagree.

"Education is for job training. Which is interpreted as concrete skills for the currently marketable tasks. And nothing else."

Again you try to straw man the argument because you can't defend your position. Nowhere did I say nor imply the words you are trying to put into my mouth.

Students should not be forced to take classes that have little value to them.

Not forced.

Great, let's allow them to decide. What could go wrong with that.

Dude, you are an authoritarian of the worst sort.

Science and programming skills directly translate into more useful skills for some jobs. To be fair, the same could be said about foreign language skills

The problem is one-size-fits-all programs and requirements

You can get a decent job with a few years of programming experience. You can't get a job with a few years memorizing and then forgetting how to conjugate French verbs.

Caplan is right in that required foreign language instruction is a waste of time since very few people actually become fluent as a result. One reason for this is that languages are acquired shortly after infancy. It's not difficult for a three-year old to learn more than one language. For an eighteen-year old, it's a different matter. Being multi-lingual is an advantage but it's unusual for an adult to obtain this advantage through instruction.

Which is why you are just as well off waiting to learn it when you are 33 from Berlitz, should your life suddenly change and you find yourself needing it.

Excellent topic, excellent post. This is one of those Very Obvious Truths that get utterly ignored because it flies directly in the face of lefty religion. Keep hammering it. Well done Tyler.



Tyler is the one on fire. Alex is just observing how the fire warms the cockles (in Latin, cochleae cordis) of Alex's heart (Herz, in German).

I do t think that’s true people just think it is. It’s a common canard. Children take many years to actually learn their native language even with constant exposure. I never learned a foreign language in school but in my mid 20s was able to become advanced (not fluent) in one within a year of not so intensive study.

That is my understanding also, you can learn a language faster in your 20's or 30's but may not be as able to get the accent right.

When I left high school I was pretty much fluent in three languages, and had good knowledge of a fourth. And so did most of my classmates. Maybe the problem is US schools just suck in general...

Well, many of the commenters here would agree, as long as you throw in an attack or two against unions or leftists. But simply pointing out that other countries do better than the U.S. in this area, and the problem is not 'education' but the inability of America to do a good job educating students, and many of those same commenters will strongly object.

I don't think most countries do better unless they have a multilingual society (e.g. Switzerland) or the foreign language is English.

Interesting point - and yet, they still do better teaching a single foreign language. It is a difficult subject to untangle in its way - after all, there is more than one version of English, though no one much argues that British or American schools are better or worse at teaching English.

Almost all (99+%) schools in the developed countries are good enough, close enough to equally good, for the differences to not matter much. See:

"Maybe the problem is US schools just suck in general..."

Woosh .... The author is Canadian.

Yes, but you could say the same thing about math proficiency above basic arithmetic. The claim that few people master as subject therefore it shouldn't be taught is really rather bizarre.

No a lot more people become proficient in algebra for example than a foreign language.

I would actually disagree, using Germany as an example.

Anecdata, of course.

In Europe, you can drive for a day and encounter people speaking several different languages along the way. In the US or Canada, you can drive around for a year and never encounter a single person who doesn't speak English. There's just not a big incentive to learn a language you will never need, especially given that you could learn a ton of other things in the time it takes you to master a language.

OMG, it's Rip Van Winkle. ¡DESPIERTA!

If you drive into a Latin American barrio in a handful of cities you may well find people who do not speak English. But Hispanic people elsewhere do speak English and often enough have no proficiency in Spanish as they were born and raised here.

Yep. Two years of high school Latin here. Complete waste of time. They did however give extra credit for reading Roman history books, which I aggressively exploited (because I liked the topic). Much more interesting than the language.

But you could argue that filling your brain with Latin in school is better than watching TV or doing something natural like...masturbating[1]? So do they need to teach anything in school? Do we even need school? Why not just sit around....m*?

Bonus trivia: the YouTube video on Google Translate that AlexT cited nailed the Greek translation of "I need to use the toilet". The accent was robotic but the translation sounded authentic.

[1] just to keep this post highbrow, Google "Diogenes the Cynic" aka "Diogenes of Sinope" advocated just such a thing. In public. I learned that on my own, in home study, not in school!

School is essentially a ponderous IQ (test in America at least). So to answer your question, no TV or masturbation could not effectively replace traditional school subjects (except perhaps P.E.). Anyone can do those things, but not everyone can learn Latin.

Sudbury schools seem to educate children just fine without any teachers and without forcing the kids to learn anything. Surprise surprise, kids are eager to learn things that they see are important in life

I like the quip about Latin. But I've said it before here (because Tyler has said his same things before here). The most and only useful things I learned in high school were: driver's ed, typing, and Italian. They each actually had a use. Nothing else did. It irks me to hear arguments about getting rid of the ONE academic subject that has USE.

Driver's Ed in high school? That is awesome. I never had that.

It's wildly useful, it saves lives, it saves money for the parents.... yeah I can see why the teachers' union wanted to get it the hell out of the school system.

I would think drivers ed is a natural to privatize

That should make you happy

I'm sure most libertarians would agree that *if* you must take tax dollars to educate all children, at least teach them useful stuff.

We had Drivers Ed done as a summer mini-class (three weeks, half day instruction).

I had driver's ed at the local H.S. way back then. It was "extracurricular", and teachers got a stipend. Most of the cars were donated (same reason PCs are now-days donated to schools: more likely to buy something you're familiar with). During my later college years, a friend of mine getting his Ed. degree (or after his degree) was happy to have that (small) amount along with his forced "internship" at near-by public school. The liability has pretty much sunk the local school district as provider of driver's education, now days (from what i understand). It's pretty hard to argue that a random non-professional (i.e. a school teacher) is competent to instruct kids on how not to hurt themselves or others using a motor vehicle. Most schools that provide it contract with the local driving schools now days. And the question arises why should schools provide this service? Tax dollars at work, sure, but shouldn't parents (or students) pay all of the cost here? You need a driver's license (or to know how to drive) to function in Chicago, LA, or NYC? I wonder if driver's ed changing from a public service to a private one correlates with widening income inequality.

Actually, according to Brazilian Professor Napoleão Mendes de Almeida (1911-1998) , Latin should be the backbone of the K-12 curriculum because it helps students to learn Romance Languages, such as Portuguese, and teachs to think in a more logical fashion. According to him, in the 50's Austria spent more hours in Latin--teaching than Romance Language-speaking Brazil, hence the famous Austrian Miracle:

Do kids really need to know what oxaloacetic acid and Ruffini's rule are? Will those things make them more productive or the state stronger and safer? Will it male the winter warner or the summer milder? Why not the horizon widening influence of foreign languages instead?

The trouble with keeping a class, like languages, that has use to one percent of the population, is that now kids will be taking 100 classes. I can't imagine how Italian would be even useful to one percent of people. Basic math anyone? or just learn to open a bank account and balance a checkbook.

Balance a checkbook? What's a checkbook?

Yeah, I almost deleted that before posting, but couldn't really think of a better way to say double check your bank accounts. Maybe personal finance. Even shop would be more valuable to 99% of students.

Heh. The one course I failed, typing, is the only skill I use every day that I learned in high school.

Caplan is provocatively challenging the basic assumptions of education. I have long considered it an extraordinarily expensive day care system.

If you are going to keep kids for 12 years makes sure they come out with an education. They aren't now. The system is indefensible.

Don't you think that you would have learned to type had you not taken typing class in high school. For example, I never took typing but learned through hours of playing Castle Wolfenstein one summer in 1984.

Yep I never took a class, I learned to type by... typing a lot

Many people (including me) believe the Univ. of Chicago is America's best university. Yet, an undergraduate at Chicago devotes most of his time to what's called the Common Core curriculum: "The “Core” is intended as an introduction to the tools of inquiry used in every discipline—science, mathematics, humanities, and social sciences. The goal is not just to transfer knowledge, but to raise fundamental questions and to become familiar with the powerful ideas that shape our society." A waste of time? Not for students at the Univ. of Chicago. What about students at State U or at for-profit Private College? Caplan may be focusing on the foreign language requirement for a college education, but his real complaint is with universal college education. Contrary to the American myth, the students at the Univ. of Chicago and the students at State U or for-profit Private College are not the same.

Standard, brainless lefty response. "We need to expose these kids to EVERYTHING or they will never see it! How is this physics major ever going to hear about Roman Architecture if we don't charge him $67,000 per year and drill it into him in a highly-structured, forced-learning environment, while taking up the prime years of his life?? Why doesn't anyone think of the children any more?!?"

Jesus, man. Do you know what we call those areas of our lives that interest us -- intellectual areas, fun areas, artistic areas -- that are not part of our careers? We call them hobbies. We do not need to force people to study them in effing college at the cost of ten mortgage payments.

Make them available as an option? Sure. Beyond that, sod off.

TPM - tell us how you really feel...about the military draft. And zoning. Don't forget zoning. ;-)

Truth is, as deregulation czar Alfred Kahn admitted towards the end of his life --no Leftie he-- much of what economists say is 'free market economics' and the right thing to do is in fact rooted in social convention. For example (my pet peeve) much of innovation in the so-called capitalist world is little more than stealing the inventions of nerds and giving them nothing much (the patent laws are biased against inventors, trust me on this). Is this free market capitalism? Yet the Solow equation of growth depends on nothing more than exogenous innovation in the long run (i.e., exploiting random nerds of their inventions).

Lol WTF is this TPM guy?? Sounds like my mother if my mother pretended to swear online.

"TPM - tell us how you really feel...about the military draft"

I would imagine that TPM isn't a strong bring back the military draft kind of guy. The military draft is much more of third world (Brazil, Mexico, Russian, Africa, Middle East) and Scandanavian institution.

Caplan's an idiot if he thinks foreign language skills are useless to USA citizens. That's a very parochial view. It's also very incorrect and based on the view that the USA is all that matters and all that ever will matter. Short-sighted.

It's more than merely the ability to speak a different set of words for communication. There is the whole cultural and mental process underlying the language that matters.

I think Caplan must still living the the whole Pax American zeitgeist mindset.

You're falling into the trap the post identifies.

The post is absurd for making the claim "Few people master Subject X therefore it shouldn't be taught." That could be used against a very large number of academic subjects.

But if you learn a little of a foreign language it's totally useless, that's not true of other subjects

How useful, in daily life, is history? Trigonometry (when you;re not an engineer)?

""Few people master Subject X therefore it shouldn't be taught." That could be used against a very large number of academic subjects."

Yeah. It's almost like you need a strong justification to force other people to spend hundreds of hours learning something. Stronger than "you might use it someday."

And by the way, Caplan is arguing that it shouldn't be required, not that it shouldn't be taught. If someone really wants to learn French in the most inefficient way possible, they can take French as an elective.

For everyone I know, barring one woman who is now a Spanish teacher, foreign language instruction in school is/has been a waste of time. My kids have taken years of Spanish, and are still terrible at speaking it. I took years of Spanish, but learned more in 2 weeks in Spain than 4 years of high school.

I spent a few years of my career at a financial advisory company with dreams of raising our own fund to do PE. Didn't work, but I spent considerable time travelling for work. And I can tell you that even for a global business person, there is no reason to learn anything other than English. You know what languages they speak in China? Yeah, Chinese and English. Not Spanish, not French, not Italian. How about Vietnam? Vietnamese, English and French and some Chinese. How Panama? Spanish and English. In Brazil, English is more common than Spanish (in the oil and gas business anyway). How about Kuwait or Saudi Arabia? Arabic and English. Israel? Hebrew and English.

Caplan's not an idiot by any stretch. There is no cultural or mental process underlying a language that is taught in high school (or even exists period). Not learning a language other than English does not even remotely confer the idea that the USA is all that matters. What it conveys is that English is the de facto international language, and is only becoming more so day by day.

'What it conveys is that English is the de facto international language, and is only becoming more so day by day.'

Yet strangely, it is not the de facto language used at Daimler nor Toyota. Nor at VW, the world's largest car company. The same applies to a number of industrial concerns (think Bayer or BASF) with a major presence in the U.S. - what is true, however, is that the American employees are basically not involved in the international decision making of those companies.

And I have been told that much of Daimler's own documentation - for suppliers, for example - in its NAFTA plants is in German.

Hmmmmm it seems you may want to give Daimler a heads up to change their website where it says their official language is English.

Well, the people I know who would laugh at the idea that Daimler's official language is English actually work in Stuttgart. If you mean that a typical German Daimler manager can speak more than German, yes, that is true.

And the documentation information comes from someone working in the U.S. for Daimler who handles supplier documentation for Daimler.

This is much like saying that SAP's official language is English since the later 1990s - the German employees in Walldorf, oddly enough, still use German for their daily work. And when I talk to German SAP employees, we don't use English.

But if you wish to believe that the German employees running Daimler's international operations speak English to each other, well, don't let me stop you.

Low quality posts. You've been at it so long, you'll probably not change, but still. What you wrote was demonstrated false. Instead of admitting your profound ignorance, you go on to offer anecdotal (personal) claims that are apparently all you need to justify your failure to research facts before pontificating. Sad.

Actually, what I wrote was based on actual experience of actual German managers who actually work in Stuttgart, who could care less that English is Daimler's official langauge. Along with someone who works in the U.S. with supplier documentation, much of which is in German - possibly because the documentation comes from Germany, and though Daimler might have English as its official language, it simply doesn't waste any money translating its German supplier paperwork into English at a major plant in the NAFTA market area.

Followed up by pointing out that another company, the world's largest business software producer, whose official language is English is not really all that English oriented when dealing with their German HQ.

Wish to guess when Daimler officially became bilingual? Here is even a cite, instead of merely reporting from personal knowledge - 'Under the terms of the merger agreement, there would be dual headquarters and chairmen, and DaimlerChrysler’s official language would be English.'

This is not a secret - it was pretty big news when that merger occurred in 1998. Of course, maybe some people did not notice that merger ended in 2007, costing Daimler billions in losses. And removing the pretense that Americans from Detroit had any say in a company that was no longer called DaimlerChrysler, or pretending that the managers in Stuttgart had to use English in the presence of fellow members of DaimlerChrysler's management from the non-Daimler half of the merger.

Hard as this might be to grasp, a lot of Daimler managers in Stuttgart sit around all day talking their company's actual language - Schwäbisch. OK, not really - they also use Badisch and Hessisch and Pfälzerisch and Kurpfälzisch too. But never, ever Bavarian - no way, no how.

Bravo! Woefully wrong, but fearless in your embracement of ignorance.

"Ready or not, English is now the global language of business. More and more multinational companies are mandating English as the common corporate language—Airbus, Daimler-Chrysler, Fast Retailing, Nokia, Renault, Samsung, SAP, Technicolor, and Microsoft in Beijing, to name a few—in an attempt to facilitate communication and performance across geographically diverse functions and business endeavors."

"Honda to make English official language by 2020"

>Caplan's an idiot if he thinks foreign language skills are useless to USA citizens.

Being an econblog, the relevant question is whether there are better uses of that class time. Spanish language or history/culture of Spain? Spanish language or chemistry? Spanish language or economics?

Spanish language or going outside, running in a field, making a friend, exploring a new hobby, reading a book, playing a game, or just generally enjoying your childhood. Seriously, what do we really think 8-year-olds are getting out of a 40-hour work week that is worth sucking all the joy out of their lives?

It's amusing that someone whose English isn't good enough to comprehend a simple blog post is preaching about the benefits of learning a second language...

'It's more than merely the ability to speak a different set of words for communication. There is the whole cultural and mental process underlying the language that matters.'

Everyone knows this. However, very few language learners will ever get this experience. Even people who are raised bilingually and grow up in the USA don't get this experience; a Korean-American who grew up knowing Korean and English will most likely be a disaster from a social perspective when they visit Korea at 16 or 17, acting and speaking very rudely, selfishly, and without any respect for the social hierarchies. You don't acquire the social and mental intricacies of a culture simply by learning the language it is connected to, you need to actually live it.

Learned to speak French fluently in public schools in Indiana; still read in French every day. It was a good experience for me.

I'm sure you would recognize your experience as exceptional.

This (and other comments in the post) are great arguments for having foreign language instruction available, as electives. But making FL required? No way. Eliminating requirements != eliminating foreign language departments

Actually, it probably is the same. If foreign languages aren't required, there may not be any foreign language teachers at the school, or there may be only one who teaches the handful of students who want to take advanced Spanish or French classes.

Foreign language were electives in my school-- but two years were required at the University of Michigan where I went afterward, though you test out of that.

Foreign language instruction is very important. Just not for the US (or other countries where the native language is English) since it speaks the language which is the universal lingua franca. And probably will remain so for the foreseeable future (some would argue that if China keeps growing at the recent pace, learning Chinese would be very important, but Chinese is so difficult to learn for non Chinese that it is extremely unlikely it would be used someday as a lingua franca, even if China becomes the world's economic behemoth).

There is no such language as "Chinese" -- anymore than there is a language called "European."

Mandarin is the official language of China, but there are others. My godson speaks, reads, and writes Mandarin. He says it's not as difficult as people imagine.

But it takes far longer to learn basic Mandarin than French, Spanish or German.

The spoken language is actually pretty simple. Or so I've been told by a linguistics professor. He claims you can get students speaking pretty fluently within a year with good instruction. The written language is horrible and even native Mandarin speakers have trouble remembering how to write characters.

People have all sorts of notions of fluency. While Mandarin is easier to learn how to speak than Japanese or Korean due to the grammar, students aren't speaking "pretty fluently after a year" if not in China. Even if studying in China for a year, Westerners can get by in Mandarin but are not "pretty fluent."

Mandarin contains a bunch of phonemes that are alien to English speakers, and of course the tones are really strange for us since there's nothing like that in any European language (though Swedish comes close). Get the tone wrong and the meaning of the word is totally different, e.g., "Mother" can become "Horse" ("I kissed my horse and rode my mother home"-- er,no.)

I don't quite agree. Most English-only listeners are not capable of HEARING the intonations (phonemes) of Chinese (Mandarin, et. al.) if they are older than ~14 (according to the (old, now) research I've read). We speak about education as if college and high school and primary are the same and yet we know that both mentally and physically a 3rd grader has much different capabilities than a 9th grader and a 9th grader and a college sophomore are not comparable physically or mentally. Our brains (so the theory goes) are mostly finished being hard wired for sounds in our early teen-age years (although there are many exceptions). Just hearing some "alien" languages after then may not be possible (at least not without massive intervention & time/effort). In point of fact, the 'experts' claim that most adults starting with only a western phoneme pallet will *never* be able to acquire more than a crude Chinese speaking/hearing ability.

I meant mandarin, obviously. And in its written version, there is indeed a Chinese language.

Pedantry should, imho, be ignored. Is there really any good reason to try to "win" the "Chinese isn't a language." argument? No useful purpose is served, afaik. (this written by a pedant) There's unlikely to be anything new to be said about it.

I have gone on the record ad nauseam about the simple minded conclusions in what is just a meta- analysis of selected publications. No real original research. We are in Spain for two weeks and my college Spanish (40 years ago) came right back after a couple of days so no need for v English. Same happened in France and Germany on recent trips. Maybe Caplan and Alex don't do a lot of traveling abroad and just like Trump they have no inquisitiveness.

Yes indeed. Having a bit of French helped with my travels. And having some Spanish helps with living in the reality-based USA. And having a bit of both helped me learn bits of others in my travels.

Though while this does argue in favor of language education making us better global citizens and better able to navigate segments of our own country, it does beg the question of what is education's purpose in the USA?

Was stationed in West Germany during the early 1970's. A buddy and I took a USO bus tour to Paris. He had had high school French. We were in a café and he tried to order a meal speaking in French. I pointed to an entre on the menu. He got a green salad. I got my meal. I told him to grab the waiter by the throat. He was too much of a "gentleman." The French are jerks.

The purpose of education in the US is . . . to maximize the number of miseducated, misinformed democrat voters.

"to maximize the number of miseducated, misinformed democrat voters."

Then how did you end up so idiotic?

It is my understanding that learning a different language builds distinct new neural pathways. And this is of benefit outside the language itself.

See, I am not making that up:

Exactly. It's like saying that because I never have a NEED to bench press a large weight, I should stop going to the gym.

Learning anything builds new neural patterns. Watching porn and determining my favorite porn sexual position builds new neural networks.

Nonsense. All development is not equal. You are an obvious example.

Mike. Really? New neural pathways, huh? Gosh, I guess there may be something to this crazy new idea that the mind is a result of the physics and chemistry of the brain...Who knew?! As far as "of benefit": opportunity costs are the issue. You're really missing the point apparently.

Seeing that the vast majority of the argument here is limited to: "french is useless, I hated it", it's clear that missing the point is de rigueur.

I think most people know that as a native English speaker trying to learn a foreign language for any practical reason is pretty much a waste of time. Certainly any of the western European languages. I have studied five foreign languages and have worked overseas for 25 years. I use none of them because the chances are very high that any foreigner I am likely to do business with will speak English a lot better than I will speak his language. Perhaps an exception for the more difficult widely spoken foreign languages like Mandarin, Arabic and Russian. I think the reason French, Spanish and German are still taught is that there are a lot more licensed secondary school teachers capable of teaching those languages than say computer science.

Many of us felt that much, most, of our education was worthless at the time. Indeed, I use much of it directly only to try and help my own kids learn theirs.

Many of us; however, grew out of obsessively whining about that. A middle school analysis of middle school education might be inadequate.

See, I am not making that up:

If Caplan opens up the borders as he wishes, then I suspect Spanish will supplant English in the US. But not for 100 years or so.

Maybe some sort of Spanglish will emerge.

Like "Kemo Save, Masked Man."

Second languages that then go unused rot, and in a lot of the united states, said second languages will go unused as there are few excuses to use it. Get the kid to spend a few summers away in a place where their new language is the main language of the place, and they'll manage to keep it, and benefit from it.

Whether this is a great use of a child's time or not is another story. I think that spending that time abroad in a different culture is more valuable than the language itself, but without it, or any special love for the arts that in that language, good luck. Fortunately, it's easier to get culture in that second language, if you go looking for it, than ever before. Even Netflix, which Tyler dislikes because it will give you easy options that are like what you've seen, will figure out that you want Spanish media, and will get you television in Spanish: For instance, there's a cynic version of Dr Who, a modern heist series, and a feminist period peace in the late 1920s... and that's just what they have in the US from Spain alone.

It's quite true that US citizens don't need to learn a second language because they will spend most of their lives in the US and when they go abroad everybody talks English....

... but isn't it important to be exposed to different experiences and cultures? And the most direct way to do it is to study another language. I know this is a bit fuzzy and poetic and won't work for, say, 99% of the kids out there. But it may work for the 1%, and it may be worth pursuing.

Bryan Caplan's argument seems to be that people will dumb down anyway so let's make the dumbing down process as cheap as possible.

And then, there are so many cost inefficiencies in education...

for example: in many schools in the US, creationism is taught as a valid theory. Why isn't Bryan Caplan focusing on that specific inefficiency? Unless Bryan thinks that teaching creationism is a fair use of tax payers money...

Where did you hear that about creationism?

I had at least 6 years of instruction in French but my French today is perhaps on par with two or three days worth of Berlitz and that mostly because I’ve been to France a few times

Yep. School-based language instruction is next to useless. It focuses heavily on reading and writing (unnecessary in the era of Google translate) and on vocabulary and verb tenses that will be quickly and completely forgotten. I learned more in a few hours of doing Michel Thomas courses than in all my years of high-school and university instruction.

I wonder if google translate will help you pick up a girl at a bar...

... unless you believe that foreign girls will be naturally attracted by your uber-All American good looks and ability to use Google Translate to ask for a glass of wine.

Chances are foreign girls will run away from you the moment they find out you are an American moron that never learned a second language, that was taught creationism at school, and that voted for Donald Trump*

* I am aware this is a cartoon but don't expect half drunk European girls at a club to go very deep in the subtleties of education policy in the US. They will just think you are dumb.

"I wonder if google translate will help you pick up a girl at a bar..."

No. But nor will having learned and remembered the subjunctive just long enough to pass a test. The point is that when it comes to carrying on actual conversations, a few hours of the Michel Thomas method is more useful than years of high-school language. That's how I got back up to speed in French and Spanish (also Italian, which I never studied in school). Not sure how well my conversational Italian would work for picking up girls, though (my wife wouldn't really go for that kind of test of my language skills).

I'm not arguing that nobody should learn foreign languages, but rather that our existing school-based approaches are ineffective and nearly a complete waste of time resulting in almost no lasting facility with the languages people have studied.

Most of the language is not forgotten. The ability to recall it is forgotten. When you take the Berlitz years later it will come back to life and it will be be easier than if it were your first exposure.

"The ability to recall it is forgotten" should be "The ability to recall is impaired through lack of use"

If you are relying on google translate to do serious scholarly research in another language, you are probably getting a lot of things wrong.

I understand that the savings of not teaching a second language would be huge but do US citizens really want to be seen as a bit moronic by other countries?

Let's see: US citizens don't know a second language, US citizens are taught crap theories like creationism...

... no wonder, they end up electing morons like Donald Trump for president.

On top of that, as someone wrote above, knowing Spanish is really useful in navigating in a country where close to 20% of the population is of Latin American origin (that country is the US). I suppose that in certain circumstances knowing some Spanish may help getting things done, right?

Don’t make the mistake of arguing that knowing a second language has many benefits. The point is that foreign language instruction in schools doesn’t teach a second language.

I have read it before, but I can not recall where.

Where do you think I learned English?

In case you haven't noticed I am not a native English speaker... I am Portuguese, live in Portugal...

I studied in the UK for a year, but went there not to learn English but because my English, that I was taught in school, was pretty good.

My French is not bad, by the way, but it is a bit rusty. But give me a couple of weeks in a French speaking country and it will be OK.

I also learned some German... but yeah... I am pretty bad at it but I could go to Oktobberfest in Munich and get a couple a beers and, who knows, pick up a crazy German girl :-) :-)

PS. another note: in Portugal, foreign languages are taught the old fashioned way: no fancy pants, "modern" methods.

PPS. The other alternative is that Americans are faithful to the stereotype and are indeed dumber than the rest of mankind...

"The other alternative is that Americans are faithful to the stereotype and are indeed dumber than the rest of mankind..."

Look, the Portuguese didn't event the Nerf(TM) football, it was the Americans. And that was despite language requirements not because of them.

'The point is that foreign language instruction in schools doesn’t teach a second language.'

Well, oddly enough, German scho0ols seem to be able to teach English well enough for the people running Mercedes or BMW plants in the U.S., while Japanese schools seem to do well enough for Honda or Toyota managers.

Admittedly, now that GMU has completely sold off its European operation (Opel and Vauxhall), there is no reason for GM managers to even pretend to speak a foreign language.

Strange how the failures of the U.S. are considered to be universal, while successes in other parts of the world are ignored.

"while Japanese schools seem to do well enough for Honda or Toyota managers."
Maybe for big business big shots, but not for anyone else in the country. Japanese's bad (if any) English is widely known.

And non-Japanese speakers of Japanese are even worse. Not that Toyota cares - they have proper Japanese speaking managers making the major international decisions involving their business.

That English has become a lingua franca/world language is beyond dispute. To think that those in charge of companies in non-English speaking countries use English for their normal daily work is illusory (or simply delusional).

"Maybe for big business big shots, but not for anyone else in the country. Japanese's bad (if any) English is widely known."

Well, that proves that learning a second language doesn't seem to hurt ambitious people that want to go places...

Of course, if your ambition in life is to be a couch potato that watches TV all day (whether you are American, Japanese or Portuguese) then any education system will do...

I see. The program failed (lots of young Japanese who are the superiors of their Western counterparts in Science, Math, History, local Literature fail to learn decent English), but it succeeded!! Somehow, I doubt "hey, one out of one hundred Toyota cars don't suddenly explode!" is the kind of excellence the Japanese regime usually goes for.

I'll just piggyback on this because it's an obvious point. German, Dutch, Austrian, Scandinavian schools seem to do a fine job teaching multiple foreign languages. And despite Tabarrok's failure, most of the Anglo Canadians I know acquired pretty good French in school.

(A lot of math and science instruction in the US is terrible too, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't teach these things, it means they should be taught better!)

So the argument that foreign language education cannot be done well is obviously wrong. What *should* be in the required curriculum is a different question. But that the bit about the reason for Latin being English vocabulary is abject strawmanning: in addition to giving you access to its literary work, learning a language with a different grammar from your own is a great way to start wrapping your head around how language works in general. As with learning mathematical logic, you learn to handle abstract systems with rules. So it doesn't actually matter that much what language it is: learning at lest one other language, ancient or modern, well builds very basic mental capacities.

Yes, Germany turns out lots of people who speak excellent English. What are they doing differently?
Trying to learn another language is good for older folks: helps keep the brain alive.

Sorry prior, I missed the news that the Koch brothers had bought Opel and Vauxhall along with the faculty of GMU. Amazing the things you learn from bitter expatriates!

Well, talk about an amusing typo.

However, it was this company that took over GM's European plants - 'Groupe PSA (informally PSA; PSA Group in English; formerly known as PSA Peugeot Citroën from 1991 to 2016) is a French multinational manufacturer of automobiles and motorcycles sold under the Peugeot, Citroën, DS, Opel and Vauxhall brands'

One can safely assume that its top managers don't use English very often either.

Who cares? What a non sequitur

Is foreign language instruction particularly expensive? The daycare value of school is a given - the kids have to be there. Are you making the claim that it's cheaper to have wasteful electives than required languages, or that kids will be better off if they can choose their "study"?

If you assume a total high school budget of 6 class periods x 4 years, and a requirement of 1 class period x 2 years for language, its 8% of the high school budget. In practice, there are probably only 5 academic periods, so its about 10% of the academic budget.

In dollars, an academic period-year costs something ~ $3K (big variance here), so 2 period-years for language are ~ $6K.

For I would guess 99%+ of the kids, this is a bad investment of their time and the school's resources. For the kids with an intense interest and talent, an admission-by-competition elite state boarding school (as a few states have for science) might be worthwhile.

For most kids, probably better to spend that effort to try to gets some college credits or trade school skills under their belt.

It's really depressing the responses on this thread, its like people have mostly responded with vision clouded by rage. Caplan is saying 2 things, most people don't need a foreign language in the US and most people cannot effectively learn a foreign language at school. Please try to counter these points with something other than calling him a philistine or presenting your personal anecdotes. The way to effectively challenge him would be some data on how most people do actually learn a second language in school, or how most people do need a second language.

Myself I am in the place that I now wish I had learned more effectively languages at school, but I recognise that this is a minority position. If we are going to teach languages probably the best way would be to do at elementary school via immersion, as someone said upthread, that is the most painless and easiest way to do it. Then for those kids who do get fluent could study the foreign language literature in middle school and high school which would maintain their fluency and encourage their appreciation of another culture. Of course I would not make this mandatory - anyone who wanted to drop languages in middle school could do so.

'most people don't need a foreign language in the US and most people cannot effectively learn a foreign language at school.'

Point 1 is true, from a certain perspective, assuming one completely ignores Spanish, of course.

Point 2 is true in one sense - school is not the same as immersion with native speakers. But in the other sense, that many people in other countries seem to be able to learn other languages in school well enough, seems to be pointing to a failure in the U.S., and not making a valid point about language education in general.

Your argument throughout this thread seems to be "people in other countries learn English well enough, why can't Americans learn other languages?" I think part of the issue is precisely that English is a lingua franca, so everybody who is driven to some prestigious job or university wants to learn it, and also everybody has to take it, often starting at a young age. Not to mention the effect of spoken English in music, movies, television, internet sites, advertisements, popular books and magazines, the prolific number of English-language schools, and more. There is a general culture of English, even in other parts of the world, that allows for a low-level degree of exposure and immersion, that simply does not exist for other languages in English-speaking countries, because there is no consensus on what language you should be exposed to (aside from French in Canada, and others in this thread are saying that is worthless outside of Quebec). Instead, we prize choice, which makes language mostly a classroom pursuit based on interests, which you can follow up by dabbling in that language's media and maybe even visiting a country where that language is spoken. Not to mention the fact that as a native speaker of the global lingua franca, it can be difficult to find native speakers of foreign languages you are interested in who will allow you to be immersed in that language: they will probably want to speak English with you, and will often steer the conversation in that direction.

Well, the fact that learning foreign languages is hard for a US resident only makes it a more valuable skill, especially if everybody else is dismissing it as a unnecessary. :-)

The problem is that this isn't true. Someone who grows up in an English-speaking country, who then acquires a second language and develops it to a high level, will be competing against all of the native speakers of that language who have been learning English for over a decade (or even grew up bilingual), likely spent a year or multiple years as an international student in the US, UK, or Australia, and know all the English that is necessary for international business and research, and are also already familiar with the cultural workplace norms of the country which speaks that language. You said above that you speak Portuguese and live in Portugal: if you were looking to hire someone for a position with a Portuguese company where that position split time between Portugal and the UK, why would you hire a native English speaker who is practically fluent in Portuguese over a Portuguese native with the necessary level of English and sufficient familiarity with British culture? In the US, a lot of the jobs that require Spanish at a highly proficient or fluent level are filled by people who grew up speaking it as their native tongue, either monolingually or bilingually. And foreign companies with offices in the US often just hire people from their home country and send them to the US, rather than hiring US natives who are familiar with the language of the foreign country's home. Just about the only context in which being a native English speaker confers a concrete advantage is in teaching English to non-native speakers. Highly-driven students in the US often make academic choices based on job prospects, and given that the job prospects that open up for whatever language you might choose (since, as a native speaker of the global lingua franca, your second language will ultimately come down to a matter of personal or parental preference rather than any economic imperative) are at best uncertain, investing heavily in learning another language may not make much sense as opposed to other pursuits. In East Asia, most of the non-English teacher foreigners who live there have hard skills and experiences or advanced networks in other fields, it was not their language skills, in many cases developed after the fact, that got them those positions.

Of course, there are other reasons to learn languages other than economic gain, like experiencing another way of life, but many of those would require you to live in the culture in which that language is spoken for an extended period of time, or even grow up in it, which often requires either a lot of money or a career in that country (not an English teacher), something which is difficult to acquire for the reasons outlined above.

'Your argument throughout this thread seems to be "people in other countries learn English well enough, why can't Americans learn other languages?"'

Actually, the main argument I am trying to make is that other people learn English, but it is an illusion to think they use it commonly. In other words, if you wish to know what the top management at a German, Korean, Japanese, French, or Italian car manufacturer are discussing among themselves, English is not much of a help.

Further, though clearly Europe and the U.S. are not the same (Europe being more than one country), the fact remains that many Europeans seem to be able to learn languages other than English in school, for whatever reason (and European students certainly have advantages - like a nation of those speaking the language is likely relatively close by). Not everyone does, of course. For example, it is unlikely that a Spanish speaker and an Italian speaker will use English with each other, in much the same fashion that a Flemish and Dutch speaker won't.

To me, a major difference is simply that Europeans (like Africans) are broadly aware from a young age that there are a variety of languages that people use, and that learning them is not something unusual or somehow foreign. This has been true for centuries, after all.

"English is the lingual franca"
Lol, very well done.

"But in the other sense, that many people in other countries seem to be able to learn other languages in school well enough"

In European countries learning English is not school alone, it's school combined with pop culture, combined with the internet, combined with the motivation for a good job, combined with English already being common enough that German officials are complaining about waiters in their restaurants speaking more English than German:

Ah, the British press. Here is the actual quote - 'Klar. Wir sollten international und europäisch das Sprechen und das Erlernen der deutschen Sprache weiter befördern. Es gibt ein steigendes Interesse, etwa bei den weltweit angebotenen Sprachkursen unserer Goethe-Institute. Und auch in Deutschland selbst kann das Zusammenleben nur gelingen, wenn alle auch Deutsch sprechen. Das sollten und dürfen wir von jedem Zuwanderer erwarten. Mir geht es dabei übrigens zunehmend auf den Zwirn, dass in manchen Berliner Restaurants die Bedienung nur Englisch spricht. Auf so eine Schnapsidee käme in Paris sicher niemand.'

The man speaking is the current minister of health, and the first part of that passage was talking about the increasing international interest in learning German. He then talked about how German should be spoken in Germany by those living and working in Germany, noting that some Berlin restaurants have English speaking wait staff, finishing with how the French would never tolerate a restaurant in Paris where French was not spoken (true enough).

However, the main point is not that the wait staff was using English, it was that the wait staff who were not German should learn German if they plan to stay and work in Germany.

Let's break it down.

"Caplan is saying 2 things, most people don't need a foreign language in the US"
Right, but most people don't need to know biology (in the US or anywhere else). Does that mean biology shouldn't be taught? Do you know what the future will bring?

"most people cannot effectively learn a foreign language at school. "
Well, most people can't effectively learn maths at school (maths is hard, it's a fact!) ... Does that mean it shouldn't be taught? Should we teach only subjects that are easy to learn? Or useful? And what is useful?

Let's assume that I work at a company in which will have to take an international position to be promoted and earn more money. Should I be at a disadvantage because I school did not provide me with an opportunity to learn languages when I was 15?

And it is a fallacy that traditional language teaching methods are ineffective. Kids abroad are taught foreign languages using those traditional methods and manage to learn. What is so different about Americans that makes them unable to do what others can? Are they dumb?

Kids abroad are taught English or another language that is already widely used in their country. Both have more utility than any language does for a native English speaker living in an English speaking country.

Thank you Rucas for actually making a reasonable argument against Caplan's points. As JDR says perhaps the main reason people overseas can learn English is motivation, which simply doesn't exist to the same extent in the US. Not sure how that could be changed. I think a lot of other countries also start language lessons much earlier, again the ease of learning a new language when you are young versus when you are high school. On the use of other school subjects, like say biology, I think Caplan would agree that a lot of subjects are being taught which most kids just don't ever use. I think this reflects the academic bias of much education, even up to university, it is mostly about the top 2 or 3% and what they will use as professionals, instead of about the needs of most of the kids. Kids are not of course the best judges of what is good for them long term, but I do wonder if subject choice should not just be left to the kids once they had mastered basic reading and writing and arithmetic.

It's amazing to me that so many people see this as a reductio ad absurdum.

"Foreign language instruction is useless, so we shouldn't force people to do it!"

"Oh, then I suppose you think we should just stop forcing people to do useless things?!"

"I...yes? Yes, I do think that. Why is this controversial?"

"I...yes? Yes, I do think that. Why is this controversial?"


The "immersion" is all the rage here, with parents enrolling their barely-yet-speaking-English toddlers in Spanish-only day cares (which probably makes a virtue of whom the day care was more easily able to hire anyway). It's an option in grade school here as well, recalling to mind Caitlin Flanagin's observation that Calif. parents jockeying to get their children into expensive schools promising Spanish education, could save the trouble and enroll their child in the local public elementary.

Of course, why the language should be Spanish - why, for instance, affluent Asian immigrants care whether their children learn Spanish - is puzzling.

In any case, to English speakers of reasonable intelligence, it is truly elementary to muddle through Spanish when required, and it's dispiriting that we should have to pretend otherwise.

But this is one case that is really about signaling, and I contend that that signaling very possibly cost a child his life the other day.

The county had no doubt proudly put in place a translation service for 911 calls. Nearly 90% of the calls in a foreign tongue are from Spanish-speakers. A child was choking, parents call, "help, help, my child" - Spanish-speakers, but they managed to get this out in English, as well as enough words to convey the street. In any case, the call could be traced as to location.

During the four (!) minutes it took to laboriously transfer the call to the "translator" as if a translator were required to sense that the words "help, child" conveyed in a desperate tone of voice could possibly demand any other response than the obvious, the child of course died.

Perhaps ideally all 911 dispatchers here - this would be easy to accomplish - should simply be second-gen Mexican immigrants. But
officials here are in love with their offering everything dually, in parallel, though by now any Texas resident who doesn't know the couple hundred most common words in Spanish would have to be a real dolt.

: I learned Latin and it really improved my score on the SAT ..."

The "secret" to a high score on the verbal SAT is ... reading. Those who seldom read (and only then when necessary) are unlikely to do well.

And although a modicum of cramming may help, non-readers are just going to be at a huge disadvantage here. Vocabulary cramming just isn't going to close the gap.

I suspect translation has a duel purpose. For example, I suspect the skills to learn enough Latin to read Caesar in the original also strengthens the cogitative skills used in coding and design. I suspect it probably also makes rhetorical tricks and scams less potent on the reader. If you know how language works and going into the nuts and bolts of a language is probably a good way to learn, you are less impressed by surface illusions....sort of like how if you really understand how cars work you're less impressed by an 'idiot light' on the dashboard and a mechanic spouting BS.

However if you are only trying to measure this effect by seeing how many people are fluent in Latin 10 years after HS ends, you're not going to see it anymore than you're going to see the value of team sports by quizzing HS football players at the 10 year reunion on the old playbook.

what a great idea. let's make americans even more ignorant about the rest of the world. it's not like they vote.

Caplan's weakest point is that people can get a Princeton education for free simply by moving to Princeton and dropping in on classes. Part of the expense of full time education is basic living expenses of housing, food, transportation. A hypothetical drop-in student couldn't get parents to pay for it, couldn't get grants, or even special rate loans. Beyond the major cost issue, such a drop in student would rightfully feel unwelcome, and constantly fearful of getting found out and expelled. Such a student wouldn't have a peer group. And he/she wouldn't have access to campus WiFi, some student only libraries, study spaces, dorms, and cafeterias. The more realistic autodidact approaches involve just studying textbooks without the class or some kind of online or distance learning options.

"And again, Washington state from what I understand, now allows kids to use a computer language in place of foreign language. Like, why not do that? Then it’s like, “No, no we need to do both.” People don’t have an unlimited amount of time, and shouldn’t teenagers be able to have a frigging childhood! Like how much of their childhood do you want to destroy with jumping through these stupid hoops?"

This part about computer languages is really moronic! You don't need schools to learn how to program computers! You simply get a book or go online and then try it for yourself. It is the kind of mechanistic skill that can be taught through online courses and tutorials. You don't need school for that. At least that's how I learnt it. But then I am not American and I am slowly realizing that most Americans may be "special" (and not in a good way)

At the same time most (all?) online language courses are a joke.

Learning a language in school has arguable usefulness. Usefulness in life depends on future context (which you don't know) and who you are (which you also may not know).
I have worked in a French company and by the nature of it's business hired people who could speak more than one language.
My skillset is wide and when I have looked around I have seen many postings that require Spanish, French or another language. My French is around a B2 level and I decided to apply to a French bilingual position and I got a call right away. I inquired about the French part and fluent bilingual level was needed.
My location has many companies that are French based and financial institutions that have investments in Spanish speaking countries that need Spanish language skills.
I believe French is the fastest growing language now due to its use in Africa and the Middle East.
You can easily get by speaking English only in America, but you are imposing limits on yourself.

What's B2?

The Common European Framework of Reference for languages (CEFR) established standards for proficiency: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2 (low to high).

I don’t doubt that most schools don’t teach foreign languages effectively. Foreign languages should be taught to students when they are very young, perhaps in first grade. The way to do it is to find a speaker of a foreign language who does not speak English, put him or her in the room with the children, and in month or two they will be conversing. Humans are programmed to learn languages at a very young age, but this becomes difficult around the onset of puberty. But we’re not programmed to learn how to write; this takes perhaps a decade to teach. Children don’t do much in first grade; learning how to speak (but not write) a second language would be a gift. Multi-lingual students usually do better on many things. (When my son attended a French school, all the students in his class were fluent in French and English, and one year half were fluent in three or four. Virtually all children can do this, very few teenagers can.)

"ecause there, we’ve got a bunch of facts, which are: hardly any jobs use foreign languages, it takes a lot of time to get any good. ...People don’t have an unlimited amount of time"

It's even worse. Foreign language isn't even re-usable within the specific context of school. It's standalone; no other course line needs that specific skill, unlike say algebra (required for calculus and physics).

Can the argument be generalized beyond foreign languages?

If the recommendation is to drop a subject (not attempt to remedy!) on the conditions that: 1) empirically, students don't learn it well, or 2) it is not (in a pure form) a skill necessary for employment; then I think it fails to generalize. I get the wasted time argument; we should not forget the opportunity cost of education. But if we only focused on those subjects that pass those two conditions, how do we avoid a strictly reactionary approach to education? Doesn't some value of education, and some value in assessing the educators, arise from knowledge has been around for a long time such as classics or language studies? And in STEM, should we not teach esoterica because it fails those two conditions? Is there no value in a deep dive into compass and straightedge constructions, just for the deep dive's sake?

Not responsive to your overall point, but...the hypothetical test should be an 'and,' not 'or.'

Part 2) probably should include something like "or for good citizenship" i.e., what we used to call social studies, philosophy/logic (maybe), practical math, health, etc.

Such is life in Trump America!

It sounds like they are just picking the wrong languages. Mandarin, Hindi, and Spanish all have large use today, and are likely to grow in importance over the next few decades.

The best reason to study Latin is so that you'll get the scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian where the Roman Guard forces Brian to correct his "Romans Go Home" graffiti.

As a product of American public schooling, my experience is that foreign language instruction does NOT receive inordinate emphasis in American education. I had virtually none through elementary and middle school and three years in high school. That seems like a pretty moderate allocation. And the requirement was only two years, so I could have got away with even less. I don't think it was *uniquely* wasteful. Come to think of it, there wasn't even much actual language or grammar instruction in English. The English classes were pretty "soft" with an emphasis on reading fiction and talking about how it makes you feel.

While there is no shortage of stupid in the world the particular strain here is Caplan's insistence on using the screwdriver of economics to drive the nail of social science.

Would you rather have the nail of social science driving the screwdriver of economics?!

It's hard to learn a means of communication without someone to communicate with.

If you're living in a non-English-speaking European country, then there is so much English-language media and internet around you that there's plenty of incentive to learn English and plenty of opportunity to use it.

If you're in a bilingual region, then there's an incentive and opportunity to learn both languages (and, if neither of them is English, likely English as well).

If you're in China or Japan, then the incentive to learn anything other than your native language (and Pǔtōnghuà if your native language is a different Chinese language) is very limited.

And if you're in a country where English is native, then, unless you're in a bilingual region (like the bilingual Spanish regions of the USA, or parts of Atlantic Canada where there is still significant French spoken, or Urdu-bilingual regions of towns in the UK, or the bilingual regions of Wales), then developing a foreign language to the point of being able to conduct an adult conversation with a native speaker is something very few people will be able to achieve, becuase there isn't anyone to communicate with, depriving you of both incentive and opportunity.

There is an argument that learning linguistics (grammar, phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics, pragmatics) is of value, primarily in the understanding of your own language, and that a basic structural understanding of a foreign language - which does not grant the ability to communicate in that language - is useful or even necessary in that learning of linguistics.

This would suggest that language classes should be about things like comparing sentence diagrams across languages so you can appreciate the structure of English better by comparison with a foreign language, rather than attempting to teach students to actually communicate in that language. If the language is something that you are consciously pulling apart and building up piece by piece, you can't do that fast enough to hold a conversation, even if you have learned enough words to actually do that; the grammar and syntax needs to be subconscious.

But to understand linguistics, you can operate with a language that you only understand in conscious mode (Kahneman's System 2, rather than System 1), which is a level that is much easier to achieve in a classroom.

To me it looks like a case where the testing function of schooling has squeezed out education. If you taught foreign languages so that people could speak it, it would tough to grade and some great students who lack a knack for foreign language acquisition would be harmed.

Some people in the past thought and advocated for foreign language education in the US.

Caplan should be addressing the arguments of this people, even of some of them are already dead. Why was foreign language education important 120, 70, 50 and 20 years ago and not today?

All those people here who don't know Latin and debate on how useless it is make me think of a bunch of blind people debating about the uselessness of colors.

I sympathize with much of what Caplan is proposing and trying to do. He's right, almost everything about the government schooling model (which is based on the Prussian schooling model that Horace Mann imported to the US in mid-late 19th century is flawed. It was ideal for creating a marginally literate, subservient class that could handle factory, work, but that's not the kind of world or economy that we have now 100+ years later.

But it seem to me that Caplan is too focused on the efficient transfer of knowledge to students so that they can become productive members of the work force. Alternately, I am a proponent of returning to a classical model of education, where liberal arts are not marginalized in favor of math and science, but rather, they are embraced as the context for understanding the history our world and why and how that math and science works and was developed. My four kids are all elementary age and they are learning Latin now. They are not learning it because it itself is particularly useful, they are learning it as a complement and corollary to learning about the history of Western Civilization and all that came with it: philosophy, epic poems/mythology (which all still map on to our current world--as Jordan Peterson has demonstrated), fundamental math and physics/science, art, logic and rhetoric...

Despite Caplan's focus on the true necessity of understanding math, science, and technology, the reality is that even more than that, the only thing that you really need to grasp to be successful is the ability to clearly communicate with and to others in both speaking and writing. Everything else can be an acquired skill. If you aren't a well-rounded person who can communicate well, you will eventually be limited.

Further, while Caplan seems to be focused solely on efficiently transferring knowledge and developing employees and entrepreneurs, the program he seems to advocate for completely ignore the needs for members of society to be authentic people with good character. We don't just need to school people with knowledge. We need to education whole citizens. I agree that our current govt school model doesn't do that. But his proposal doesn't either.

Just curious. Do multiple language learners in other countries learn another language better than a US student in a language that's not really used in that country? Except for Spanish, the other languages aren't really used much, where English in other countries is used. So do French students learn Mandarin better than US students learning it?

I’m surprised there are so many opinions here along the lines of “I never used the French / Spanish Latin/ etc. that I was taught in school therefore no one else should be taught it.” It’s a point of view, sure, but hardly any basis for public policy. Some broader points:

1. Experiencing how much effort it takes to learn a foreign language might just help the thoughtful person be a little more forgiving when the immigrant serving one a meal cocks up.

2. Even if you cannot speak some particular foreign language, having studied it gives you a great advantage when doing business with its native speakers. One is better able to understand the customs and conventions, and has more empathy. And one might just seem less arrogant to the other side for having made the effort.

3. Learning a dead language forces one to be precise in meaning and thinking, because definitions and grammar rules are fixed. And no, coding does not achieve the same result, because its domain of reference is highly restricted.

4. Learning any foreign language helps one to understand one’s own language much better, and to see the same thing from a different point of view.

5. It’s fun.

PS. I am not denying that most schools may be poor at teaching languages.

I may have missed its mention in this thread, but I think one of the fundamentally important things about learning a foreign language is discovering that some ideas are difficult or virtually impossible to translate. I think there is no way to measure the utility of the ineffable. Teaching a different language gives a person two points of contact in the realm of language theory (i.e. meta-language). In point of fact, language instruction reinforces English grammar/usage teaching - I've no question about that. Here's the question: how do we measure a 2nd language's utility? Would a study of C-Suite occupants (who I would assume are "tops" in their communication skills (possibly excepting start-ups and family owned concerns)) and their 2nd language exposure correlate to life "success"? Or perhaps the tier under that one, the "Director" tier (if you suspect that the cream will rise irregardless).
To sum up: Metalanguage concepts are taught. Cultures different from one's own, with different customs, values, responsibilities, rights, and laws are shown. And, ideally, if you can get a kid (or adult) to think a thought in language X that they could not or would not think in English, then it can be very enlightening, I think. Actually learning how to mechanically translate is not, and should not be, the principle reason for teaching a 2nd language, imho. They have apps that do that. I'd argue that us arrogant opinionated and powerful (economically, socially and militarily) Americans are in dire need of just such an education.

MIT doesn’t have a foreign language requirement. I’m guessing other tech/engineering schools don’t either. What should we make of that?

I assume it has to do with opportunity costs.

Could this be a signal of complacency In America? It seems we don't want to expand our horizon anymore. Has Alice caught the Red Queen?

A couple of problems I've always had with foreign language education:

1) The chicken-and-the-egg. I can't really learn a foreign language without some strong motivation to learn it, and it's hard (growing up in an English speaking country) to get that motivation unless you're already fluent. I'm sure the French have many fine works of literature that are better in French than translated into English, but I couldn't even start to read them without a lot of study, and I wouldn't care enough to study until I've already gotten obsessed with their literature.

2) The all-or-nothing problem. Being "kinda good" at a foreign language doesn't do much for you. You won't be able keep up with the pace of native speakers, or understand their books or media, at least not without a tortuous process of constantly pausing and looking up words. You miss all the nuance that makes it fun. And if the person you're talking to speaks English, they'll probably just switch to English for you.

I think if we wanted kids to really learn a foreign language, you'd have to make them do it every single year, grade 1-12, like we do for math. 10,000 hours of study! Plus regular summer trips to that country so they'll gain motivation (and be cool with allowing a bunch of school kids to just wander around a foreign country, I guess). Somehow make the movies/music/books of that language also popular with the kids, so they'll keep practicing even when they're outside of school. But I agree with Caplan... this is all WAY more effort than is justified, at least for regular kids.

"I never cared for French class. I didn't see why I needed to know another way to say 'window'."

- Ray Kurzweil, inventor of the 'reader for the blind' machine


Fuck Kurzweil.

I took French what seemed to be 17 years in high school and lived in France for 3 months, but I don't remember that.

Now, if you live in Japan for 15 years, then 窓 is important.

How can you say "Fuck Kurzweil" for inventing a reader for the blind? Fuck Newton too! The bastard... 

Maybe in the US. In Finland people learn Swedish and English. In Singapore kids learn two languages from Kindergarten.

I fluent in four languages. My mother tongue is Finnish. At school I learned Swedish, German and English. I am still fluent in all of them (well, I could not write poems in any of them).
I think being bilingual or bilingual+ has greatly improved my thinking as I've got with each language as a byproduct another way of looking at life -another mental culture.
And it is fascinating to read or watch non-American news -I now call American news as American "news". Getting news from non-American sources (who are still US allies -I am not talking about Russia here) is really enlightening.

I wonder if there is any connection between the idea that Americans should de facto force foreigners to speak or write to them in English and the recent post on the blog where Caplan is a contributor entitled "America Bullies the World"?

I also have the suspicion that there is a direct correlation between one's ignorance of a particular subject and the propensity to claim, at the same time, that that subject is not worth the time or effort to learn about (not only for one's self but for others). Is this trait an example of some sort of autism?

Almost every subject is unnecessary to most people most of the time. Caplan: abolish school!

I'm sure there are jobs that require Cantonese and English, but a Cantonese-American will be better speaking Cantonese than I could ever be. (And the xenophobia of China means that I would be passed over even if we were equally skilled.)

Fundamentally, the Cantonese-American has a competitive advantage.

The same applies for virtually every foreign language. I don't care if Toyota conducts their business in Japanese - I'll work at Ford because a Gaijin will never get promoted anyway and the 10,000 hours I could spend mastering Japanese would be better spent mastering engineering.

Because of that, I see little use in learning a foreign language. However, I don't know what could be put in its place.

My experience with the school system suggests a complete inability to teach "real world" topics. The closer a topic was to the real world, the more mismanaged its instruction. For example, I took a class on food prep in highschool - after all, everyone needs to eat. The class was 80% baking, preparing me for a role as a 50s housewife. The other 20% was food hygiene hysteria that was so over-the-top as to be useless.

I'd love to see them cover topics like personal finance, negotiation, professional communication, driving, home maintenance, basic accounting, etc. I think learning those things would improve people's lives. But I can't imagine the present system delivering those effectively.

+1, but your food prep class was still more useful than a language. Too many people here have invested too much time in foreign languages to be able to remove themselves from the argument. (4 yrs of Spanish for me.) For most Americans, it's not the best use of their time, for a small percentage it is.

Sounds like a nice thing to allow, but not require.

I think the broader question is the nature of education in a world where information is infinitely available and time is scarce. Or arguably where too much time is wasted on signaling, and there is not enough on return on investment in terms of practical skills.

I think the questions are driven by 1) the rise of the iPad as unlimited connectedness, and 2) the rise of education costs, which is creating pressure to create more value for the educational dollar.

Signaling is a valuable social mechanism. The education system is mainly a signaling system so it is just performing it's role. It is true that about 70-80% of what we learn from school to college is on average useless for your profession later on but signaling is an important mechanism. If there were more efficient signaling mechanisms than education then there would emerge incentives for these sectors to develop. Overall the current system is perhaps relatively close to the optimal signaling mechanism specially considering that all developed countries have similar education systems: how likely is that 50 countries are doing everything completely wrong and only Bryan knows what is right?

I agree that government subsidy for education is an issue though but we must also consider that the main reasons for government subsidy of education is that many people are credit constrained so that they cannot afford an education that would help then and pay for itself over the long run even at low interest rates simply because they are credit constrained.

I'm starting to wonder what things would actually be taught in Caplan's ideal world. Is the goal of the education system simply to turn out ZMP workers at the smallest possible cost?

This seems to be a common failing of the economic research program. Find a large data set, show that input A doesn't correlate to output B, and propose reducing or eliminating B. It seems logical, but the sheer profusion of inputs that don't correlate to outputs starts to call the whole methodology into question.

Happiness research is the worst offender. Happiness researchers will tell you that there is no correlation between happiness and
-- A raise at work, or indeed salary at work beyond the poverty level
-- Having a child
-- Marriage
and many others I can't remember off the top of my head.

No problem. i'm waiting for the (movie version) Ghost in the Machine solution. We'll be able to plug a little foreign language computer thumb drive into our head for two minutes - voila!

That's a 2030 scenerio...

I'm not really sure about the value of learning foreign languages compared with many other subjects that we mostly forget. However, I am convinced that most students should be required to learn basic handyman, cleaning, and other practical life skills.

Visit Woodland CA, where 50 percent of the population is of Latino ancestry. If you know Spanish, you'll have a hell of a lot more fun.

If you're not going to learn the language enough to really speak it, and then actually use it, it's a waste. I wasted at least one year on required Spanish, and 2 years on German (because something was required).

Now, living in Slovakia, I do speak in Slovak. I was able to get by in two years, conversation sort of in three ... but after 10 years, still not really business comfy.

All over the world, it DOES pay to learn English. Nothing else comes close. Most Slovaks, and Czechs, and Hungarians, and Poles -- all do. Even Austrians get English in early school, but most who don't continue at University don't use it nor really speak it (like many police).

Learning a computer language is far more valuable in the USA.

Key is early childhood immersive language education. We sent both of our kids to French immersion schools - my dagughter when she started elementary school and my son even earlier. My daughter is now in her early 20ies and fluent in French. My son is a teen - and a very strong French speaker. And i am convinced it made both of them overall better students.
Starting to teach a foreign language in middle or high school is a waste.

Why do we need computer languages? Why not just use English?

This seems to suppose that the goal is to create fluency or, indeed, to provide marketable skills. The goal might instead or also be to create educated and socialized voters...

Learning a foreign language helps broaden your ability to think (though a number of the commenters here seem to have trouble with only one language). Try counting in Italian and you'll see language determines the shape of thought.

Conservatives get nervous when students start to think, because critical thinking makes right wing BS impossible to accept. Hence their war on both teachers and schooling.

As for unions, management has shown itself unable to act intelligently or fairly without external restraint, so unions are necessary to push back against Jurassic Capitalism. And unions are also necessary so workers in Right to Work states can see how much they're getting screwed by not having a union.

The rise of the American middle-class coincides with the strengthening of unions. The weakening of unions coincides with the decline of American middle-class prosperity. Coincidence? I doubt it.

"Don’t make the mistake of arguing that knowing a second language has many benefits. The point is that foreign language instruction in schools doesn’t teach a second language."

Don't make the mistake of arguing that because many people fail to learn a skill, that skill is itself of little value, nor the mistake that because something is not best learned in school, that it is not learned by many people by other means.

While we're at it, I'm curious whether Caplan and Tabarrok can at least recall the fundamental idea of Newton's Law of Universal Gravitation, even if they don't quite remember the exact formula, and whether they would therefore conclude that basic physics need not be a part of the school curriculum. For what it's worth, I'm fine with experimenting with doing away with all compulsory education, but I'm wondering how consistent people are who make the "case against education".

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