Some schools allow students to substitute classes in statistics, math, and computer programming for “foreign language” requirements. This is good policy, and I think it would be wise for schools across the country to adopt it or simply drop foreign language requirements.
Don’t get me wrong: languages are great, and I think our lives would be vastly improved if we all knew at least one more language and could read classics like Wretched, War and peaceand Don Quixote in their native languages.
But alas, as economist and education iconoclast Bryan Caplan has pointed out, Americans rarely read the classics, even in translation. According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of American adults “report that they have not read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio.”
The problem is not that people don’t read the classics in their original language or even that they don’t read the classics. It’s that they don’t read, period. There are undoubtedly lives that have been changed when people have gone from being disinterested in the life of the mind to enthusiastic readers after studying Russian and reading The Karamzov brothersbut these are surely very few and widely spaced.
For the average American, studying foreign languages in school is a waste of time considering all the other things she could be doing. For the marginal American who would be pushed into a Spanish class rather than an art history or economics class by just a few more grants, there is virtually nothing to be gained by making that choice.
“But it’s good for society.” I’m not so sure. For society as a whole, it’s hard to see how we’re all better off by a little more language study at the expense of other things people might be doing. In other words, I don’t think there’s any unrealized fallout waiting to be recouped by pushing people into an extra semester or year of Spanish at the expense of other things they might be doing. .
Don’t get me wrong: my life would definitely be a lot better if I knew more than the few bits of German I remember from high school. Then again, my life would also be better if I played the piano, ran triathlons, or mastered the art of French cooking. Even armed with this knowledge, I chose – and I choose – to do something else.
According to Thomas Sowell, “the first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all who want it”. In other words, you can’t have it all. By choosing to do one thing, you are choosing do not make another, and the further study of the language should come at the expense of something else – something else that people, faced with the incentives and constraints they currently face, have deemed more important than a little more language learning.
“But most Europeans are multilingual.” It is true, but Europe has many linguistic groups grouped together in a relatively small space. Paris is closer to Amsterdam than Birmingham to New Orleans, and you don’t switch languages between Birmingham and New Orleans.
Here’s an additional perspective. This summer, my family is going on a trip across the country. On our first day of driving, I believe we are driving from Birmingham to Columbia, Missouri. According to Google Maps, it will take around 9 hours to drive through parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois and Missouri. It’s about the same driving time as the trip from Hamburg, Germany to Paris, but on a trip from Hamburg to Paris, you’ll pass through four countries (Germany, Holland, Belgium, France) speaking three different languages ( German, Dutch and French). ).
The average European is not so far from a place where people speak another language. Therefore, it is to their advantage to learn several languages. A student from Birmingham would have to travel about a thousand miles to get to the Mexican border, where she would not be surrounded by native English speakers. And even then, she would be surrounded by enough people who speak English to be able to get around without too much trouble. Even then, the distance between San Antonio and McAllen, Texas is comparable to the distance between Berlin and Prague.
Compared to all the other things she could do, studying a foreign language doesn’t pay her much. “The world would be a better place if every American knew a foreign language” is true, but it’s not the same as “so it’s a good use of resources to require students to study foreign languages at the school”. The second request needs a solid argument for what we would give up and why.
But back to Sowell: “The first lesson of politics is to ignore the first lesson of economics.” If you pretend scarcity isn’t a constraint, it’s easy to imagine having more of something you think is important just by wishing for it. Or vote for. Policies that ignore scarcity are unlikely to be wise.
One could answer that there is benefits to study the language even if someone does not get the fluency. They’re right, but there are costs too – and most Americans have voted with their time and money for a lot of things besides studying foreign languages. What right, I wonder, do We Unenlightened presume to tell them what to do? Even with the resources we currently devote to language teaching, people don’t learn much, and “we should Craft their!” doesn’t strike me as an answer to “people don’t like this particular curriculum” which is worthy of a free society that respects human dignity and the right to choose.
Would the world be a better place if Americans knew more languages? It absolutely would be, but the world would be a better place with more of many things (good music, great art) and less of many other things (obesity, poverty). Bryan Caplan argues that people don’t retain much of what they study, and foreign languages are one of his prime examples. In light of what we actually know about what people learn, remember and use, the sad reality is that eliminating language requirements would almost certainly be a very good political decision.