Passport

The case against foreign language study

Barack Obama is talking about foreign languages again: Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your ...

Barack Obama is talking about foreign languages again:

Now, I agree that immigrants should learn English. I agree with that. But understand this. Instead of worrying about whether immigrants can learn English — they’ll learn English — you need to make sure your child can speak Spanish. You should be thinking about, how can your child become bilingual? We should have every child speaking more than one language.

You know, it’s embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe, and all we can say [is], "Merci beaucoup." Right?

You know, no, I’m serious about this. We should understand that our young people, if you have a foreign language, that is a powerful tool to get a job. You are so much more employable. You can be part of international business. So we should be emphasizing foreign languages in our schools from an early age, because children will actually learn a foreign language easier when they’re 5, or 6, or 7 than when they’re 46, like me.

The cosmopolitan in me says, "Right on." Americans are notoriously poor with language, and it reflects badly on us.

But my inner behavioral economist tells me that Obama has identified a solution in search of a problem. After all, Americans are just behaving rationally. Europeans need to learn foreign languages because they live much closer to one another, are more integrated economically, and come from smaller countries. If you’re a young Swede, for instance, you need to learn English to be employable. As for romance languages, once you’re fluent in French, it’s relatively easy to pick up Spanish and Italian.

Most Americans, in contrast, don’t really need to learn a foreign language: Many foreigners speak English, and the amount of bilingual jobs available is relatively small. It’s a nice skill to have, but acquiring working-level fluency in a second or third language is expensive and time consuming, and often the potential payoff isn’t worth it. My seven years of French has never been very useful, frankly, and I might have been better served learning more about microbiology or fluid dynamics.

In short, Obama shouldn’t worry: Americans will start picking up foreign languages in larger numbers (think: Mandarin) when they really need to.

UPDATE: Blogger Dave Schuler comments.

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