Learning Other Languages

There have been a few arguments presented out there against teaching American students  languages other than English in school. Here’s Bryan Caplan:

If you find the typical American insufferably insular and low-brow, I agree.  My point is that given his insular, low-brow ways, the typical American who remains monolingual isn’t missing much.

Tyler Cowen responds by mentioning that the main benefit from learning another language is a general cognitive one. Cowen also refers to this New Yorker article, form which I learn of Larry Summers’ latest controversy. Here’s the key piece of some remarks he made recently:

English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world, make it less clear that the substantial investment necessary to speak a foreign tongue is universally worthwhile.

When my wife and I were living in Toronto she had a job hiring and coordinating promotional reps across Canada for various brands. She, like all Canadians, took a lot of French in elementary and secondary school and even grew up on the Ontario/Quebec border. So what did she do when she needed to read emails from her French reps? She used Google Translate.

I grew up in a much more Anglo part of Ontario but studied in a French Immersion program in elementary school where just about everything was in French until I was 13 or so. At my peak I’d say I was totally fluent (more so than my wife) but I had lost most of it by my mid-20s. I could still read reasonably well, though, and felt that the Google translation was excellent. Very impressive.

If you evaluated all the time my wife and I spent learning French against the direct economic benefit it afforded us (and this is in Canada, remember), it’d be easy to dismiss multilingualism as a waste. But what did I miss out on? Here’s Cowen again:

Ideally foreign languages can be taught to individuals when they are young, well before high school, thus very much lowering the opportunity cost of such instruction.  Just toss out some of the other material, making sure to keep mathematics and English literacy.  Most of Western Europe does this quite well, and I hardly think of those children as miserable.  I don’t see why this has to cost anything at all.

Great point. Selfishly speaking, I hope to enroll my son in a dual-language school because I want my child to associate with the children of other parents who value multilingualism. In Canada the French Immersion system is often seen as a back-door extended education stream.

In my experience lots of kids drop out. I was one of two boys in my kindergarten class that made it to High School. There were probably 15-20 girls. I didn’t think of it this way at the time, but that’s all probably because the program was just really hard.

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