Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast
Our latest podcast is called “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) We produced the episode in response to a question from a listener named Doug Ahmann, who wrote in to say:
I’m very curious how it came to be that teaching students a foreign language has reached the status it has in the U.S. … My oldest daughter is a college freshman, and not only have I paid for her to study Spanish for the last four or more years — they even do it in grade school now! — but her college is requiring her to study EVEN MORE!
What on earth is going on? How did it ever get this far?
In a day and age where schools at every level are complaining about limited resources, why on earth do we continue to force these kids to study a foreign language that few will ever use, and virtually all do not retain?
Or to put it in economics terms, where is the ROI?
Great question, Doug! We do our best to provide some answers.
In the episode you’ll hear from Albert Saiz, an MIT economist who specializes in immigration. In a paper called “Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States”(abstract; PDF*), Saiz calculated how much learning a foreign language can boost future earnings.
Learning a language is of course not just about making money — and you’ll hear about the other benefits. Research shows that being bilingual improves executive function and memory in kids, and may stall the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, talks about how much time the average U.S. student spends learning a language, and how well that learning is retained. (Spoiler alert: not very well!) Caplan also tells us what he really thinks about foreign language education in the U.S.:
CAPLAN: If people are going to get some basic career benefit out of it, or it enriches their personal life, then foreign language study is great. But if it’s a language that doesn’t really help their career, they’re not going to use it, and they’re not happy when they’re there, I really don’t see the point, it seems cruel to me.
Perhaps most important, Caplan points to the opportunity cost of language study:
CAPLAN: There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language.
Finally: a big thanks to the fourth- and eighth-grade Spanish and Mandarin students at LREI (Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School) in Manhattan, and to their teachers and principal, for letting us listen in on a lesson. Or, shall we say: muchas gracias and xie xie.
*Review of Economics and Statistics 87, no. 3 (August 2005), pp. 523-538; published by MIT Press Journals. © 2005 President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.