Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

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(Photo: SuperFantastic)

(Photo: SuperFantastic)

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.

And as we learn from Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, thinking in a foreign language can affect decision-making, too — for better or worse.

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.


Griff

Spanish isn't a foreign language in the US any more, is it?

Sam

The other question is why do we teach foreign language when it is hardest to learn. All of the Swiss I've ever met spoke 4-5 languages...still. They start teaching language when children are you and their brains are primed to learning language.

Daniel Schechter

I think there were several flaws in your analysis of the benefits of learning a foreign language.

First off, when you stated that people approach risk differently in a foreign language, I wonder if you took into account the level of fluency of the subjects? American high schools are notoriously bad at teaching anything, especially languages, and many people stop their study at a point where they can get by but have not yet internalized the language. At this stage speaking the foreign language requires so much conscious effort that other thinking functions may be hampered.

But a much bigger argument that I have is your implicit assumption that ROI can be measured purely in terms of salary. What's the ROI of eating a fine meal in a restaurant or visiting an art museum? One of my teachers said that learning a foreign language is like gaining a new soul: You learn to view the world more broadly and you open up the possibility of communicating with a wider array of people. You gain the ability to read news of world events from a broader range of perspectives. These things make you a better citizen. The linguistic insularity of America damages us in many ways, as we fail to understand the perspectives of other nations and we are more likely to see potential friends as enemies.

A narrow salary-based calculation of the benefits of learning a foreign language misses the positive effect on quality of citizenship, as well as the pure, delightful pleasure of being able to communicate with people from whom one would otherwise be completely cut off.

Of all the things I've learned through study (as opposed to things one learns just by living and experience) becoming fluent in Spanish has been the most rewarding and the most broadening, and yet has probably not added a dollar to my income. My ability to speak and read Spanish is one of the most valuable things I possess, far more valuable than a mere increase in income.

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Miles

With so much of English being Latin based is Latin alive, dead, or a "zombie" language?

Jose

"I was recently on a tour of Latin America, and the only regret I have
was that I didn't study Latin harder in school so I could converse with
those people."

-- J. Danforth Quayle

Latin is dead but its descendants are well alive...

Brian

"There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language."

This person misses the point. If you study a language, especially one with similar roots to your own, it enhances the depth of understanding of your own language. In English, learning a Romance language (such as French or Spanish) or presumably German is a big help.

There are a lot of less common but still used English words that I know because of their similarity to common French words. For example, punitive is similar to forms of the French word punir (to punish).

My English is better because I learned French.

The job I've had for my entire adult life is also because of my French fluency, so I'm glad I studied it.

James

Curious, because for me it works just the other way around: I often figure out meanings of less-common words in French & other Romance languages by relating them to English words. But then I'm a long way from being barely literate in English: I've sometimes thought about how many words there are in my reading vocabulary that I've never heard anyone actually say.

Dan

Are there any studies comparing ROI of the various languages? Comparing Spanish to French to German, etc?

Oliver H

Looking at the financial ROI is a good way to promote the political dysfunction of the United States. Not only through a perspective of focussing too much on financial ROIs, but also through the forced focus on one individual perspectives. People whose information comes basically exclusively from an anglo-american background will necessarily have a biased view of world affairs. And the fact that there are some non-anglo-american sources in English doesn't do much to change that, due to the fact that the notion that foreign languages aren't really worth it is easily extrapolatable to the idea that foreign sources aren't really worth it.

Conversely, I can access information from German, English and French language sources and if it's not too complicated Spanish. I am neither limited by what the "official" line of an individual government is, nor even what the narrative of the mainstream media in one country is.

Encouraging learning a foreign language is encouraging to understand that there are different ways to look at things, different narratives and different ways to think about issues. And that does a whole lot for the sanity of a political system at home, too.

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Max

The PDF link is broken! Waah. This is the best I found, but you have to pay for it:

http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/0034653054638256

thestik

Having dabbled in learning about a few different languages (Spanish, French, Arabic and Mandarin Chinese), I think this podcast had more ROI angles to explore. When I have studied these languages, I have found myself more engaged in the nuances of domestic/international policies of the countries where these are spoken.

Language can provide fascinating clues into how and why laws are created in a country and why reactions to these laws varies between different peoples. Understanding the lack of the word "no" in Chinese helps me get a better picture of why political dissent in mainland China is exceptionally tricky but also quite creative when the people do make a stand (where the absence of "no" makes it even more of a challenge to stand up to state controlled information). So perhaps we could look at the effects of knowing multiple languages on foreign policy comprehension/decision making. Taking that one step further, we could see what kind of fiscal impact occurs on a national level. The fiscal impacts don't have to be limited to the government. Language can affect private foreign aid groups and their work, a sector that is very easy to call into doubt in this day and age.

When it comes down to it, I don't think this topic is as finished as the podcast suggests. I think there are still areas to investigate that go beyond individual consequences. Perhaps we should start looking at costs/benefits of learning multiple languages to larger groups of people.

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Peter

Many people talk about less tangible or indirect benefits of learning a language, which is of course important, but we still have to consider all important opportunity cost. And I think it is absolutely massive.

People here have quoted some benefits which I think quite vague: cognitive enhancement, better grammar in Native language, understanding other cultures etc. But let's remember that during the time we make children study languages, they are not studying IT, economics, physics, maths, life skills (e.g. sexual education, financial education etc). Is it really still worth to have those vague benefits from learning a second language? Some people just love languages, which is great, I also like diving but I'm not advocating that it should be compulsory in schools.

People have also quoted stories about how learning a second language helped them and the reality is there would be people for whom it worked very well and it does depend on circumstances: e.g. is your first language English, do you plan to work overseas, do people in your country work with many foreigners etc.

I have personally studies English and French as second and third languages. I have studied English since I was about 7 and French since I was about 10. English was absolutely essential for me, not only because of job opportunities but the fact to access best information you have to know English. French was quite useless to me unfortunately and I wish I did something else and not waste 5 years learning it.

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Jose

Hi Steven & Stephen. I just finished listening to your podcast on Second Language. First I want to thank you for your program and I want to share my side of the story: As a native Spanish speaker, I managed to study and work in the Republic of Texas for 10 years thanks to the fact that I learned English. Now that I´m back in Costa Rica, I do most of my reading in English and listen to programs like yours to keep my language skills up to date. Here, if you want to work for a multinational company, it is assumed that you speak English. Furthermore, there is a big market for people who speak a third language, that´s because we have many customer support centers that service many countries.
In conclusion, in my case, learning English has been a high return investment. I get by in other four languages, this allowed me to interact with people of many countries and their culture. These languages have not been a good financial investment but have enriched my life immensely and do not regret the effort involved in learning them.
Gracias amigos.

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Guilherme

I didn't hear or read the whole podcast, but the question seems really stupid and rednecked. I know that the core of the question was about the gain of cognitive skills versus costs of learning a new language, but is really small minding consider that as a citizen of any country, there is no use of a new language than a smarter brain. Is US some island where it's citizens are not allowed to travel, or get in touch with no english language countries? Is US closing borders? Really? In 2014?

Jay Norman

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the Freakonomics podcast. This topic resonated with me because we have a daughter in a French Immersion public school. Thankfully, it's a public school, so the investment is minimal.
I take that back. It takes MUCH more time than it should for her Mom (a dentist) and I (a PhD engineer) to help her with her homework...and she's in second grade!
One thing the podcast didn't address is the POTENTIAL VALUE for native English speakers to learn a foreign language. With the rise of China and other "emerging" countries, there's a good chance that the foreign-language ROI could rise exponentially.
Any economists care to comment on this?