Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? (Ep. 158)

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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.


As a student, I wondered this same question. As a teacher now, I see a lot of merit to studying languages; albeit it's a lot easier to say that on this side of the fence. Aside from building a sense of cultural appreciation for others, understanding a second language allows people to think differently about the mechanics of their native language.

Quentin Langley

The second half of the program hits a methodological problem.

If, as research cited in the first part of the program suggests, learning a foreign language improves cognitive skills, then your 2% return figure falls flat. You are comparing people with otherwise similar cognitive skills as measured by grades in college, but those who speak a foreign language would have had lower scores without the cognitive boost - in other words, they are earning 2% more than people who are naturally smarter than they are.

The evidence that it boosts cognitive skills also destroys any calculation of opportunity cost. This is ameliorated - and may be entirely wiped out - by the cognitive boost. For example, Caplan suggests you might get a better return having people focus on literacy skills in their first language. Possibly. But taking away the time spent on a foreign language, even if replaced with study of the first language, might not increase understanding of the first language. The inability to see things such as grammar in the wider context might reduce understanding of your first language. Speaking for myself, I didn't really understand English grammar until I studied Latin.


caleb b

Agreed. Four years of Latin and I can't remember much of any of it. My English writing skills improved immensely. The vocab learning alone made it worth it for me. Too bad my entire city now only has two school that even offer Latin.

Norman Weersing

I studied French for 2 yrs in high school and 1 term in college, before heading off to Viet Nam. I had wanted to learn German instead, but available courses eluded me by appearing in the same time slots as Math courses I needed. I figured then that I would never have much use for French. I thought wrong. It helped me get a better assignment in SaiGon and was key to meeting the young woman who became my wife. Over the years it has opened my mind to alternative ways of thinking about the world, life and work.

It is misleading to inform children that we adults know what academic subjects will be useful in the world of work, or not. Most of the careers I've followed over the past 30 years did not even exist when I was in high school. Why should we presume to know what will be available to today's child in 20 years?


As a graduate student teaching assistant in a foreign language department, the language director of our program told us very bluntly why universities continue to require two years of a foreign language: we, the foreign language instructors, bear the burden of teaching college students the English grammar and writing skills they SHOULD have learned in high school but no longer do. You cannot gain a degree of proficiency in a foreign language without having a firm grasp of grammar and writing in your native language. In my own teaching, I spent as much time during the first semester teaching students the fundamentals of English grammar as I did teaching them the target language. I would imagine that something similar may be true of language instruction at the high school level: much of the work of instilling basic competency in the native language may actually be gained in the foreign language classroom, not the English classroom, where creativity and personal expression seem to trump the grittier, less glamorous work of learning grammar and basic rhetorical skills.



I'll correct my own grammar: the first sentence should read, "When I was a graduate student teaching assistant ... "

Alex BB

Hey There,

I don't mean to be a funny: But I when to donate I planned to make a one off donation. I was then prompted to make a monthly donation. That put me off, as I was anticipating making a one off, of a couple of pounds sterling.

You guys are ridiculously clever, so i assume you have thought about it. So is that really the most effective way? I would have though "even a peny is enough" would be a good way to get people to start donating. => make more money.

Also you have adds, can i pay to not have those??

And why is it so hard to fine the donate button. if that is what you want have the button for it in the top right of your website.

if there are good reasons why you dont do these things, what are they?

The pod cast on donating was good bye the way :-)

Eric M. Jones



Full disclosure from the top: I am an adjunct professor of Spanish and Portuguese, so I went into the podcast with some bias. I believe the bit about very little salary discrepancy between employees who speak more than one language and the ones who don't. But I think a more interesting question would be: how many bilingual people beat out monolingual candidates for jobs in the first place? Also, there are myriad intangible benefits to knowing more than one language. I've never met a multilingual person who regretted learning or knowing more than one language. I've spent a lot of time thinking about how speaking foreign languages can enrich a life, and the result is here:


¡Adiós amigos! I'm a spanish speaker who happens to have know some English (most of it on my own). This program was awesome. In Latin America we have been told several times that English will make us have a better job.

Enter your name...

Learning English probably makes a big difference to people Central and South America. But if your sole language is English, then learning a second doesn't increase your job prospects that much.

Shane L

Continental European friends seem to find it effortless to learn fluent French, German, English, Spanish, etc. while native English-speakers in many countries seem to struggle with even a second language. My suspicion is that we're doing it wrong in English-speaking countries somehow.

Someone from either Sweden or Norway told me once that he grew up watching American movies with Swedish subtitles (not dubbing) so it was relatively easy to grasp English. Perhaps the success of American and British popular culture has a down side: we tend to watch and listen to English-language culture and are not exposed as much to alternatives?

Rather than dismissing the practicality of language skills, perhaps we should be teaching them in a different way. Here in Ireland we learn Irish in school from around 4-18 years yet a great many people can barely string together a sentence in it. (A minor Eureka moment for me was at the age of 17 when I attended an Irish summer school in an Irish-language region. For the first time I was using the language to communicate, so it became a fun, living language instead of a dry academic chore.)

As an EU member state the markets of the EU are quite open to us here, but can be hard to exploit because of language limitations. In my workplace I have people from Poland, Italy, Czech Republic, Slovenia, France, Germany and Estonia, all with impeccable English. Irish emigrants tend to drift to UK, USA, Australia, Canada and New Zealand, however, limited by their poor language skills, which seems a missed opportunity. Perhaps in the US, with an enormous English-language population, the need for another language is less significant. Here on the periphery of Europe, though, I regret my poor language skills and feel it poses a limitation on my options for employment.



I think you nailed it at the end with the, "Perhaps in the US, with an enormous English-language population, the need for another language is less significant. "

I have little doubt that if New York, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island all spoke different languages, that many Americans in those states would be polyglots.


What a great topic! As I was listening to the arguments, I couldn't help but think of all my years in math classes. When have I ever needed to find a cosine outside of homework? I appreciate that all topics build the brain into thinking differently, but I don't think foreign language learning should be attacked as an isolated case as often as it is.

Also, thanks for adding in the part about people thinking they are fluent from a few years in high school. Those who say they are lose legitimacy with me (based on my own slow-paced hour a day class)!


I speak 5... good to know but, it really hasn't been useful at all.


One point that isn't really addressed is the difference between learning to speak a language as an adult, and learning to read & write in it. For me, reading & writing is comparatively easy: speaking is hard. Even though I lived & worked in a French-speaking country for a couple of years (though in a research lab where the working language was English) , I barely got beyond the 'bon jour' and 'merci' stage, even though I could manage to read & fill in bureaucratic forms.


I've traveled a lot in my time (i hit 6 continents and 8 countries by the time I was 25) and in all my travels, I couldn't help but think that we Americans don't even think to learn a 2nd language. When I was in Kenya, one of the school girls I was hanging out was shocked that my friend spoke only 1 language; English

I live and work in the Silicon Valley and the ability to speak a 2nd language has gotten me both of my jobs here. I suppose if one lives in the middle of Nebraska and never plans on leaving, the ROI is a lot less than a person with (for lack of a better term) greater ambitions to move up in the world.

I think that a second or third language is useful but mostly when taught starting at a young age. Most of us don't retain the few years of language form High School but if it was something taught early on and integrated with our lives, then it can become an invaluable tool in cross cultural communication and communication in general.



As a native English speaker and learned Mandarin speaker I would say that this show's delves in terrirtory that economists shouldn't venture. It's like asking what's the ROI on travel? Or what's the ROI on being religious/atheist? While there is a quantitative measurement you can make, the qualitative measurement far outweighs any extra monetary benefit you might receive. How does an economist measure personal growth and self-fulfillment? Some things can't be measured, sorry.

I do however agree that mandatory "school" learning might be overkill. Learning a language requires much more than 45 minutes a day for 180 days a year. It's a full-time commitment that never truly ends. But the ability to speak to someone in their own language is really magical once you do it the first time. I highly recommend it.