Saturday, May 07, 2011

Learning Languages - Weak Arguments

Kenneth Anderson of Volokh has linked to an essay on the importance of Americans learning foreign languages. I disagree with that more each year. I think some Americans who are good at it should learn foreign languages and the rest of us just get a flavoring for the idea that foreign languages are well, different. Learning a language is supposed to improve the brain, but there's not evidence for that; it is supposed to broaden the mind but I don't see evidence for that either. People who have put a lot of effort into learning a language subjectively feel that it is valuable, but other learnings requiring effort might have been equally valuable, or more.

Certainly, if you intend to live somewhere else, it pays to learn the language as young as possible - which everyone has known for a century but schools still don't do.

Berman is the current president of the Modern Language Association, reminding me of the guys who would come up to the band and say "you guys could really use a harmonica." Yeah, really? And say, you don't happen to play the harmonica, do you you? Who'da thought it? Yet even aside from that, if this is the best one can put forward in praise of learning languages, then there's barely any need to attack the idea.
Monolingualism, he said, "is a disadvantage in the global economy. If you get off the plane in Germany and take a cab, you can't count on the driver speaking English," said Berman. "I would call that a disadvantage."
As would speaking fluent French or Japanese equally be a disadvantage. Unless the idea is to learn them all?
She (MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal) pointed out that virtually all other industrialized countries require second or third language study in the school system: "The United States should be a leader in this global competency and not be seen as lagging behind."
Why? Isn't that the point you are attempting to prove? What if it's wasted time? Shouldn't the US then be a leader in abandoning it?

People with traditional, and especially classical educations believe in the learning of languages, especially Latin, because they are associated with that package. They know the whole they received is better than the current offerings of education, and thus conclude that the parts must all be an important part of this. First, I challenge the idea that the traditional or classical education is better (and my minor was in medieval literature, remember); second even if it is better, that is no evidence that a,language is a necessary part of it.


karrde said...

Do computer languages count?

Not just use of a computer, but the ability to use a computer language to tell the machine to do something that it hasn't already been told how to do.

Those languages will definitely expand the mind.

Texan99 said...

Knowing something about other languages gives me more insight into English and into language in general. It's like learning two different musical instruments. I could never prove that learning an instrument is objectively valuable; I just know that everything I've ever learned about instruments was valuable to me.

But to tell the truth, I can hardly think of anything non-trivial subject I've ever studied that wasn't valuable. There's always the question, of course, whether my time could have been better spent learning (or doing) something else. I can't answer that. Is it more important to find room in the schedule for another language, or to tackle an additional history or engineering course? Who knows? Maybe it would be better to put in a new garden, write a novel, or join a monastery.

Paul_In_Houston said...


Speaking as a former programmer (OOPS! - I mean "SOFTWARE ENGINEER" :-), I recall an essay by science and science-fiction writer Fredric Pohl (in his collection "Digits & Dastards") where he promoted the use of binary mathematics as a way to get Americans more able to deal effectively with computers, as it was the language they used.

Now, this was a looong time ago (Paleozoic Era, I think :-), and fortunately others felt it might be better to develop the computers so they could work with us; instead of the other way around.

Now, I will agree with the expand the mind part, as they will force you to recognize the difference between what you actually say and what you might mean; comuters still being so nit-picking literal about their instructions.

DanRetired said...

Europeans live in proximity to other languages/cultures. They have a shared experience of invading/being invaded by their neighbors. Commerce also presents a compelling reason to learn "the other language."

Here, in the US, most of us don’t leave near a national border. You'll find, however, that along the borders (with Mexico and French-speaking Quebec) many US citizens have at least a working knowledge of "the other language."

karrde said...


Blogger ate my earlier comment here...which was roughly 'do computer languages count?'

Dan is right, a working knowledge of another language is really useful when a person does business across a border. Outside of that, it may be useful if that language contains literature that is considered Great. (Hence the liking of certain people for dead languages like Latin and Greek.)

Sam L. said...

I had to take a language in college. I chose German, as I majored in Physics. I learned a lot about English by taking German.

Uncle Bill said...

I had to take a language in high school, and I was talked into taking two years of Latin, because it was supposed to improve my understanding of English, or some such rot. What a horrible waste of time! Knowing that the English word agriculture comes from the Latin word agricola doesn't help me in the slightest with my English. I would have been much, much better off just studying English vocabulary. Or, even better, being taught how to compose a coherent paragraph.

Americans, by and large, are pretty sensible, if left to their own devices. Most of them will look around and observe that they do not know anyone who has really improved their career by studying, say, German. It is only because educators talk it up so much that they think it must be a good idea to study languages.

Foobarista said...

Non English-speaking cultures have a massive economic incentive to learn English due to standard network effects. English is the second or third language of the vast majority of the educated and business-interesting world. (This is at least as much or more to talk with each other as it is to talk to Anglospherians; when a Chinese and an Iranian do business, they speak English.)

In the US, there are numerous people who grew up speaking languages like Spanish, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Hindi, or other languages, as well as English learned at school or society.

This means, if you're a native speaker of English, you have a very high bar to jump over if you're to use your second language for anything economically useful (other than rolling your "r's" when ordering burritos in a Mexican restaurant). It isn't surprising that Americans don't quite hit that bar.

Anonymous said...

1. English is an easy language to learn. All that rot you hear from SWPLers about how "we should pick up other langauges with ease because we learned English, which is harder" is bollocks. Most langauges are not as flexible as English grammar-wise, borrow fewer words from other tongues, and, in most cases, regional dialects make it impossible for people speaking the same langauge to understand each other. Foreigners from Japan, Brazil, and Italy have laughed when I told them the common American belief that English is harder to learn.

2. Langauges are functionally-created; necessity created them for communication. OUtside of people with extreme langauge abilities---who usually major in them----our brains are designed to "learn" a langauge by using it daily for speaking. In the US, where English is dominant and the ppulation/land size is so huge that most people need to leave or speak with non-Americans, people have no need to learn languages; hence, they don't pick a new one up. This is also why people who move to the US for 20 years "forget" how to speak the native tongue they spoke till they left at age 30.

3. Culturally, English is the world dominant language. They play Seinfeld and The Terminator in Greece and Everyone Loves Raymond and The Incredibles in China, but their "best" shows don't come here because their best shows suck in comparison. English is also the langauge of commerce. SO it behooves and is easier for a Saudi or Chinese busienssman to learn English to understand western imports and business and get the Seinfeld references.

4. The flip side is, it's actually easy to pick up a langauge when you're immersed, which makes sense, because langauges exist for necessity of communication. I was a very poor langauge student, but after a mere four months in Italy, I went from never having studied or spoke it or read it or understanding it to speaking at a adolescent level.

5. I get annoyed by people preaching the langauge thing, and calling us ignorant. One guy from Mexico (surprise, surprise---an academic) looked down his nose at my "ignorance" and told me I needed to "broaden my mind." Of course, he travelled back and forth for half a years time between Mexico and the US, so he couldn't understand why I wasn't picking up other langauges and keeping them. I told him one definition of ignorance is claiming that anyone who doesn't live like you do and have the same skills as you is "ignorant."

Dennis said...

Great post! There is a method to remember up to 100 words per day which I use personally - use flashcards. Flashcards are always with me - in queue, bus, shop. To build cards I use Accelebrain