Americans and Foreign Language Skills II
Kevin Carey has reignited a perennial debate over whether the fact that Americans are much less likely than citizens of other developed countries to speak foreign languages really matters.
Not that I think studying language is a waste of time. I just would have been better off spending that time studying this language, doubling up on English literature, writing, rhetoric, etc. I know that students in other countries around the world are generally much more likely to study multiple languages. But that’s partially a function of geography–places like Europe are much more multi-lingual. And it’s partially because they’re not here. If there was a huge country somewhere else that dominated the world’s economy, culture, and commerce, I’d want to learn their language. But I live in that country, so I don’t have to.
Ezra Klein takes no position on the larger issue but thinks,
. . . it seems pretty clear American students should stop learning so much French. Unless quite a few more folks than I think plan on doing development work in Africa, the absurd amount of French-language education going on in schools makes no sense. Indeed, the choices offered by most schools seem a century or so out of date. You generally get classes in Latin, French, and the type of Spanish spoken in Spain. All good things, but given that each language taught is another language not taught, why we’re not throwing those resources into Chinese and a nearer dialect of Spanish baffles me.
Megan McArdle also declines to take a stand on the issue but is happy any time French is dissed. I think we can all agree on that!
Carey is quite right on the overall issue, too. As I argued in a longish post on the subject a couple years back,
While it’s theoretically a shame that few Americans speak a second language (my German is exceedingly rusty), the practicalities of the issue suggest that it’s rather futile to try and change this fact. In most of the non-English speaking world, the decision of what “second” language to learn is relatively simple: English. French was a reasonable alternative for decades but the ascendency of the United States as the leading political, cultural, economic, and military power in the postwar era has eliminated serious contenders. Conversely, for an American not living in a part of the country with a huge Hispanic population, the choice is much less simple. Aside from Chinese, which itself has many rather divergent dialects, there is no language spoken by that sizable a chunk of the world. And, of course, Chinese isn’t spoken in many places outside of China. Arabic, perhaps, if one would like to enhance one’s chances of employment by the federal government. But German, French, Urdu, Farsi, Portuguese, Japanese, and any number of other major languages simply don’t provide anything like a universal translator key useful for a would-be world traveler. The utility of having American children devoting years mastering a language other than English is rather dubious from any utilitarian standard I can think of.
Dave Schuler, responding to my post, added,
An American living in Omaha can travel a thousand miles in any direction and not end up in a place where English is not the primary or, indeed, the only language spoken. There is nowhere in Europe from the western shore of Ireland to the foothills of the Urals in the east where you can travel a thousand miles and find the same language the primary language. Multiple languages is a survival skill in Europe and the differences in Europeans’ life experiences is reflected in their assumptions about what makes sense for other people to do.
Further, he correctly notes that the underlying assumption about Americans’ dearth of linguistic ability misses a crucial point,
I’d go a little farther. I don’t have the hard statistics to back this up but I’d be willing to bet that there are more Americans that speak Spanish than in any other country than Mexico, more Americans that speak Polish than in any other country than Poland, more Americans that speak Russian than in any other country than Russia, more Americans that speak Italian than in any other country than Italy, and so on for dozens of languages and countries.
And if this war on radical Islamist terrorism goes on for very long there will be more Americans that speak Arabic than in any other country. Period.
They just won’t be employed by the United States government, apparently. But, yes, Americans, like people anywhere, are happy to learn languages when they have some need to communicate in them.