What If We Treated Foreign Languages Like Sports?

If kids practiced French two hours a day . . .


Ta-Nehesi Coates has spent two years studying French but learned in a recent trip to Paris that he’s not all that comfortable with the language. He’s had an epiphany:

What if we treated foreign language in America the way we treat sports. It is not unusual to see kids in high school spending two hours after school, every day, in football or basketball practice. In some private schools, sports are required. If I spoke French well and could get that type of time with a group of kids in Baltimore, threw on some competitions for elocution or writing, and topped it off with a trip to France every year, I could make some soldiers.

To what end?

TNC is a highly intelligent fellow who’s risen to great heights in his profession at a relatively young age. It’s taken him 37 years for it to matter in the least that he’s not fluent in French. This posed a mild inconvenience for him–maybe–on a very short trip to France. He’s unlikely to take another any time soon. Presumably, the average Baltimore youth is even less likely to need to be proficient in French than our man Coates.

Now, it’s true that one can go a long way without being able to throw a spiral, hit a curveball, or sink a 20-foot jumper. But investing the time to get decent in sports comes with the immediate gratification of being able to play sports. For their trouble, the kids get some exercise, have some fun, build character, learn teamwork, and all the other things that come from the effort. There’s just not the same return in joining the French Club.

Furthermore, aside from whatever residual brain-building that language acquisition at an early age yields, the fact of the matter is that language skills are ridiculously perishable. By dint of my father being in Vietnam with my German-born mother and I living in Germany at that point in my life, I learned German before I learned English. Or, so I’m told. I forgot all of that German by the time I went back to visit again at age 6. And I forgot whatever I learned then by the time we returned, this time for a 3-year tour courtesy the US Army, four years later. I took German in elementary school and junior high, again in college, and then lived there for another three years (with a six month detour to sunny Southwest Asia) in my 20s. I learned enough to pass the Graduate School Foreign Language Exam required to certify reading proficiency for my doctoral program. After all that, I’d be just as uncomfortable thrust back into conversational German as TNC was in Paris. I’ve retained some reading proficiency and would presumably pick up conversational skills after awhile if thrown back into the fire; but I just don’t have occasion or reason to practice German.


FILED UNDER: Uncategorized, , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. To what end, indeed.

    Speaking a different language is almost always utilitarian, not recreational. Sure, there are people who learn a new language for the fun of it, but the best reason to do so is to communicate with the people who speak with that language.

  2. swbarnes2 says:

    Wow, you just completely missed the point, didn’t you?

    But, you are, at last, a white male conservative. It was always going to be an uphill battle with you.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    It seems like the average American has two problems with foreign language.

    One is that the country is so large and remote from almost all other languages in the world (besides Spanish), that there is little use for foreign languages. Compare with Switzerland.

    The second is that as a country of immigrants, its highly unlikely that a native born American can ever gain some economic advantage through a foreign language that an immigrant, or someone raised by immigrants, would be better at.

    Or maybe the one problem is that Americans are practical.

  4. Dave says:

    I get an hour or two without english at work each day against my wishes. And I can only assume that young kids would much rather play sports than suffer through a useless exercise of learning another language. Also we are spoiled since English is so ubiquitous, French doesn’t seem to be as useful as it once was. Maybe if there was a language that could get daily use it might be worthwhile.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    @swbarnes2: I’m not getting it, either. What does being white have to do with a post idly musing over the utility of foreign language?

  6. Latino_in_Boston says:

    This is the benefit of being the super power, you can actually mock people for wanting schools to get serious about foreign languages! English is the lingua franca so why should you be bothered to learn a different language?

    The consequence is that although most educated people in the world speak at least two languages (I have never met a non-native English speaker with a graduate degree that doesn’t speak at least two languages, and most college graduates speak at least some functional English, and often two or three languages depending what part of the world they come from), many Americans with comparable education don’t. This has far more consequences than just the occasional inconvenience abroad. It leads to insularity, ignorance, and arrogance, with serious concrete problems like the fact that our national security apparatus can barely get enough Arabic speakers, let alone attempt to understand more complex cultural issues, or even considering them at all. Why do they hate us? Perhaps if we could speak their language we might at least have an idea.

    Plus, numerous research has shown that speaking a second languages has all kinds of cognitive benefits, like for example higher levels of concentration, not to mention memory benefits. Language knowledge like any other knowledge (math, drawing, NCAA final four schools since 1985) that doesn’t get used gets lost, but the answer then is not to get rid of that knowledge, but to attempt to use it as often as possible so that it will not be lost, and believe me, someone growing up in Boston right now, will have more chance to speak Chinese, Arabic, Portuguese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian or even French than most of your generation ever did. Even more of a reason to try to encourage this.

  7. john personna says:

    The neuroscience is that learning more languages makes you smarter.

    It is pretty much the “but I don’t use algebra” story revisited. You may not use something, but your brain may be stronger for having done the … exercise, to borrow from the theme above.

    … now I must get back to my Coursera work …

  8. swbarnes2 says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    I’m not getting it, either. What does being white have to do with a post idly musing over the utility of foreign language?

    The point of TNC’s posts is not about the utility of being able to ask French cafe owners for a cup of coffee.

    A few years ago, there was some survey or another about Obama’s popularity rating, and conservatives were saying that it was overestimating Obama’s real popularity, because it was including black people. James did much the same thing a few months ago, saying that Romney really didn’t lose the women vote, because he got a majority of white women.

    It’s a conservative thing: this elevation of the straight, white male’s experience into being the default one, the proper way of life, the real and authentic American or human experience and everyone else is just some weird exception that for some reason or other just shouldn’t count.

    Learning about other cultures defuses that. When TNC was sitting in the jardin, he was watching a whole lot of francophone Parisians living their francophone Parisian lives, not like they were some weird exception, some strained and not right translation of American city life, but as if their way of life were perfectly natural, something that TNC, growing up in a poor black neighborhood in Baltimore, might have had a hard time imagining. Those Parisians think their experience count. So do the poor kids in Baltimore. Conservatives don’t get that.

    Remember just a thread ago, when someone was saying how every woman in America should have no problem getting an abortion before the 6th week? There are poor single mothers who have a hard time getting two consecutive days off of work, two consecutive days of child care, can arrange to travel hundreds of miles and pay for an expensive medical procedure out of pocket, but that poster just doesn’t acknowledge that kind of life experience, and never will.

    Everything in our culture says that straight, white men are the best, and deserve the best of everything, and that their opinions are more important than anyone else’s. Look at how many people care a million times more about the intentions and fates of the Steubenville rapists over their victim, because they are boys, and she was a girl. What she went through was barely worth mentioning, but the boys sentence was lamented far and wide.

    Many straight white men have figured out this is noxious nonsense, but it takes work. James and Doug are not among this number.

  9. Andre Kenji says:

    @PD Shaw:

    One is that the country is so large and remote from almost all other languages in the world (besides Spanish), that there is little use for foreign languages. Compare with Switzerland.

    More or less. Learning a Foreign Language is complicated because you have to learn a Foreign Culture. In the case of English there are aditional problems problems regarding gender and verbal, it takes time and study, The NeoLatin Languages(French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese) are very difficult to learn for the English Language. Portuguese, where the European Portuguese is very different from the Brazilian Portuguese(Mozambique, Guinea-Bissau and Angola also have their versions of the Language), where the spoken language is different from the written language and where the formal language is different from the popular language is probably a nightmare for the foreigner.

    It´s true that if your native language is English you´ll feel less pressure to learn English, but there are millions of Middle Class people(People with time and money to learn a foreign language) that have an language that very few people speaks and that are monolingual.

    I think that´s problematic that so few Americans(Even among intellectuals and academics) are monolingual.

  10. rudderpedals says:

    You make a decent case for learning a language, James. Wasn’t your German useful those 3 years you spent over there? I wish I’d spent more and better time at school in Spanish class, maybe I’d have become proficient.

  11. Jen says:

    To what end?

    I’m sort of surprised that someone who works at a think tank could not see the obvious utility in being conversant in a foreign language. Business is increasingly global, and bilingual job candidates invariably have a leg up in a number of fields. Depending on the language, some can name their price if they also have another marketable skill.

    Honestly, I’m astonished at this post. It seems terribly myopic.

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    I remember that some years ago Gadaffi traveled to Italy, where he was received with a red carpet by Berlusconi. He made the most absurd statements(Like saying that women in Europe woulb be better off by converting to Islam and mocking the United States). I was aghast when I noted that NO ONE in the US had noted that, and both the French and Italian newspapers covered the visit.

    Hell, Sarkozy once promised a Nuclear Reactor to Gaddafi and no one in the US complained about that. There are dozens of things in the French, Spanish and Italian press that no one in the US ever notes.

  13. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: And studies show that athletics, exercise, dance, yoga etc. make you smarter too. And as I recall sleep is important. I’m personally fond of coffee and booze studies.

    It seems like the question might be, whether two hours a day studying a foreign language would be better than two hours a day of physical exercise.

  14. Latino_in_Boston says:


    I couldn’t have put it better myself, swbarnes. The post bothered me for its casual dismissal of foreign languages, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was exactly about it. You nailed what I was thinking. Thanks.

  15. Tom Maguire says:

    French? I am having trouble with English! Just what is meant by “I could make some soldiers” in the TNC excerpt? Is that a common expression I have never heard before?

  16. Andre Kenji says:

    I´ve began studying English when I was something like 10 years old. I would spent endless hours as a adolescent watching CNN and then BBC World to practice English, and as adult would read dozens of book and other kinds of literature in English. Today, I´m always listening to English Podcast and TV/Radio news in English when I´m doing my daily routine.

    My English is fair from perfect. I still sometimes uses a Latin structure while I´m writing in English, I make stupid errors with prepositions, I make bad use of English words, I write sequences that makes no sense at all.

    That´s difficult, difficult as hell. I have a special respect for people that knows more than one language. Specially if they are languages from different linguistic families.

    P.S: It´s no wonder that the so called neocons are mostly Monolingual. Learning a foreign language makes possible to really learn about a country. And there are things that people says about the United States in their own language, but that they do not say in English to people there.

  17. john personna says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I would imagine different paths. Physical exercise gives you growth hormone. Brain work concentrates metabolic effort in the noggin. And so balance …

    (As an aside, Dan Ariely’s Irrational Behavior course at Coursera (primarily behavioral economics) totally rocks. It has the best production values I’ve seen in a MOOC, comes from a primary researcher, and even demands that students directly read research papers. It started this past Monday. It might be possible to squeeze in and still hand in this Monday’s quizzes.)

  18. Andre Kenji says:

    @PD Shaw:

    It seems like the question might be, whether two hours a day studying a foreign language would be better than two hours a day of physical exercise.”

    A cynical would say that Americans needs to do both. And probably more than two hours per day.

  19. PD Shaw says:

    @john personna: I did link to a piece yesterday on intelligence that indicated that people who get a degree in a “Classical Language” are the most intelligent of all graduates from American universities. I find it highly plausible that multi-lingualism is very smart; I’m less convinced that for the average American learning an additional language will make them that much smarter. Certainly I think the case for Algebra is stronger in building up analytical skills. And isn’t Algebra a language?

  20. JKB says:

    Why would you spend 2 hours a day learning French? Heck, even Chinese or Spanish, which would have more utility worldwide. If kids need to spend time practicing a foreign language, that language should be Mathematics.

    But at this point, English in the language to know. Those whose first language is other would do well to learn it. Not that in head to head comparison English is better, but simply because English was the dominant language when international norms were set.

    Many will complain but this observation made by an author in 1886 is to point. Language is a tool and spending time developing two tools that do exactly the same thing is wasteful:

    The multiplicity of languages is due to the policy of international hate, inaugurated by the nations of Europe to promote the selfish purposes of rulers. Barbarism is diversity; civilization is unity. The human race is one, provided it is civilized, and it should have but one language. Language is a tool, and time consumed in acquiring skill in the use of more than one tool designed for the same end, is wasted. The standing armies of Europe obstruct the way to unity of language. The time will come when all civilized peoples will speak one tongue, probably the English. Then language will cease to be a mere vain accomplishment, and become what it ought always to have been, the simple means of familiarizing the mind with things, and of the communication of knowledge.

  21. john personna says:

    @PD Shaw:

    Someone was asking me (the old programmer) why their kid was told that algebra was a prerequisite for Java at camp. My reaction was to laugh and say no, that was to get kids to do algebra.

    Thinking about it more though, isn’t algebra the first time we are [taught] to decompose problems by part? Programming is also about decomposing a problem and solving it in pieces. That is perhaps a good life skill.

    Of course, you can see what 30 years programming did to my brain. It made me pedantic and overly concerned [with] logical transformations.

  22. Andre Kenji says:

    @PD Shaw:

    I find it highly plausible that multi-lingualism is very smart; I’m less convinced that for the average American learning an additional language will make them that much smarter.

    The problem is not the average American, but CEOs, Academics, journalists, think-tankers, politicians and people like that. Some weeks ago Howard Kurtz was complaining in CNN about the “anti-colonial ideology” of Al Jazeera. C´mon, anyone that knows any language other than English would understand why some people in Emerging countries talks like that.

    American companies usually makes big mistakes in Foreign Markets because they fail do understand Foreign Cultures. Wal Mart failed in Germany because they failed to understand the local culture(People thought that the greeter was annoying and creepy). Here in Brazil, Wal Mart tried to built stores in isolated places that were accessible by car that proved out to be failures.

  23. john personna says:

    (Possibly knowing multiple human languages provides richer connection between abstract concepts.)

  24. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Since we’re on the subject of agenda-based rhetorical questions:

    “What if we treated public finance like sports?”

    “What if we treated accounting like women’s studies?”

    “What if we treated financial analysis and investments like fine arts?”

    “What if we treated macro and micro economics like sociology?”

    “What if we treated business law like political science?”

    “What if we treated retirement planning like history?”

    “What if we treated MIS and IT management like French?”

  25. PD Shaw says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Part of what I was getting at with Switzerland is that with four national languages, it becomes fairly obvious what languages society should encourage learning. Among my kids friends, there are moms or dads born in Japan, China, Poland or France. The parents teach their kids that language as part of daily life.

    For example, on my son’s baseball team, the “French” dad speaks to his son in French while tying his shoes or chatting on the sideline. They don’t have to choose French or sports, they can co-exist and as you say, the kid is learning the language in the context of the culture, how its actually spoken or used, and not simply from a textbook.

    Where I grew up, the schools taught French, German, Spanish and Latin. Its not like learning Arab was a choice twenty years ago, or that we knew we would be invading Arab, Persian or Afghan countries.

  26. Rafer Janders says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Some weeks ago Howard Kurtz was complaining in CNN about the “anti-colonial ideology” of Al Jazeera.

    Just when, exactly, did conservatives decide that anti-colonialism was a bad thing? The United States itself is an anti-colonial project. Americans have always claimed to be anti-colonial (apart from these times when we were expanding our own empire, that is, but even then we gave lip service to anti-colonialism).

  27. Andre Kenji says:


    Why would you spend 2 hours a day learning French?

    Because French is very similar to Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and several other languages that are derived from the Latin. If you know one of these languages it´s not so difficult to learn the other languages of the group.

    You can´t get more global than that.

  28. Latino_in_Boston says:


    If I ever want to give an example that perfectly illustrates the American ethos on language, I’ll have to use your post, JKB. Language is a tool for communication, yes, but it’s so much more than that, far more. It’s a way to see the world, to form intimacy with others different than you, it’s a way to laugh and create humor, it’s the difference between realizing that on and in are not the same thing (as in Spanish and Portuguese) or that to be can have permutations. Language is so crucial to how you see the world that you don’t ever realize this unless you speak a different language, which incidentally helps you with your own language.

    An old French teacher used to tell a story that went something like this: If you lived your whole life in a red room and somehow you managed to get outside one day, what would be the first thing you’d notice? The answer of course would be every other color, but also red! You’d finally know what red is! How else would you know that unless you had something to compare it to? Well, that’s exactly what knowing another language does, it forces you to be more precise, it adds a layer of analysis that can be quite useful and it mortifies me that people don’t realize that. Of course, it’d be hard to if you’re monolingual.

    Incidentally, this whole post is not to say that people should not learn math. God knows we need to.

  29. @swbarnes2:

    Everything in our culture says that straight, white men are the best, and deserve the best of everything, and that their opinions are more important than anyone else’s.

    I’m not sure you were able to get “straight, white men are the best” from this post. Neither race nor sexual orientation was mentioned or implied.

  30. Andre Kenji says:

    @PD Shaw: Learning a Foreign Language is to learn a Foreign Culture. Without that, you can´t learn a foreign language properly. And since there is something called the internet you don´t need to have foreign parents to do that. 😉 And people in countries that speaks more than one language do not necessarily speaks more than one language. The market of music in French from Quebec is aimed to France and Quebec, not the whole Canadian market.

    And that´s a important point: policymakers that do not understand foreign languages have a much harder time understanding how people in foreign countries thinks and feels. That explains the neocons, that thought that American soldiers would be received as heroes in Iraq.

  31. grumpy realist says:

    Ah, finally a thread where I can pontificate….

    Background: family that was multilingual, several years living abroad and going to the local schools. Worked in Japan for 11 years in Japanese-only locations (a lot of which was spent acting as interpreter/translator for the monolinguists around me.) Have an MA from an institution in England which is absolutely bloody-minded about languages: you don’t even enter the program unless you’ve got Latin and another European language under your belt (although i did hear of one candidate who squeaked through with Sanskrit as the other language.)

    One of the reasons my present firm took me on is the number of foreign clients we have and the number of direct interactions we have with foreign agencies. We’ve had to deal with all sorts of languages; I especially enjoyed the customs report (in Russian) that our client puzzledly forwarded on to us asking what they needed to do about it. Ditto for the French court decision, which also landed up on my desk.
    The Economist had a great editorial several years back, pointing out how having your native language being the lingua franca of the world meant short-term merriment and long-term grief for a country. We think we can afford to be lazy because there are so many non-native speakers of English out there. The other side smiles, bows, and writes the information it wants to keep secret in the local language, whether it be Chinese, Korean, or Urdu. It knows we’ll never find it.

    Learn languages as soon as possible. Yes, as children you’ll learn and forget–but it will be less difficult to learn the second time around. Yes, after you haven’t practiced a language for a while you will be rusty, but it can come back. I switch back into Japanese or French after about a day in those countries; for other languages it takes me longer.

    But best of all has been the richness of nuance and mindset I’ve learned from different languages. Think of each one as a prism through which you can see the world. Your mind “chunks” information differently depending on which language you’re using. My sense of time is totally different in Japanese than it is in English. Which leads to a bit of humility and scepticism.

  32. grumpy realist says:

    @Andre Kenji: I thought that the Romance languages were considered the easiest for native English speakers to pick up. Languages like German and Russian were next, then Chinese, and finally you ended up with the handful of languages the Foreign Service Institute dumped into Level 4….(Japanese, Arabic, Amerindian languages, and Basque…)

  33. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Pearce (Formerly Known as Herb):

    I’m not sure you were able to get “straight, white men are the best” from this post. Neither race nor sexual orientation was mentioned or implied.

    You didn’t really read what I wrote, did you?

    TNC’s articles about learning new languages are all about learning to see other people’s perspectives. In American cultures as it stands, it can be hard for straight white males to do that, because the whole culture tells them that their perspective is the only one that matters. They have to make an effort, but for conservatives, the effort is usually made in explaining why it’s okay to not count other people’s perspectives.

  34. steve s says:

    If we decided all americans shoud learn foreign language x, there would actually be a pretty easy way to do it. Starting in preschool, and continuing through high school, for a few hours a week, students would be given a fluent speaker who talked to them in full immersion. Learning a language when you’re 4 years old in a full immersion environment is effortless.

    The utility of English speakers learning another language is probably not a great amount, though.

  35. Andre Kenji says:

    @grumpy realist: In Latin America, there is the caricature of the “gringo”*. It´s usually a White Dude, with Hawaiian T-Shirts and sunglasses, that speaks in either Spanish or Portuguese using only the infinitive as a verbal conjugation and that does not know to use gender.

    That´s comprehensible: the conjugation of verbs is relatively simple in the English language, while you have a dozen of tenses in Romance Languages. You also have lots of Parochial grammatical rules and the structure of the phrases is very different. That´s probably the biggest point when people that are speakers of one of these languages speaks in English: it´s common to use a Latin structure while using English words.

    The Germanic Languages(Dutch, German, Swedish, etc), other than English, are the easiest languages for English speakers to learn.

    And pointing out to the difficult of Foreign Languages is a complex issue. For instance, Japanese is a very simple language, regarding conjugation of verbs and things like that. The only problem is that you have to learn three alphabets, that´s where the difficult lives. 😉

    *- I´m sorry if I´m offending anyone with the use of these word, but in Portuguese it´s not an offensive word.

  36. john personna says:

    I don’t totally agree with the idea that everyone needs to know how to program, but I’ll throw out the reminder that this video was big last month:

    What most schools don’t teach

    Of course, in terms of exercise and growth … it certainly couldn’t hurt.

  37. Ben Wolf says:

    @swbarnes2: I don’t disagree with your position that learning language can break through cultural pre-conceptions at all, I just don’t think James was making the argument that it serves no useful function n the post. Rather I came away with the impression that he’s saying for many it isn’t practical given the demands of work and family, which are probably higher for James given he’s a single parent.

  38. Davebo says:

    First I’d say to TNC that to choose to immerse yourself in a foreign language and culture Paris is probably not the best bet. (frankly I’d head to Rio and work on my Portuguese although that may not be the best possible utilitarian use of my time..)

    I’m a firm believer that we are all to some extent xenophobes and racists myself included. I love Argentina but really dislike their sense of “we’re better than all these other American countries”. I’ve spent a lot of time in The Netherlands and the old joke is “why do all the Dutch speak English? Because they know no one will take the time to learn Dutch and they don’t wan’t to speak French.”

    I can tell you that when you talk to a young Dutch person who’s fluent in 5 languages, all with the odd Dutch accent, there’s something magical there (especially Chinese with a Dutch accent).

    But as has been noted above, language is but a part of it all. To be even basically fluent you must know the culture(s) and to do so almost always requires a bit of travel. People tend to think it’s impossible to do but really it’s much easier than most think. Heck, I’ve even managed to make friends in Paris but honestly I find places like Marseilles or better yet San Raphael more to my taste.

    When it comes to Paris it’s true. All stereotypes are based on at least a bit of reality.

  39. Davebo says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Rather I came away with the impression that he’s saying for many it isn’t practical given the demands of work and family

    One could argue that it’s part of those practical demands both of work and family and a demand that is much easier to fulfill if one has the good fortune of an affluent lifestyle that is greatly based on knowledge of various international cultures as James seems to have.

  40. Tyrell says:

    Many school systems have competitions in math, books, robotics, and of course the science fair, which has experienced somewhat of a revival. My favorite projects that I saw in the past was a working still (condensation and distillation), effects of alcoholic beverages on mice, and the potato electrical generator. Maybe some of you can tell of your science fair memories or the science experiments that turned disaster!!
    There is also AR (Accelerated Reader) in which students earn points for reading and passing short tests on the computer. Schools reward meeting point goals with trips, parties, or candy.
    There are many other competitions in schools involving academic subjects. They just do not get a lot of publicity. Maybe some of you know of some.

  41. Andre Kenji says:


    To be even basically fluent you must know the culture(s) and to do so almost always requires a bit of travel.

    You don´t have to travel. There is something called “internet”, it helps a lot.

  42. superdestroyer says:

    People forget that most people who play sports for any length of time do so because they are good at it. Many kids play basketball in elementary school but how many are still playing by the time they are seniors in high school. What organized sports really does is identify talent and promote the kids are good at it.

    I think a better argument is shouldn’t schools try to identify students who have a natural talent for learning foreign languages and get them to study them more. The same could go for math, art, or music.

  43. swbarnes2 says:


    I think a better argument is shouldn’t schools try to identify students who have a natural talent for learning foreign languages and get them to study them more.

    Okay, but TNC is specifically saying that studying languages is beneficial for everyone, just just people who are good at it:

    As someone who began his career in poetry, and is constantly telling his kids that language must carry both emotional and literal information, I love the subjunctive. It’s like this dark, mysterious, achingly beautiful stranger. Which is different from saying I’ve mastered or I totally understand it. Mastery isn’t the point. This is language study and study–in and of itself–is rewarding.

    There’s some very visual and very cool about it. I’m sure we do the same thing in English. But because I learned English at such a young age, and because I’ve been writing for so long, I can’t really “see” it. Having to experience it this way is rather special. It is as though I am hacking my own brain or attempting to upload new programming.

    I wish someone had said, “You should learn this because it will explain how the language you are speaking, right now, actually works.” That’s what it is–“How stuff works.”

    Of course, if you were reading James’ post alone, you would think the TNC hadn’t said any of this, but was a dolt who genuinely needed James to inform him that conversational French isn’t a requirement for being successful in this country.

  44. Mikey says:

    We Americans have a great romance with the learning of other languages. Interestingly, nobody else has a similar romance with learning English. For us, learning another language is an interesting option. For the citizens of other nations, learning English is pretty much a necessity.

    I enjoyed learning German when I was in my early 20s. It made living there for seven years a lot easier. But I didn’t “have to” learn German, because most of the Germans in my age group spoke decent English. They’d all had it in school and there were enough Americans around Nuremberg that they were able (and often grateful) to practice it.

    These days, I hardly use my German–my wife’s English has always been better than my German, so we’ve defaulted to English for 22 years and I only get to use my now-broken German when we visit her family…most of whom speak English, of course. But I still insist on German.

    Would treating foreign languages like sports be the great value Coates thinks it would? Dunno. I was interested in, and immersed myself in, German culture the whole seven years I was there. It was entirely voluntary. But I think at least a basic understanding of a foreign language, and the culture associated with it, would be a valuable and broadening experience for all young Americans.

  45. Andre Kenji says:


    We Americans have a great romance with the learning of other languages.

    No, Americans do not have romance about learning other languages. What happens is that even among Academics, Scholars, Intellectuals, journalists and politicians there is very dew people that manages to learn any foreign language. And there are lots of people that, correctly, sees that as a problem.

    Outside the US there are also lots of people that study foreign languages because they like these foreign languages, not because they were forced to. By the way, walking around in foreign countries if you don´t know the local language is REALLY dangerous. Do not EVER calculate that you are going to find someone that speaks English in a country where English is not the official language.

  46. superdestroyer says:


    James was comparing learning a language or sports. However, people who are not very good at basketball or track do not do it for very long but people who are naturals play participate for a long time. That is why athletes who are older than most of their fellow competitors have an advantage.

    I suspect that there are many Americans are naturals are learning languages. I have meet a couple. However, the schools do nothing to identify such people and help them. If treating foreign languages more like sports, then schools would be giving after school support to those students who were naturals.

  47. James Joyner says:

    @swbarnes2: So, your criticism of my post examining a musing in one of TNC’s posts is that I don’t tackle musings on a somewhat related subject in a completely different TNC post?

    I’m not arguing that TNC is a dolt; I’m pretty explicit that he’s anything but. I’m saying that learning a foreign language and playing sports aren’t similar activities and that the ROI for spending 10 hours a week on the former is likely less than for the latter.

  48. Stonetools says:

    In the end, American lack of facility with foreign languages has to be seen as a net negative in an increasingly interdependent world. An inability to understand foreign languages inevitably means an inability to understand foreign CULTURES. It means we get blindsided by things like 9-11.
    After 9-11, too, we had intelligence problems because too few Americans understood Arabic, much less Pashtun and Urdu.
    I’m not sure if treating languages like sports will work. I do know America can do much better than teaching foreign languages to kids, and that it would be a good idea to try.

  49. JKB says:

    No doubt that learning a foreign language when you will live or visit an area where it is used will be of benefit. But it is not required to appreciate or respect the culture. I’ve known plenty of fluent speakers who were real a-holes when to people when visiting a country. It does free you from at least the anxiety of being unable to ask for assistance.

    But there is no need for organized after school programs to study some speculative language. You study French but go into science so you really need German or Japanese. You love Europe but end up working in China.

    Of course, we don’t need local anymore for language. My niece on her own interest bought Russian and taught herself. I don’t know if she found another Russian speaker to talk with but she is now not limited to some forced common “schooling”. She can find Russian text and videos online and could even find a Russian speaker with a little effort. Perhaps, exchanging conversation in English for Russian and vice versa.

    The thing is, with the induced “school helplessness” created by our antiquated system of schooling, you’d be hard pressed to get enough interest in a foreign language team program after-school. After all, school has hours, students attend their factory, do their job, then they are off the clock. Factory schools, factory mentality,

  50. john personna says:

    Well, also:

    Globish: How the English Language Became the World’s Language.

    While language learning has all sorts of benefits, they are probably more intangible than they were in the past, when languages were needed for trade and commerce.

    To borrow a phrase, there is such a thing as rational inattention.

  51. @swbarnes2:

    You didn’t really read what I wrote, did you?

    Not only did I read it, I understood it, understood the context, and even half agree with your point.

    However, I do think you were responding to the post you feared James would write, rather than the one he wrote.

    I actually admire what TNC is doing. For someone as intelligent, disciplined, and curious as him, it’s a worthwhile endeavor. I also acknowledge that he’s learning French part in self-improvement, and part because it’s his dream (his father’s dream?) to learn it. Those are all great reasons for him.

    The mistake is thinking those reasons apply to school kids.

  52. Mikey says:

    @Andre Kenji: I stated that rather clumsily (I blame the wine and the wee hour of the morning).

    What I was trying to say is Americans have a kind of romantic view of learning other languages. Not that everyone will want to, but that we think it’s kinda cool if someone does. Because for us as native English speakers, learning another language is optional.

    English is the language of international commerce and science. It’s the language of telecommunications and the Internet. And we Americans learn it from birth. Most Americans don’t learn another language because they don’t need to. (Or don’t think they need to.)

    But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t–learning another language is a window into another culture, and that’s valuable. I for one would like to see more focus on foreign language in American schools, from a young age.

  53. Mikey says:

    @john personna: Indeed, it takes a great deal of time and effort to learn another language, and people are less likely to dedicate either of those scarce resources to something that’s essentially a luxury.

  54. john personna says:
  55. superdestroyer says:


    It was not that there were too few people who could understand Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, etc but that few of the people who could actually understand all of the dialects could qualify for the top secret clearance required to work in the intelligence community.

    Too many of the speakers have connections to those countries that make them too high a risk to give that level of clearance.

  56. swbarnes2 says:

    @James Joyner:

    So, your criticism of my post examining a musing in one of TNC’s posts is that I don’t tackle musings on a somewhat related subject in a completely different TNC post?

    My first criticism if your post is that it is condescending to TNC. He doesn’t need you telling him how well he’s done at his age without knowing a lick of French. He knows that himself. TNC’s point, across all his posts dealing with his learning of French, is that the virtue of it is that you learn to think differently. But it is part and parcel of being conservative to avoid thinking of other people’s perspectives at all costs, and I gave just a few real-life examples of conservatives doing their level best to shut out and not count the perspectives of people not like them. And because you are willfully blind to his real argument here, your analysis is painfully shallow. It was all in all an ill-considered article on your part for both of those reasons.

  57. john personna says:

    Well, I just turned in my first practice assignment in Scala. It is a weird language, and I’m not sure I’ll ever need it, but let’s all home that this headache is a sign of growth, and not stroke.

  58. Andre Kenji says:


    Not that everyone will want to, but that we think it’s kinda cool if someone does

    I can´t imagine people that works in Universities and things of the genre in other countries admitting that they don´t know any language other than their native language. And that includes knowing a THIRD language(German is usually a requirement for people studying Philosophy, French for people studying International Relations).

    I sorry to james, but this post is an example of that.

  59. Mikey says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    I can´t imagine people that works in Universities and things of the genre in other countries admitting that they don´t know any language other than their native language.

    Well, that’s what happens when you’re born to the “dominant” language (not by numbers, that’s Chinese, but by influence).

    People in other countries learn English because it’s useful. And they have a lot of opportunity, not only in school but through popular entertainment and the Internet, to practice it.

    I’d like more focus on foreign language instruction here in the U. S. but realistically it’s not going to be a priority because we already speak the world’s predominant language of commerce, science, popular entertainment, telecommunications, and the Internet.

  60. JKB says:

    It is amusing, this argument that knowing a language helps you understand a culture. Nothing is more specious. Knowing a language may help you read authors not translated into English but you can learn a lot about culture simply by reading histories of the area in your own language and translated literature.

    Example, many here have demonstrated absolutely no understanding of the cultures in their own country. Namely that outside their own little urban coastal enclaves.

  61. Andre Kenji says:


    Knowing a language may help you read authors not translated into English but you can learn a lot about culture simply by reading histories of the area in your own language and translated literature.

    It´s not about the authors, it´s about what people says. That´s something that monolinguals are never going to understand.

  62. john personna says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    Don’t worry about JKB. He’s an outlier. Or just stubborn.

    Most people know that words don’t even map 1:1 between languages. The example which springs to mind …

    The English word love can refer to a variety of different feelings, states, and attitudes, ranging from pleasure (“I loved that meal”) to interpersonal attraction (“I love my partner”). It can refer to an emotion of a strong affection and personal attachment.[1] It can also be a virtue representing human kindness, compassion, and affection—”the unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another”.[2] And it may describe compassionate and affectionate actions towards other humans, one’s self or animals.[3]

    I good discussion of Love in other languages at Wikipedia.

  63. MarkedMan says:

    Maybe if more Americans learned a foreign language we wouldn’t suffer so much the anti-foreigner attitude that is actually hurting us. The “no accomodation for foreign language speakers and “all non-English speakers will be treated like suspects by surly immigration officials ” attitude is certainly affecting which country people spend their tourist sand investment dollars. As an American living overseas I am grateful everyday that my host country nationals don’t share the same unhelpful attitudes. And, yes, that attitude seems to be an actual point of conservative pride in the states.

  64. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, I thought James raised an interesting discussion about cost/benefit and, despite some of the offense that seemed to be taken by a few, did t have any negative interpretation.

  65. Andre Kenji says:

    @john personna: There are some beautiful love related words that does not exist in English. “Saudade”, for instance(A word about the sentiment of missing someone, that only exists in Portuguese). “Namorada”(Spanish/Portuguese) is another.

  66. Mikey says:

    @Andre Kenji: One of my favorite German words is “Sehnsucht,” which combines the words for “yearning” and “addiction.” I’ve heard it is similar in meaning to “saudade,” but it doesn’t have any true counterpart in English.

  67. grumpy realist says:

    @JKB: You’ve got the whole shebang backwards. Like usual. You cannot use a language correctly unless you know how the culture works. Which is one reason why when I’m communicating with a Japanese person I prefer to do it in Japanese–if we’re using English I’m never quite sure whether he’s using Japanese communication patterns with English, or English communication patterns….

    I used to run into this all the time while in Japan. We would get a letter from a Japanese client which would have bounced back and forth between us and the head office and which finally landed on my (non-Japanese, not fluent in the language) boss’s desk. Letter would start out with some flowery beginning, and then make some comment about “We would appreciate it if you could see your way to at some point sending us….bla bla bla…” And I would read this and say to my boss: “This is an emergency! They want this information as soon as possible!” And he would read the letter and be totally boggled at what I got out of it. But in Japanese, that IS the equivalent of saying: “you idiots, get me this stuff ASAP!”

  68. grumpy realist says:

    @Andre Kenji: Hee. One of my teachers at the Warburg couldn’t care less what language a book was written in before shoving it at us; we were expected to have Latin, French, German, Italian (plus dialects) all at our fingertips. (This was also the guy who expected us to translate legal Latin commentaries on the fly during class.) At least he didn’t insist on Hebrew and Greek as well!

  69. Mikey says:

    @grumpy realist: Something interesting about Japanese that I learned recently–men and women speak it differently. Not different words, but cadence and emphasis.

    I learned this from a friend (male) who was learning Japanese and apparently spoke it with a female cadence, which led to the instructor nicknaming him “Mister Woman” for the duration of the course. Not a bit embarrassing, no sirree…lol…