A few weeks ago, I was in Stockholm, Sweden for a conference. My observations along the way brought to mind co-blogger Bryan Caplan’s posts about foreign language requirements(1, 2, 3). Specifically, during my layover in Amsterdam, I noticed that some of the signs were in English with Dutch subtitles. Many announcements were in English. On the flight from Amsterdam to Stockholm, they gave the safety presentation in Dutch and…English, not Swedish. As an American who knows no Dutch and no Swedish, I had no problem communicating.

When Bryan wrote his first posts, I was surprised (and frustrated) at how frequently people misunderstood his argument. Bryan did not write that no one should study a foreign language or that your life won’t be better if you know a foreign language. He made the argument that for most Americans, learning a second language brings relatively few benefits. Americans grow up knowing the international language of commerce–English–that allows us to communicate with most of the people we will encounter. If it doesn’t allow us to communicate with them directly, it’s likely that we’re only one degree of separation from someone who can help us.

Yes, I think the world would be a better place if I could snap my fingers and make everyone multilingual. Indeed, I’ll block quote myself to highlight this:

I really wish I knew more than one language.

The problem, as Bryan went to great lengths to point out in the posts linked above, is that learning a language requires a lot of time and energy. I still hope to learn at least conversational Spanish at some point, but first I’m not sure I’ll succeed and second I plan to do it by finding a way to live in a Spanish-speaking country for a few months. Incidentally, that’s something I have the luxury of being able to do as an academic; most Americans probably can’t decamp to South or Central America for months on end.

I’m not the world traveler I want to be (yet), but I’ve been to a few European cities, Brazil twice, IKEA, Belize, Guatemala, and tourist destinations in Mexico a few times. I even lost my passport in Italy a few years ago (not an experience I care to repeat). Given that the majority of Americans still don’t have passports–even though this is changing–I suspect I’m better traveled than many other Americans. Being monolingual hasn’t really hindered me. How likely is it that a student in a high school language classroom will find himself or herself in a situation in which being monolingual is an insurmountable barrier to communication?

Naturally, I’d like to be able to read great novelists like Hugo and Tolstoy in their original languages. In making inventories of my life’s goals, I wrote down that I want to someday be able to read the Bible in Spanish and the New Testament in the original Greek. I want my kids to grow up as global citizens, I would love for them to learn multiple languages, and over the years I plan to take advantage of the opportunities I have in academia to spend large chunks of time abroad.

I whole-heartedly agree that the world would be a better place if more Americans knew more about other cultures and knew more languages. But I also think the world would be a much better place if more Americans knew more economics–or even just read for fun, which is something a lot of Americans apparently don’t do. As Bryan points out, the average American doesn’t pick the low-hanging cultural fruit at his disposal. Two years of required French courses probably won’t have him reading Les Miserables in its original language.

At the end of the day, I think foreign languages should definitely be taught if they pass the market test. But should they be required or subsidized? I don’t think so. The student who will really benefit from it will probably already decide to study it. At the margin, the student who has to be coerced or nudged probably won’t get much out of it.

Coda: As people pointed out in their comments on Bryan’s original posts, the argument generalizes and can also be levied against most study of math, literature, history, and (wait for it) economics. If the signaling model of schooling is mostly correct, though, subsidizing schooling subsidizes a socially unproductive arms race and the argument above shouldn’t give us much cause for concern.

I also caution readers to avoid falling into the “if we don’t make people do it, no one will do it” and “if the government doesn’t do it, no one will” traps. I hope a few minutes with the resources being made available by the E.G. West Centre will convince you otherwise.