Some schools allow students to substitute classes in statistics, math, and computer programming courses for foreign language requirements. Its a good policy, and it would be wise, I think, for schools around the country to adopt it or simply drop foreign language requirements altogether.
Dont get me wrong: languages are great, and I think our lives would be improved considerably if we all knew at least one additional language and could read classics like Les Miserables, War and Peace, and Don Quixote in their original languages.
But alas, as the economist and education iconoclast Bryan Caplan has pointed out, Americans rarely read the classics even in translation. According to the Pew Research Center, about a quarter of American adults say they havent read a book in whole or in part in the past year, whether in print, electronic or audio form.
The problem isnt that people dont read the classics in their original language or even that they dont read the classics. Its that they dont read, period. There are undoubtedly lives that have been changed as people went from being uninterested in the life of the mind to enthusiastic readers after studying Russian and reading The Brothers Karamzov, but these are surely very few and very far between.
For the average American, studying foreign languages in school is a waste of time given all the other things she could be doing. For the marginal American who would be nudged into a Spanish class rather than art history or economics by just a little bit more subsidy, there is hardly anything to be gained by making that choice.
But its good for society. Im not so sure. For society writ large, its hard to see how were all made better off by just a bit more language study at the expense of other things people could be doing. In other words, I dont think there are unrealized spillover benefits waiting to be picked up by nudging people into an extra semester or extra year of Spanish at the expense of the other things they could be doing.
Dont get me wrong: my life would undoubtedly be much better if I knew more than the smattering of German I remember from High School. Then again, my life would also be better if I played piano, raced triathlons, or mastered the art of French cooking. Even equipped with this knowledge, I choseand chooseto do other things.
According to Thomas Sowell, the first lesson of economics is scarcity: there is never enough of anything to fully satisfy all those who want it. In other words, you cant have it all. By choosing to do one thing, youre choosing not to do another, and additional language study would have to come at the expense of something elsesomething else that people, facing the incentives and constraints they currently face, have deemed more important than a little more language learning.
But most Europeans are multilingual. Thats true, but Europe has a lot of language groups clustered in a relatively small space. Paris is closer to Amsterdam than Birmingham is to New Orleans, and you dont change languages between Birmingham and New Orleans.
Heres some additional perspective. This summer, my family is taking a cross-country road trip. On our first day of driving, I believe were driving from Birmingham to Columbia, Missouri. According to Google Maps itll be about a 9-hour drive through parts of Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, and Missouri. Its roughly the same driving time as the trip from Hamburg, Germany to Paris, but on a drive from Hamburg to Paris you would pass through four countries (Germany, Holland, Belgium, France) speaking three different languages (German, Dutch, and French).
The average European isnt that far from a place where people speak another language. Hence, its to their advantage to learn multiple languages. A student in Birmingham would have to travel about a thousand miles to get to the Mexican border, where she wouldnt be surrounded by native English speakers. And even then, she would be surrounded by enough people who speak English that shed be able to get around without a whole lot of trouble. Even then, the distance from San Antonio to McAllen, Texas is comparable to the distance between Berlin and Prague.
Compared to all the other things she could be doing, studying a foreign language doesnt give her a lot of bang for her buck. The world would be a better place if all Americans knew a foreign language is true, but its not the same thing as it is therefore a good use of resources to require students to study foreign languages in school. The second claim needs a solid argument for what we would give up and why.
But back to Sowell: The first lesson of politics is to disregard the first lesson of economics. If you pretend that scarcity isnt a constraint, its easy to imagine having more of something you think important just by wishing for it. Or voting for it. Policies that disregard scarcity are unlikely to be wise.
One might respond that there are benefits to language study even if someone doesnt obtain fluency. Theyre right, but there are also costs and most Americans have voted with their time and money for lots of things besides studying foreign languages. By what right, I wonder, do We Enlightened Few presume to tell them what to do? Even with the resources were spending on language instruction now, people arent really learning much, and we should make them! doesnt strike me as a response to people dont value this particular course of study thats worthy of a free society that respects human dignity and the right to choose.
Would the world be a better place if Americans knew more languages? It absolutely would be, but the world would be a better place with more of a lot of things (great music, great artwork) and less of a lot of other things (obesity, poverty). Bryan Caplan argues that people dont retain a lot of what they study, and foreign languages are one of his main examples. In light of what we actually know about what people learn, retain, and use, the sad fact is that eliminating language requirements would almost certainly be a very good policy move.