Everyone in America should fail to learn a foreign language

Everyone talks about the benefits of learning a foreign language. But in my experience, the benefits are greatly overrated. Sure, there are many people who could benefit from learning a foreign language: I understand that if you don’t speak English, the benefits of learning English can be enormous, and there are probably places in America where learning Spanish is a good idea.

But personally? In middle school, they gave us a choice of Spanish, French, and German. I chose Spanish on the theory that it was most likely to actually be useful. I stuck with it through six years total between middle school, high school, and college, and have gotten virtually no benefit out of it since then.

I did manage to have some half-in-Spanish/half-in-English conversations with the students I met in Spain the summer after I graduated college, but I was only there fore a few days. I’m not sure I used my Spanish at all when I went to Columbia a year later. Sometimes when I’ve met Spanish speakers in other countries, I’ve tried to show of my Spanish by speaking a few phrases, but invariably we end up speaking mostly in English.

As for the countries I’ve traveled to that spoke neither English nor Spanish, I discovered I could get by knowing either only basic “tourist”/”survival” phrases (this was true in Tunisia and Korea, even though I lived in the latter for close to a year) or nothing of the language at all (France, the Netherlands, Southeast Asia).

So much for my experience with the benefits of learning foreign languages. On top of this, learning a foreign language is really hard. The two years required by many high schools and colleges isn’t remotely enough to attain any real competence. And yet, I think requiring college students to study a foreign language for two years is a great idea. Why?

So they can have the experience of failing to learn a foreign language. You can learn a lot from failing to learn a foreign language. You learn about how languages work. About the features of English you never thought about before even though they’re around you constantly. About the ways in which English didn’t have to be the way it is.

If you’re really sharp, you might stop marvel at how amazing it is that you’re able to speak one language without having to really think about it. And if you don’t manage to have that thought on your own, you’ll at least be able to understand what the heck Steven Pinker is talking about when he makes the point. (Seriously, I can’t conceive of what it’s like to read Pinker if you’ve never tried to learn a foreign language.) Ditto understanding AI researchers talk about how hard machine translation is.

If you really want to get the most out of failing to learn a foreign language, do what I did: move to a foreign country with the best of intentions, a bit of the language already under your belt, mp3s of lessons loaded onto your iPhone, fully intending to not just make friends with other foreigners but hang out with the locals too, maybe even date one or two of them, practice the language constantly with them, and become fluent.

Struggle awhile before you’ve got the alphabet, numbers, and “how much does it cost?” down pat. Make friends with your fellow English-speaking foreigners. Get an American girlfriend. Realizing continuing in the lessons you’ve got isn’t going to help you all that much. Spend all your free time hanging out with your English-speaking friends and American girlfriend. Feel a lot more sympathy for the immigrants who come to America, stick to their immigrant communities, and never really learn English.

(Note: this post is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, and should not be taken entirely seriously. I do, however, firmly believe that

  • http://kruel.co/ Alexander Kruel

    I learnt English mostly by myself without ever visiting a foreign country. I recently started learning French and Spanish because I felt dumb only knowing German and English :-)

    I expect it will take approximately 10 years to reach the same fluency that I have in English because I currently only spend 2/12 of my curriculum on French and Spanish. If it was my sole purpose to become fluent in those languages then I would expect to master it in under 2 years without ever visiting a foreign country.

    Regarding the instrumental use of learning those languages. I don’t care. I do it just for fun. If I was some sort of consequentialist existential risk minimizer then I’d agree with you that knowing English is pretty much sufficient.

    My current curriculum looks like this (rotational):

    3 hours: Mathematics, Logic, Computability and R (currently reading the book ‘What is Mathematics’)
    1 hour: C/C++ (Writing own programs or solving puzzles such as Project Euler)
    1 hour: Miscellaneous (Currently reading the book ‘The Haskell Road to Logic and Programming’)
    30 min.: Spanish and Linguistics
    30 min.: French and Linguistics

  • Greg G.

    I failed to learn Spanish in high school. Now I’m failing to learn Vietnamese. I picked up a little French before a trip to Paris last year so I think I may completely fail to learn that language next. Au revere.

  • Annatar

    I’ve heard that learning another language is great for your brain. Also, languages are just fucking awesome, so that’s a good enough reason to try in my book.

  • Kodie

    We had a choice of Spanish, French, and Latin, and later German and Italian. I took 3 years of Spanish, and honestly, the whole first year were all words I learned watching “Sesame Street” when I was little. I took 2 years of French in college because “a foreign language” was required (didn’t matter which one) for my then-minor (it was long ago, I want to say “Criminal Studies”?), and I wanted to go to Paris (never did yet), so I learned French. It was great but I don’t speak French.

    Over the years, I’ve also had occasion to dabble in German, Greek, and currently Russian (and probably a few others – I feel like I know how to say at least one word each of about 10 languages for the heck of it). Dabble, I mean less than 10 words? To talk to people who didn’t speak English in the US, I learned a couple words of their language or helped them with English by translating the word for them if I could not describe it in English words they already knew. Being able to draw a picture is also good, but in a pinch, google Translate. I live in Boston, and somewhat more than half the people I know are not born in the US, although most know English fluently. The word I’ve had to translate for people the most often is “homesick.”

    Last year, I was going to take a course to learn how to teach English as a second language, but I found out that is mostly for people who like to travel, and aren’t really picky where they travel or how long they’re gone. I’m not really averse to travel, though it’s expensive, but transplanting myself for an indeterminate time is a stifling thought to me – for one thing, I won’t know their language, ha ha. You just don’t get a good pick of places to go, and it’s difficult to find work in it in the US unless you also have a teaching degree, so I was going to do that but then teach math instead. I learned that most people immigrating to the US take that course at home before they arrive, or in their undergrad in their home country before taking grad school here.

    If I’m going to stay exactly where I am, the best language to learn more of would probably be Russian. I hear many languages on the street, but I encounter Russian the most.

  • Kodie

    How to learn some basic vocabulary in another language, depending on what’s available or common in your area: self-checkout at the grocery store. I got the idea when I accidentally hit the button for Spanish. How not to learn some basic vocabulary in another language, or to test your aptitude for a language: set your device to that language and when you wish you hadn’t, try to turn it back to English. It’s really hard to do.

  • Becky

    Language teacher here! this is similar to what I tell my students and their parents. Except I replace “fail to learn” with “study” and tell them up front that my purpose is not to get them to learn or acquire the language or be fluent after 4 hrs/school week for 2 years but rather to learn about the language, the cultures of those who speak it, academic study skills, presentation and writing skills that complement their other classes, and to get college entry requirements. If they want to stick with it for 4 years, then they might be on good footing to take advantage of growing their communicative fluency, but they’ll need to study at a university level and have some immersive experiences.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=520155425 Tura Satana

      4 h a week for 2 years? Surely you should be conversant in the language after that! Not fluent as in able to write epic poetry, but at least able to get along with it.

    • Puzzled

      Ladies and gentlemen, the education system. Meanwhile, non-academic immersion programs deliver competency in 6 weeks.

  • Becky T

    Language teacher here! You are absolutely right that there are many benefits in the process of learning a language that help cognitive function, even if you don’t end up becoming fluent or using the language. You didn’t mention it, but it is also a great place to learn history from a different point of view, and engage in a culture different from your own. Honestly, this might be one of the most important things: looking at something different with open eyes, instead of just going “That’s really weird”.

    However, a big reason why most people “fail” to learn a foreign language is because way too many teachers are not teaching the language right. There needs to be a much larger focus on communication, and less on verb charts. Additionally, there are many teachers who are NOT competent speakers of the language, and so they don’t conduct their class in the target language (higher usage by the teacher = higher usage by the students). Many teachers also rely too much on textbooks which are written for very high-achieving students, and not for all learners.

    Quite frankly, there needs to be a push to start language learning earlier, AND the teaching profession needs to look more attractive to competent speakers of the language. Trust me, there is wayyyy more money in translation than there is in being a young teacher at a poor, urban school.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Former language teacher here! The idea of hiring more competent language teachers sounds great in theory, but unfortunately the number of teachers who really know two languages well is small. And because demand for having people who know two languages well do other things (like translate) is high, it’s going to be hard to outbid the people who want translators, etc. So I’m not sure your idea is practical.

  • Denis Robert

    Classic anglo-centric self-important pablum. People in Europe learn foreign languages quite as a matter of fact, and I am perfectly bilingual (my first language is French, but most people wouldn’t know unless they see or hear my name). It’s the idea that a language is something you learn in school that is at fault. Waiting for school, especially secondary school, to learn a second language is a recipe for failure. Leaning foreign languages is made much easier by early exposure to other languages. And that’s the problem in most anglo countries: you simply are too self-involved to even be remotely interested in hearing another language, let alone learn one. The standard attitude of most anglophones when hearing a language other than their own is not: “How interesting, something to learn!”, but rather “How dare they speak Fuhrrrn in front of me! How impertinent of them! Off with their heads!”. This is a culturally determined attitude, not a necessary one.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

      Anglo-centric? Sure. Heck, I wasn’t even sure what I was saying applied to Brits, which is why the word “America” is right there in the title. Self-important? I don’t see it that way, except insofar as what makes sense for Americans to do is important to Americans.

      The American (and Britain?) vs. the continent difference in language learning can be chalked up to (1) the latter group benefits more from learning a foreign language and (2) you have to travel a lot less farther to “expose” yourself to it, as you say. I don’t think deficient cultural attitudes have anything to do with it.

    • Kodie

      Tu quoque.

    • Sacre bleu

      But most of Europe’s second language now is English. Wouldn’t it be better for English pupils to do extra maths or science, instead of learning another European langauge they’ll never use? J’ai etudie le francais dan l’ecole, mais je oublie touts.

      • LoveYaBabe

        So you English-only speaking Americans and English just sit on your asses while the rest of us actually bother to learn the way to communicate with you? Maybe we should go for a strike and refuse to communicate with you in English just so you arrogant sweethearts would have to learn some silly foreigner language like Spanish or French. What do you say to that? Something in English, probably.

        • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

          I predict that such a boycott would not work. But you’re welcome to try. :)

        • JohnH2

          I have heard multiple conversations where no one participating had English as their first language (and they certainly weren’t speaking English for my sake). International trade and shipping depends on English (as does much of academia and other fields). There is more English speakers that are not native English speakers then there are native English speakers.

          That said, I am fluent in another language, can understand speech in two others, and can read without too many difficulties a total of seven (and should really learn a few more but that would require leaving the Roman alphabet (even if one of them is still a Indo-European language) which I haven’t wanted to put in the effort to do so yet).

      • Alexander Johannesen

        Hmm, maybe. I speak 6 languages (by virtue of coming from a country that has 3, and also having weird hobbies [Latin]), and I would think 4 of them to be essential to a lot of my successes and professional life (conferences, working in different countries, etc.). It helps me understand context better, and this is from a guy who now lives in Australia and speak English all the time. Knowing these other languages help me bump into people and connect with them far better than I probably could with just the one expected language. I think.

    • RedGreenInBlue

      Je suis absolument d’accord avec Denis, et je suis anglais. :)

      • http://patheos.com/blogs/hallq/ Chris Hallquist

        Okay, I have enough French to have understood that.

        • RedGreenInBlue

          Touché! :D

          *gets coat*

    • Kodie

      I would also say many Americans have no occasion to leave the US, if at
      all, not for very long. Families might go on vacation outside the
      country and learn a few phrases, but mostly stay within the borders.
      It’s cheaper, and the country has a lot of scenic and cultural vacation
      spots, as well as where people are likely to relocate themselves. Few
      jobs will relocate someone to another country or even send them there
      for a business trip. There are not many opportunities to immerse
      yourself in another language unless you want to pack up and move
      someplace else on the planet, but people come here more often, not the
      other way around.

      Why some people take this as a major flaw of
      our culture and that we are bound in some terrible self-centered act of
      purposeful ignorance and exclusion to the world, I do not understand.
      The US is huge for travel and for relocating. It has a variety of
      cultures to be exposed to. We have Spanish-speaking to the south and
      English-speaking to the north, and oceans on either side. It is not a
      cluster of small differently-lingual countries. Big business is done
      mostly in European capitals and Japan or China. It might do to learn a
      language if it is your job to deal with CEOs at branches in foreign
      capitals. It is harder to do if that’s not your job – just leave the
      WHOLE United States and settle in some other part of the world, that’s
      what everyone in the world does, and we know that. Our whole history,
      each individual’s history is one immigration story, and very often long
      ago that we never heard Polish or Italian, much less know how to speak
      it. People from the US do not as often transplant themselves to another
      country to immerse themselves in another language. People have always
      come here. The languages we’re exposed to are spoken by groups of people
      who can talk to each other but not to everyone else unless they learn
      English. I could move to Chinatown and immerse myself in Mandarin, but
      they still need to learn English to talk to the Russian-, Greek-, or
      Spanish-speaking Americans.

      I really wanted to take French in
      school but was talked into taking Spanish because it was thought to be
      “most useful” at the time. It’s somewhat useful if you’re staying in the
      US, as Spanish is probably the second-most spoken language, while
      French is for going to France. I’m glad I got to finally take French (4
      semesters) finally, but I use neither. Latin is a “dead” language, but
      useful for learning better English, and for professions like law or
      medicine. Kids who took Latin knew that’s the direction they were
      headed. Everyone is right – to be optimally bilingual, it’s best to
      learn in early childhood, while they put it off until higher grades,
      after we’ve supposedly mastered the grammar and
      spelling of English, and in mind to prepare for going out into the world
      and have a career of some sort. If you are a child learning two
      languages, it probably has more to do with your parents or where you
      were born.

      The reason we wait until we’re older is because there
      is no reason to learn another language than English other than if you
      know what you want to do with your life, where you might move, or who
      you might associate with. It doesn’t take very well to learn Italian as a
      child unless you are moving to Italy someday, but you might be going to
      Thailand instead, you might marry into a Greek family, you don’t know.
      That’s why I said people tried to figure out in 7th grade (about 12 or
      13 years old) what to pick for the most useful second language for
      business, for what job you might have.

      I don’t need to know as
      much Spanish living in Boston as I might have if I moved to Los Angeles
      or New York City, but I didn’t know that. In the 80s people thought they
      might need to know Russian. Japanese or Chinese wasn’t even on the
      table – granted, a high enough proportion of my high school probably
      spoke Chinese at home, but seeing as how they and their parents also
      spoke English, it was not seen as a barrier. They were coming here to
      live and work – we were not going there, we were staying here and
      learning Spanish. In other areas of the country, I suppose they were
      pushing other languages that were locally spoken. To teach a second
      language to a very young child in the US for reasons other than their
      parents/extended family speaks it or their parents are transplanting
      them just doesn’t seem necessary or advantageous at all. What if you are bilingual – you know English. I don’t need to know French to talk to you, as a matter of course, you say. What if you learned “a second language” of German instead? While in Europe, it is great, you can go to Germany and talk to Germans. But you would have hedged your bets on learning a language most people do not speak. That’s why Americans don’t take languages in early childhood – which one? We already know English.

  • RedGreenInBlue

    Hmm. There’s a big difference between “getting by” in a country you’re visiting, and actually communicating, and in my experience, the effort to learn more than the stock tourist phrases is rewarded by less embarrassment, more interesting conversations, and often useful local tips that I’m sure I wouldn’t have been told had I just gesticulated and waved my phrasebook.

    I also want to say that IMHO that the most difficult thing about learning a new language is ignoring all the people who tell you earnestly how difficult learning languages is. I’m 40 and not a linguist, but I’ve learned Welsh from scratch to reasonable level of fluency in two years (i.e. I can understand pretty much everything on the radio/TV, and can hold my own in a conversation on pretty much any topic). And yet, the number of people who tell you it’s an impossible language to learn even when you’ve just told them that you have learned it!

    (I do agree though that learning [or even trying and failing to learn :) ] another language, whatever it is, improves your English by enabling you to compare features of the two languages)

  • http://www.strategiesinlanguagelearning.com Andrew Weiler

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    W frst nd t strt t trn r blfs rnd nd thn strt t fnd ds tht cn hlp s lrn n mr pwrfl wys. Chck t http://www.strtgsnlngg… fr strtrs!

    Comment disemvowelled for spam. See comment policy. Continue to make comments like this and you will be banned. – Hallq

  • HRG

    This comment may show my age – but I regard as the main benefit of knowing foreign languages (in my case, English, French and a bit of Russian) is the ability to read works of literature in the original.

    HRG (also fluent in the Austrian dialect of German :) ).,

  • Espoucoburroes

    You are so ignorant, it hurts!

  • Marco P

    Your view of language learning is quite narrow. It sounds like for you a language is merely a tool, not so different from what a hammer or a drill are in DIY. Of course a foreign language is also that, but it is far much more. In the comments before mine, it has already been written about the cognitive benefits of learning a language. We never use most of the subjects we learn in school, but nobody would ever argue against the importance of biology, arts or astronomy…
    Apart from that there are lots of reasons to study a language, even if you won’t be able to use it much…
    Finally, in the age of the Internet there are plenty of opportunities to get exposure to a foreign language and practice it, even without travelling abroad. Think about listening to online radio and songs, watching videos and movies, reading books, newspapers and magazines. You can also make friends with speakers of the language you are learning or engage in forums in that language…


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