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

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