Guest Blogger: When Does it Make Sense to Learn a Foreign Language?

My Stanford friend Andrew Linford spent the last year studying abroad in Poland, India, France, South Africa, United Kingdom and Japan. Be sure to check out his blog at - Danny Crichton

"The Chinese are taking over the world. We should all just learn Chinese." Have you ever heard a statement like this one? Should we all just learn Chinese for this reason? Learning a foreign language takes time and commitment. Without both together, you will not be able to fully learn a language. So, when does it actually make sense to put in the time and effort, and when does it pay off?

As Americans, we are incredibly lucky to learn the lingua franca of the world as a primary language of the country, enabling us to communicate with many people globally without the effort to learn a second (or even third language). But the facility by which we can communicate with others does present a barrier to Americans, as it presents a situation in which language learning can seem particularly useless. Although Spanish may be a very important language, it is nowhere as important as English. However, all high schools and many colleges do require that we spend time learning a foreign language in order to graduate. Considering how much can be learned in one year of classes at a high school, does that extra year of a foreign language make sense in terms of opportunity cost?

The following are guiding principals I have come up with to decide when an American taking the time to learn a foreign language makes sense:

  1. Your family speaks that language. For me, it makes complete sense to me that one should really be able to speak with all close family members at least decently well in their language, especially if they do not speak English. Yes, you may be able to have your parents translate what your grandparents say, but if you don't have a language in common, you will not be able to bond that well across language barriers. In this case, spending the time to learn the language to continue culture and heritage makes complete sense. This is especially true if one is planning to visit their country of heritage and potentially leave there, as I address in the next topic.

  2. You will be living in a country for an extended period of time. This one is pretty self-evident. If you plan on living in France or Japan, you really do need to learn how to speak French or Japanese. Although you may be able to get around a bit in Paris and Tokyo with their broken English for a short period of time, people are definitely much more comfortable speaking their own language, and you will be much more efficient in the time you spend in the country knowing the language instead of taking the time to try to work things out with broken English.

  3. Working with lower-class people who speak a different language (in the United States or abroad). In general, the middle and upper class citizens (the well-educated ones), will be likely to speak English because they have had the education to do so. However, less educated and lower-class citizens in a non-English speaking country are unlikely (at best) to have any English skills. Hence, for interaction with them in community-service like activities, learning their language for communicating with them is extraordinarily important.

  4. Practice learning a language. I believe all people should take at least a certain amount of a foreign language in order to have practice learning a foreign language. Although such a language may not ever be used, people should graduate from high school/college with an understanding of how to study a foreign language if they need to do so.

  5. If you love learning languages. Learning languages can be a great hobby to have, especially as the more languages one learns, the easier it will be to speak it. Furthermore, the United States definitely needs more people that can speak foreign languages. (As can be seen in conflicts like the Iraq War).

What does not fall under these categories?

  1. My opening statement of China taking over the world. Despite people arguing that Chinese will take over, people are likely to ignore how many in China are learning English, clearly visible in this video. Although learning Chinese might be important if you plan to be working with Chinese immigrants in the United States or moving to China, it will not be a big help to you in the United States, especially if you only take Chinese classes for a year or two and promptly forget it. In terms of the Chinese economy growing, learning English a requirement for advancement in Chinese companies, and hence any American doing business or academia in China will be conversing with people who already speak English.

  2. Along the same lines, if you are a business person or working in academia, you will be working with more highly educated people who already speak English, making learning the local language not as needed. (However, the skill may be useful for academic work such as archival research).

  3. As a tourist. Although I think it is great to learn some introductory phrases in the local language (such as hello and thank you) because it is important to show respect to the country, actually spending a year of learning a language to only use it for a couple of days in a major tourist city in which many people will already speaks English may not be the best use of time.

A recent New York Times article talked about another situation:

When Maureen Mazumder enrolled her daughter, Sabrina, in a Spanish singalong class a year ago, she hoped it would be the first step in helping her learn a second language. But the class did not seem to do the trick, so Ms. Mazumder decided to hire a baby sitter, one who would not only care for her daughter but also speak to her exclusively in Spanish.

"It was a must that she speak Spanish," said Ms. Mazumder, who said neither she nor her husband was fluent in the language. "We feel so strongly that our daughter hear another language."

In this case, I do believe this is great, as it falls under my 4th rule, that someone should have practice learning a language (even though it doesn't apply to my first rule, namely that it is for family). Also, the opportunity cost is not huge in terms of English lost. As the article goes on to explain, although the kid's English vocabulary may not be as big, their combined vocabulary with the two languages will be bigger. Also, since the kid is presumably young, the amount of total material they are learning is not as much, so it makes more sense to spend time learning a more memorization subject, namely, a foreign language.

Lastly, I want to say that many people argue that it is important to learn about other cultures by learning their languages. I completely agree with the importance of learning about other's cultures, however, learning the language is not the best way to do so. Americans tend to be somewhat culturally ignorant on the whole, but instead of forcing everyone into another year of a foreign language class, why not have a world culture class instead? Learn about the geography, the politics, the religion and history of a particular country, but in English so that the students can more properly grasp the information and retain it. Although learning languages is great, I do not believe that the information gained from the third year of taking the language in high school that will not be learned further, will be as valuable as a world culture class in which Americans can have their horizons broadened and expanded that can be more applicable to everyone's life.