The latest episode of Freakonomics Radio really caught the attention of this language nerd. Titled Is Learning a Foreign Language Worth It?, the episode looks at the economic benefits and opportunity costs of learning a foreign language. At first glance (or rather, first listen), the economists they interview seem to make a pretty strong case against teaching foreign languages in U.S. schools:

  • On average, speaking a foreign language only accounts for a 2% increase in wages.
  • A great deal of money and time is devoted to learning foreign languages in school that could (as some argue) be better spent on English literacy skills.
  • English is (and will likely remain for some time), the international lingua franca of business.


The above arguments against learning a foreign language stand on the following assumptions:

  • You only learn a foreign language in a formal school setting.
  • You only learn a language in an effort to earn more money.

Obviously, there are countless ways to learn languages outside of the classroom using the ever-growing pool of free (or at least reasonably priced), high-quality language learning materials, resources, apps, and crowd-sourced tools. But given the high rate of change and economic interests of traditional language education, most folks still think the only way to learn a foreign language is to plop their butts in a classroom or buy over-hyped, over-priced language products. There are certainly benefits to having access to a teacher (they can answer questions, choose tailored materials for you, and help build a cultural context), but all of these benefits can be attained with an online tutor or language-exchange partner. If you have the time or money to take classes, go for it. But don’t use a lack of either as an excuse not to learn a language.

And regarding the second assumption, external motivators like income or promotion aren’t actually very effective in the long run anyway. As an English teacher and corporate trainer, I observed that most students primarily motivated by the promise of higher pay or a position higher up the corporate latter didn’t have the necessary passion (or time!) for learning the language to show up week in and week out or put in the requisite effort outside of class. Those who excelled tended to love language for language’s sake, and looked forward to using the language to better understand and participate in the world.

One quote in the interview really stood out to me. Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, argues:

“If people are going to get some basic career benefit out of it, or it enriches their personal life, then foreign language study is great. But if it’s a language that doesn’t really help their career, they’re not going to use it, and they’re not happy when they’re there, I really don’t see the point, it seems cruel to me.”

I completely agree! But forcing students to learn a foreign language in school doesn’t mean they can’t learn them outside of school. And when one has a choice whether or not to learn a language, and what language or languages to learn specifically, it certainly provides much more personal enrichment than mandatory classes. And even better, such self-guided learning can lead to fluency far faster, far cheaper, and with far less frustration than traditional classroom-based language learning.

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