Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

language-school

In an episode of Freakonomics Radio I recently listened to, the show discussed whether learning a foreign language was really worth it.

I wrote a post back in May about whether we should teach foreign language in schools. My main point was that it was essentially a failed system: children simply do not learn to speak a foreign language, despite spending hours of school time per week on it. That is a big opportunity cost when they could be doing other subjects.

The show agrees with me. Not only are most people unsuccessful, but it really does not provide that much benefit. If you look at the economic benefit for example, which if it was giving you additional skills or even just increasing your IQ, we would expect to see big gains here. However, a study in America showed that learning Spanish gave you can economic benefit of around 2%. French was a little better at 2.7%, but there are certainly other things you could do and other skills you could learn that would give you a much greater benefit with the same time input.

This is not true of countries where English is not the primary language. If you live in a country where a relatively obscure language is spoken, and then learn English, you’re economic outlook significantly increases: perhaps 20%. Therefore it makes sense for other countries to continue to teach English as an additional language. However, for English-speaking countries to continue to teach other languages makes far less sense.

There was one benefit the show discussed that did pick up my interest though. Thinking in another language seems to make you more rational. For example, if you are offered a coin toss: heads you get £15, tails you lose £10. The rational thing to do is to take this bet. However, many people don’t. It is called loss aversion and Daniel Kahneman talks about it in Thinking, Fast and Slow.

However, if you get people to think about it in a different language, they are more likely to take the bet. Similarly, if you give them a moral dilemma, “do you switch the train tracks to save five people but kill one”, they are more likely to take the utilitarian view in a second language. Dubner suggests this is because we attach a lot of emotion to the worlds in our mother tongue, but do not have this baggage when thinking in a different language.

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This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 26th, 2016 at 10:47 am and is filed under Science, Thoughts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.