Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Learning foreign languages? Why bother?

That's the title of an article by David Behling, a professor at Waldorf College, cunningly designed to pull in people like me looking to shoot down a ridiculous argument. Unfortunately Professor Behling is pulling a fast one on us, because he comes down firmly on the side of learning languages.

I of course agree with that sentiment, but there's a few places where I can't quite agree with what he's saying.

He writes:
In American schools, we wait until the brain has turned off the ability to easily learn language and then we start drilling our kids and young adults in a new grammar and vocabulary. It’s no wonder so many of them think it is such a drag.
I've argued before that it's more about the method used than the age, but there seems to be some support beyond my little hypothesis as well. I'm also happy proffer myself up as an example; I learned all my languages after the age of 18, and I didn't find it particularly hard. And go ask Steve Kaufmann at what age exactly he decided to pick up Russian.

He then goes on:
Opportunities to study language in school — instead of through private lessons or expensive software like Rosetta Stone — will not appear unless something else changes first.
He then goes on to say that Americans need a change in the way they think about foreign languages. That probably wouldn't hurt, but I'd start with the teaching method: painfully boring classes mean low demand means few students means few classes. And I'd say he should also check out Exhibit A: Drake University.

And I would be remiss to not point out that there are tons of ways to learn languages without school, private lessons, or expensive software. Browsing this blog, the blog roll, or a few quick Google searches should get you plenty of examples.

Link: Learning foreign languages? Why bother? [Albert Lea Tribune]


  1. To be fair to Americans, we should recognize an asymmetry in the world that provides less incentive for Americans to study foreign languages than for non-Americans to study English. The asymmetry is that business, science and research are largely conducted in a single language and thus provides a strong incentive for newcomers to gravitate towards the established common language.

    I've been in parts of the world where speaking English is the difference between being able to put food on the table or not. That is a tangible force of motivation.

    Personally, I hated learning French in high school. And indeed, it has been largely useless except for the fact that it has helped me to learn Portuguese, which was invaluable for wooing my now Brazilian wife. [smile]

  2. I certainly can't disagree with you that everyone speaking English lessens the incentive to learn a foreign language—and not just for American, but for Aussies, Brits, Canadians, etc.

  3. As a native language maybe 3-4% of the world population speak english.
    And maybe 15-20% of the world population speak english.

    So, 80% doesn't speak at all and i'm pretty sure that they are happy.

    Not everyone speak english and not everyone want to speak english. Speak english help to learn other language, there more resource of any kind in english.

    Just than many native english speaker doesn't see the advantage to speak another language, but it's true for every language. In my village, where I was raise, no one speak english, no one need english and english is useless.

    Every language can be useful or useless. English is more useful than Icelandic in many place, in others places both are useless, and in Iceland, icelandic is more useful.

    In many place, english is not even the second language.
    In south america(other than Brazil), portuguese
    In Brazil, spanish
    In some part of Africa, french and spanish. (Arabic or african language as first)
    In some part of Italy french, other german.
    In switzerland, french or german
    In Belgium, Dutch, french or german.
    Eastern Europe, russian or german.
    Many japanese, korean, chinese speak more than one asian language without speaking english.

    English is the most popular 2nd language and the most useful for many people, but english is clearly not the universal 2nd language.

  4. @JM: I think it's fair to say that English is not a universal second language for all non-English speakers, but it's definitely the closest thing there is to one.