Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money

Saturday, August 11th, 2012

Foreign language requirements are a waste of time and money, Bryan Caplan notes:

In 2000 and 2006, the GSS asked over 4000 respondents the following three questions*:

  1. Can you speak a language other than English?  [Responses: Yes/No]  (OTHLANG)
  2. How well do you speak that language?  [Responses: Very well/well/Not well/Poorly or Hardly at All]  (SPKLANG)
  3. Is that a language you first learned as a child at home, in school, or is it one that you learned elsewhere?  [Responses: Childhood home/School/Elsewhere] (GETLANG)

The results showed an even smaller effect of foreign language instruction on foreign language fluency than I expected.

25.7% of respondents speak a language other than English.  Within this sample, 41.5% claim to speak the other language “very well.”  Within this sub-sub-sample, just 7.0% say they learned to speak this foreign language in school.  If you multiple out these three percentages, you get 0.7%.  The marginal product of two years of pain and suffering per high school graduate: less than one student in a hundred acquires fluency.  (And that’s self-assessed fluency, which people almost surely exaggerate).

If you lower the bar from “very well” to “well” the picture remains grim: merely 2.5% of GSS respondents claimed to reach this level of foreign language competence in school.

My first thought:

Perhaps we should perform a similar analysis for all the other requirements. How well do most Americans comprehend literature, perform algebra and geometry, remember history, etc.?

Steve Sailer found some numbers suggesting that our schools are much better at teaching advanced math than foreign languages:

For more data on subject, you can look at the College Board’s website on Advanced Placement test scores. For example, last year only 1,075 students (out of a cohort of about 4 million) scored a 5 on the AP French test (excluding students who learned French in French-speaking countries or homes).

In contrast, 40,500 students earned a 5 on the tough Calculus BC Advanced Placement exam.

Looking at the AP scores for Spanish, French, German, Italian, Japanese, and Chinese, it appears that about 8,000 students annually learn to speak a foreign language in high school (as opposed to in a foreign country) well enough to get an A on college level course. In contrast, five times as many students reach that level on the tougher of the two Calculus APs.

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