The economics of language learning

Following up on the last post, chew on this: although there are plenty of languages that seem useful, there is no rational reason for you to learn most of them.

Of course, it’s very rational (in fact, often unavoidable) to learn a language when you have no choice—if you live or work where that language is all that’s spoken. That’s part of the beauty of exchange programs and cross-cultural romance. But beyond that, you’re better off hiring a translator or interpreter when you need one: it’s much cheaper, and likely to be just as effective.

That’s why Americans rarely learn foreign languages: the benefits simply aren’t there. That’s also why children learn languages “more easily” than adults: they have much less choice in the matter, especially if their peers are speaking a different language. Adult professionals, like the aforementioned lawyers in Tokyo, can just outsource their language needs, and save a lot of time and money by doing so.

So what accounts for those of us who learn languages for the hell of it (including the authors of this blog)? Basically, we’re nuts. Not thinking things through. I love knowing Japanese and I keep learning more, but it hasn’t been particularly useful in my life, except when haggling with electronics dealers in Den-Den Town. Yet I keep learning it, probably because the amenities in Japan are so tempting, and, like most Westerners who know Asian languages, I have way too much fun flaunting the skills (what Jay Rubin calls the “look, Mom! I’m reading Japanese!” effect).

On the other hand, a professor of mine, who loves Japan enough to spend a few months teaching there every other year or so, has stopped bothering with language classes. For him, there isn’t much necessity: his family speaks English, his classes are taught in English, and a couple of lines from a phrasebook are all he needs to order lunch or locate an English speaker. Maybe if he were dropped into a high school classroom in Osaka, he would start figuring out those characters.

One of my favorite analyses on this issue comes from amateur linguist/online ne’er-do-well Mark Rosenfelder, who wrote a nice, meaty article on the “how”s and “why”s of language acquisition, and reached the same conclusion: language learning almost always comes from necessity, and the exceptions can be counted as strange obsession. So before you go off to learn a language for kicks, consider what your obsession is.

9 thoughts on “The economics of language learning”

  1. It’s not irrational to follow something that fascinates you when you’re young, and then to try and make as much practical use out of that pursuit as possible when you grow up and realize you need to be pragmatic.

    Even though my strange life choices make me potential fodder for (the “going to Japan to seek bully asylum” comment hits close to home []), in the end I don’t regret the decision at all (generally speaking — I’ve done plenty of stuff in and out of Japan that I now regret, but the general direction of my life has been a big positive)

    In my case learning Japanese was a combination of unhealthy obsession and necessity — I went because I was interested in Japan and liked languages, but once I was there it was either learn the language or languish in “study hall” every day with the other exchange students at my school. Of course, there might have been other ways to cope, such as not caring or learning to relish the English bubble, but the linguist in me figured that as long as I’m in the country I might as well at least try and live up to the Rotary ideal of cultural immersion.

    Now that I’m out of school and have to face the real world, my continued study of Japanese, besides being necessary for my job, sometimes seems like a way to protect/maintain my investment more than something I necessarily enjoy. If I give up now and forget what I’ve learned, then what was the point of all the time I spent scribbling random kanji in a dozen little notebooks? And more importantly, do I really have the time/money to start over and try something else?

    Since moving back to Washington, speaking/learning Japanese hasn’t been much of a priority for me. While it used to burn me a little when my Japanese friends insisted on speaking English with me even though we could communicate better in Japanese, I find it’s just easier for me to speak English because then I don’t have to think hard about sentence structure/correct vocab usage etc. The downside, of course, is I am so out of practice that I usually end up feeling tired after the rare occasions when Japanese does become necessary.

    Meanwhile, I feel invigorated when engaging in things that have nothing to do with Japan. During my college days I didn’t know I could enjoy rides in the countryside or Greek food. Now I can actually have conversations with people without feeling the need to bring up how cool conveyor belt sushi is.

    But even though I’ve lost some of my passion for things Japanese, Japan is still a part of my life and always will be. Mrs. Adamu, all the friends I have made, my job, and my tastebuds will all keep me focused on Japan for the foreseeable future, and I love it!

    I agree that it might be a bit quixotic to try and tackle a language that, had you not otherwise bothered, would make next to no difference in your life. But it’s part of human nature (and adolescent nature even moreso) to try and make life interesting one way or another. It’s just that while some kids sniffed glue, we studied our kanji books.

  2. Reflecting some more, I think that being able to sing along with Buddha Brand justifies all those years of study.


  3. That’s also why children learn languages “more easily” than adults: they have much less choice in the matter, especially if their peers are speaking a different language.

    C’mon. Children are equipped by evolution to learn language at a specific time, as innumerable research shows.

    Rest of it is fine though. I admit, I learned Chinese only because I was obsessed. And the number of foreigners who never bother to learn it is a good example of the necessity issue. Lots of locals studying English can’t maintain any motivation — they have no reason to learn.


  4. I’d take that a step further and say that expats in general will go to substantial lengths to *avoid* learning the language — congregate with other expats, enlist the help of translators/volunteer guides etc — and that’s only natural. People have a need to be comfortable, and if there’s an easy route to a comfortable place then people will naturally take it unless they have made a determination to do otherwise (language geeks) or don’t have a choice in the matter (exchange students/POWs thrown into a “sink or swim” situation).

  5. That’s also why children learn languages “more easily” than adults: they have much less choice in the matter, especially if their peers are speaking a different language.

    This is wrong — or at least you should insert “one of many reasons” between “also” and “why.” The mind of a child is much better at learning a number of skills, from tools and computers to language and knowledge.

  6. Man, y’all should listen to kids sometime and see how developed their language skills are after X years of “accelerated” learning.

  7. I like Lord Curzon’s comments and at the risk of entering a long-dead discussion: it certainly IS one reason why children learn languages more easily. Not only do they have no choice in the matter, but they are relatively immersed, it being some of the only input going to their mushy brains–

    –however it is this plasticity that makes them so good, it is true, and they start off in the world perceiving all the phonemes of the world as well.

    And language skills are truly what they pick up, not what is taught in schools. Learning where to put a period isn’t really a language skill and either is learning where to put a comma or contract. Writing is such a base, vile rip-off of the real thing. Prescriptivism is fine so far as the economics of having standard forms of communication go, but let’s not get carried away.

    I like this post. I would hope that the author wouldn’t imply that it is irrational to learn a language, given that some people may have shorter, narrower, and/or more self-interested horizons, but there can be little doubt but that for the most part the economics of what he says is true.

    But more people should speak Indonesian. Watch. And Pig Latin, my fav dialect of English.

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