I think from time to time about why more people in America don’t know a second language or at least attempt to learn one. The common argument goes that, since English is becoming the most widely-spoken language in the world, what would be the point?
Even President Obama admitted during his presidential campaign that he doesn’t speak another language. Less than 10% of Americans in 2005 could speak another language, according to story reported by NPR. That’s just ridiculous. I know my four years of Latin count for nihil, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure why I took them other than to punish myself for some crime I committed in eighth grade, but still. It gave me the basis for the Italian I tried to learn on my own and gave me the right push to learn modern Hebrew, which was my gateway drug into Arabic, my current language of focus. I don’t really count Russian because I didn’t learn it independently, so it’s a little like cheating.
What got me thinking about this is a party I was at this weekend. Almost all the people there were Russian, except for two or three Americans. One was a person who understood nothing about what was going on, and looked at all of us with the same expression as the parents from My Big Fat Greek Wedding, when they arrive at the house to meet Toula’s Big Greek Family (about a minute or two into the video):
We were foreign, distant, and weird. And you could tell that just by observing their face for a couple minutes.
The other person was an American who had spent quite some time in Russia. As a result, he spoke Russian almost fluently. I was floored. Russian is not an easy language to learn at all, much, much harder than French or German, and here he was, laughing at all the jokes and doing all the things that Russians do at dinner parties, including giving long toasts, as is Russian tradition. I didn’t even realize he wasn’t Russian at first. It was amazing, and for the whole party, he commanded my respect.
Which got me to thinking. What incentivizes people to learn foreign languages, and which ones do they learn? Mr.B and I were just discussing this today. If we have kids, which languages, aside from the obvious Russian (and Hebrew so the little Jewlets can continue to fuel the Zionist conspiracy), will we teach them? Should we go with Mandarin? Or Arabic? Or another language that may make political and economic prominence over English in the next 10 or 20 years.
Luckily, economists and linguists have already done work in this arena. Here are two I’ve started looking at:
Selten and Pool maintain in their study that their examples illustrate tendencies for those who learn non-native languages to choose the most widely spoken ones (English, Mandarin, Spanish) , for members of small language communities to learn foreign languages more than members of large communities (i.e. Europe) , for few persons to learn auxiliary languages (those without native speakers), even if they have relatively low learning costs (i.e. stupid me and Latin) , and for language communities with chronically poor second-language-learning abilities to enjoy above-average welfare levels (this one really interested me. I wonder if this is true in other studies.)
The second study I’ve started to look at as a stepping stone is: Bilingualism, multiculturalism, and second language learning, which covers reasons why people might want to learn second languages.
I’ll be looking at these over the next couple weeks and figuring out why the hell someone would want to learn Russian versus not, and having my head examined as to why I took Latin in high school. If you are curious, here is the book we used. Have fun.