Added utility of a second language: Eavesdropping at parties

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.




19 thoughts on “Added utility of a second language: Eavesdropping at parties

  1. My junior high/high school required three years of Latin. It was useful, but taught as a way to introduce the glories of Roman culture. Of course we Jews knew how bad they really were, but it took academia a while to catch up. I’m raising bilingual kids and love seeing some of them translate so freely.

    1. I remember all the oppression we learned about in Latin class. Especially the triumphal arc with the Romans carrying the menorah. Oh, boy, that was fun. Great to hear your kids are bilingual. Do they ever talk to you in Hebrew and you’d rather they talk in English? Just curious.

  2. I’ve pursued a number of languages over the years and given them up for various reasons, although I’ve learned enough of a few that I could go back to resume study.

    Some factors I’ve considered both for and against.

    Difficulty of pronunciation (although this is lower for younger speakers) – Vicki – this is why I gave up Mandarin. Hard for native speakers to differentiate my tones.

    Expense of finding native speakers // on the flip side if many people in proximity or close friends speak a language there is temptation to learn.

    Access to other languages with similar word groups

    Prospect of travel to the region where language is spoken.

    Euphony – if you don’t like the way a language sounds, don’t learn it! On the other hand, you may come to like it in time.

    Availability of literature : Conversation is underpinned by knowledge of literature, and its common themes.

    Specific need: Topic covered predominantly in another language (GO literature in Japanese,for example)

    For PhD – predominant language of non-English papers written in your field.

    I wound up with French and German, with a smattering of Hebrew. French I took in 7th grade, primarily for reasons of Euphony. I still maintain French today. German I took in college to get another Indo-European language, but primarily for interest in literature and potential travel to musical areas (Germany, Austria) and reading some of my favorite authors in the original German.

    1. Mandarin is close to impossible from what I understand, so it’s probably more efficient for you in terms of time not to learn it. French is very Euphonious. Do you find that it helps you in work/life in America? And the German: that’s one of my chief reasons for learning languages. Translation is never the same.

      1. I don’t think it helps me terribly much in work-life America to know French. Although occasionally if my company were to be bought by a French or Swiss concern it could come in handy. I’ve occasionally had to help my wife help her customers when they couldn’t place a French word into English.

        Now, French is mostly for conversation and literature. A substantial minority at our firm speaks Russian or Chinese. In fact, people thought I was Russian for a while and kept sending me group e-mails in Russian.

        In fact, I’m going to fire up Champs Elysees right now and get my French rhythm going.

  3. I’ve made three attempts:
    1) Middle school through high school the choices were German or French. I got on the German boat since it’s in my genes. But at that time I saw no real utility in it, so basically I just did all the memorization needed to pass tests (for like 6 years!). Now, I can’t even count beyond 9.
    2) Undergrad I took a stab at Spanish. I think I needed a f. language credit or something. But the Spanish Prof was also the drummer at the Jazz club I bartended at. So basically it was just plain fun to see him come to class on Monday morning still wearing his band uniform! But I could see utility in Spanish even then. I mean Mexico was, and still is, attached! Now I wish I had taken Spanish further. I mean how will I be able to communicate with my caretakers in the nursing home down the road in 30 years… :)
    3) In 2004 I went to Italy. Not wanting to be the ugly American that expects all to bow to me in a foreign land, I worked hard to learn Italian before going. Several months of study. When I got there, every time I tried to ‘hablo’ or ‘sprechen’ with the locals, they would launch into English. They wanted to practice their English rather than indulge me in my Italian. It’s all gone bye-bye now.

    So despite my best attempts, and the expectation that I know another language, I have failed. Of the three, hands down Spanish is the one I should really learn.

  4. Interesting post. I have been caught out speaking Hindi to say something private to my family folks but while in India (you see unlike England, everyone in India knows instantly what I said). I have also amused myself by eavesdropping on the train etc. on several occasions. But most recently, I told off two German tourists – in German of course – for sniggering at and being rude to the security guy in Delhi Airport who was painstakingly looking at their bag after it was flagged in the x-ray machine. There are many uses to being bi- or multi- lingual and I think above all better understanding of others – and their literature, culture etc can be obtained if we understood their language. But on a mundane note, a few months ago, I wrote this post on a commoner use of languages: global expansion for companies:

  5. I grew up fully bilingual (Hebrew and English – reading, writing, colloquialisms, everything) which I’ve never really appreciated until relatively recently – and I appreciate more each day.

    I’ve tried learning a few other languages – the most in Arabic, which I’m still learning.

    Where and how are you learning Arabic?

    1. No clue yet, but it’s definitely a goal of mine, LB. For now, just snippets on my own. I also audited a class my last semester of college, but had to drop it because I had to do stuff to, you know, graduate.

  6. I moved to Germany for nearly a year between high school & college for the express purpose of not being the only monolingual person in my group of friends (they were all Asian FOBs and East European/Russian Jews). German is a pretty easy language to learn, really, and it gets easier the further you get in.

    Russian now – I tried to tackle Russian so I could speak with my high school boyfriend’s mother, but that was a no go. Like you say, it’s a tough language! Altho I do wish I had stuck with it, if only so I could enjoy the rich collection of Russian lit in the original.

    Currently I’m working on my Hindi, with a bit of Bengali thrown in occasionally so that I can understand my husband and his family. I also want future kids to grow up trilingual like my husband did (well, actually, he’s a bit more than trilingual on understanding & speaking alone, but he’s only fluent & literate in Bengali, Hindi, and English), and I doubt that would happen unless I know at least one Sanskritic language. I suppose it’d help if we moved to India at some point as well…

    As far as language learning goes, I can’t say enough about Rosetta Stone and the Teach Yourself books. Use them both – RS helps with actually speaking the language, and the books give you a bit more structure and explanation of the workings of the language.

    1. Gori, does your husband speak both Hindi and Bengali? Is one language more prevalent in their house? How are you planning to learn Hindi? Rosetta? By the way, that would be totally awesome.

      1. He speaks & reads Hindi & Bengali fluently, although he’s never spoken or written Bengali in a classroom, just in the home & around Calcutta. His family… well, the main language used depends on who is speaking to whom. Aditya’s parents speak mostly Bengali with some English, and he & his siblings respond in a mixture of English, Bengali, and Hindi. English is almost always the language that he uses with his brother, while Aditya & his sister speak to each other primarily in Hindi & Bengali.

        I’m learning Hindi through a mixture of resources – Rosetta Stone is really great, but only with a secondary resources or a native speaker to explain some of it (which defeats the whole immersion process, but whatever). I use some websites to supplement, the Teach Yourself series, and bug Aditya with questions. Right now I’m mainly focused on learning the whole Devanagari script by sight, since I feel that the inability to write down the words I’m learning is slowing things down.

  7. Nice Information Gori. Knowledge of a foreign language has many benefits. The ability to speak a second language puts your business or your job prospects one step ahead of the competition. It gives the learner the ability to step inside the mind and has become very essential nowadays.

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