Language courses v. learning languages

Why should universities compete with Berlitz?

Mike O’Hare’s general point about outcomes vs. activities in the argument about language learning at the college level is completely right.

On the specific point of language competence, however, it should be pointed out that teaching people to actually speak, read, and write a language is not a university’s comparative advantage.

The main reason universities torment their students with languages is to keep the student-teacher ratios in foreign-language literature departments high enough to justify having experts in French, Spanish, etc. literature around. It’s a tossup as to who hates those courses more: the students who know they’re learning nothing of value or the teachers, who didn’t do Ph.D.’s in literature in order to qualify themselves to teach (literally) grammar school. It’s like making math professors teach the multiplication table.

If universities want their alumni to be able to speak second and third languages, they should probably contract out for the teaching service. But it actually makes no sense whatever to try to teach people new languages when the specialized language-learning centers in the brain have shut down, which they do just after puberty.

The time to teach languages is in kindergarten, or better yet in nursery school. John Stuart Mill is considered a prodigy (and his father something of a monster) for having learned Greek between age 2 and age 3. But that was almost certainly easier than learning it later. The problem, of course, is finding teachers at the lower grades who speak English, let alone another language, competently. That, in turn, stems from the insane system in which the prestige and material rewards for teaching rise steadily as the plasticity of the students’ brains declines.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

22 thoughts on “Language courses v. learning languages”

  1. I'm aware of the research supporting a language window in very early life, but I think it's a letoff if we really care about language skills. I know many people who have learned perfectly serviceable second languages as young adults or adults, including almost all my European colleagues (English, and more). Again, if this matters (and it matters less for native English speakers than for anyone else in the world) we shouldn't let the best be the enemy of the good.
    Actually, I don't think language courses should get academic credit, as they are pretty much intellectually vacuous (literature courses are of course another story). But I sort of like the idea that a great university should not consider a degree adequate if its holder can't function in at least one foreign language, so it could reasonably be a graduation requirement, with instruction outsourced as seems appropriate. MIT, last time I looked, makes everyone learn calculus, but has seven different ways to do so, including "get the damn book and just teach yourself."

  2. If the universities want their students to be functional in a foreign language, one requirement would actually acheive this: require one year of study in a non-English speaking country, with instruction in that country's language.
    That's how I learned French.

  3. Unless I'm mistaken, all teachers K-12 have the same qualifications (which varies state to state). Pre-school teachers often don't have college degrees (though my kids' teachers did), but let's face it, you're not teaching them how to split atoms.
    The post implies that teachers' educations get better as students get older, which is in a sense true, but theres a 13-year plateau during K-12.

  4. Here's a simple, if grandiose scheme: hire massive numbers of foreigners to man daycare and pre-schools across the country. This country could afford to hire a million or so Chinese 16-18 y.o., and a similar number of Spanish speakers, and fully fund Head Start at the same time.

  5. Learning a second language early apparently makes it easier to learn third and fourth languages later. So says the literature provided to me by the partial immersion program my children attend. Even though they aren't fluent yet, it's clear that they probably will be if they keep at it — their ability to hear and make the distinctive sounds of the foreign language are in line with native ability, but picking up vocabulary and grammar is more difficult, even in an immersion program.
    So I would propose a combination approach of introducing language generally at earlier grades but keeping it in college.

  6. Its perfectly possibly to learn a language functionally as an adult-you just have to go and live there and you have to get out of the capital where everybody speaks english. Universities could set this up if they wanted to. I did it with spanish.

  7. Yes, it is definitely possible to learn a foreign language as an adult though it is of course easier for a child to do so. CalDem is right: should you spend a significant amount of time in a foreign country and conduct your business (whether it be work or school) in a foreign language, then you'll be pretty darn good. Your accent might be lousy but nobody really cares about that if you're articulate.

  8. I'm happy I learned my second language growing up (English, can you tell?), but learning my third in high school took well enough I can watch Mexican soap operas now. Fourth wasn't so good, but who the hell speaks Latin? French vowel sounds and Hungarian continue to perplex me, though.
    Long story short, and pardon my vowel sounds, but screw Harvard. They exist largely to further father-son income correlation. That it's actually a good school is almost immaterial.
    FD: Cal grad speaking.

  9. I agree with those who say it is possible to learn a second language, or a third, as an adult. Certainly adult immigrants do so often.

  10. You can learn another language as an adult, but it is much easier when you are a child. And it is quite correct that using professors to teach elementary French, German or Spanish is a horrible waste of a university's time and money. Whether this is also true of Arabic and Japanese, let alone Latin and Akkadian, is less clear.

  11. My feeling is that every school in the US should be immersion for the first four years and we should pick target languages. As for learning later in life, it can be done but full accent assimilation most likely won't be attained unless several languages were learned early on. I am planning on learning a language as part of my graduate work but I don't plan on pretending I am a native of that culture.

  12. Few mathematicians get PhDs so they can teach introductory calculus, either. The distinction between this and multiplication tables, or algebra for that matter, is merely one of social convention for where the subject is taught (K-12 vs. university).
    No subject should be beneath the dignity of a faculty member, if it is a necessary part of a university education. Contracting out teaching serves only to reduce costs by substituting low-paid, temporary teaching staff for higher-paid, permanent faculty.

  13. No subject should be beneath the dignity of a faculty member, if it is a necessary part of a university education.
    I agree.
    Further, let's do a survey and ask language faculty the following:
    You have a choice between teaching basic language courses and accepting a 50% (or whatever – I suspect 50% is low) chance of losing your job. Which do you prefer?
    How do you think it would come out?

  14. Where I teach most tenure-track faculty in the language departments don't actually teach language. The language teaching is all outsourced to adjuncts, graduate students, and others ("Visiting Specialists") on non-permanent contracts. I suspect this is true at many other places: the T&R faculty in Spanish, French, etc. don't actually teach language, they teach literature courses. (They may in smaller dept's like Arabic or Japanese, however). So to the extent the "outsourcing" recommended in the post has already happened.

  15. Is it really true that there are specific "language-learning centers" that turn off after puberty? I thought I'd seen some studies indicating that the main reason little kids are so good at learning languages is that they're strongly motivated to work at it all their waking hours. The main thing you lose if you learn a language later in life is the ability to speak it without a foreign accent.
    I learned French after puberty, and I'm far from native-fluent but I have enough of a command of the language that I can read it with good comprehension and speak it understandably. I certainly don't think the exercise was useless. That said, I had the basic language classes in high school rather than college, and took literature courses (taught in French) later on.

  16. I'll join with the others in saying that the idea that the "special language centers of the brain turn off after puberty" is, frankly, bullshit. I know this because I worked for two years in an English dept. in a Russian university. Most of the students there spoke hardly any English when they started (well after puberty) and nearly all spoke excellent English (and usually another language- French or German, quite well, despite having spent much less time on it) when they left. Many of them spoke absolutely excellent english with hardly any accent. How did they do this? They worked really hard for 5 years and really dedicated themselves to it and had teachers who were interested in it. Also, they drilled a lot, in a way most american students won't do. Anyway, think of how long it takes to learn your first language, and you're surrounded by it all the time and by people who are teaching you all the time. (The Chomsky idea that there is no teaching turns out to be bullshit, too- a bit of his a priori method, not based on observation at all and contradicted by it.) It took you years to learn your first language well. If you spent that long working on a foreign language w/ the same effort, surrounded by it, you'd learn that one, too. (I learned Russian fairly well well, well, after puberty while hardly working on it at all and I'm not a language wiz by any means.)

  17. Carl Schurz learned French and English after the age of 20. The idea that language learning must occur early has become a crutch for not learning at all.
    We should, instead, expect people to undertake and master complex learning tasks in every decade of life. We are simply overstocked with old fools. There is too much of value that you cannot have learned by age 20 or 30 to stop learning then.

  18. There are benefits from learning an introductory year of another language that have nothing to do with being able to speak or function in it. I am glad I learned French in high school because it made it easier to translate the French passages in English novels written before 1900. Learning any language makes clearer where many English words come from, and makes the structure of English clearer as you learn the structure of another language. Just the knowledge that all languages are not like English gives one a broader perspective.
    I also take issue with the idea that everything learned must have some immediate function. Colleges are not trade schools.

  19. My major alone required so close to the unit cap that 2 years of Russian had me recieving letters such as "You must graduate now!" and didn't allow me to continue. Not to mention that these days graduate schools look at how long it took you to graduate for indications of aptitude. I am not sure major classes taught in a language of choice is a good idea as some of the subjects are hard enough without the confusion of pulling out the dictionary every five seconds.
    I like the idea of studying abroad and would like to learn another language, but as someone who's education comes out of his own pocket, another full year of university tuition simply would have cost me too much.
    The time to teach languages is pre-college. At that level one has an abundance of time and schedules are so well controlled one not only could teach someone everyday but immerse them as well. Just make sure you offer everyone a language they find interesting and not just French, German and Spanish.

  20. The universities and schools botch language training, because they confuse languages with academic subjects. They are more like sports, and how much golf or tennis can you learn from a book?
    Grammar studies are useful, but to learn a foreign language you must speak and understand in real-time in an atmosphere where your need to communicate is greater than your need not to make errors.

  21. "That, in turn, stems from the insane system in which the prestige and material rewards for teaching rise steadily as the plasticity of the students' brains declines."
    Nice sound bite, but in most areas of life the rewards increase as the difficulty of the task increases — think of scoring a goal in the World Cup. Stuffing calculus into the hormone-addled brain of an 18 year old is surely a difficult task.

  22. On the question of the possibility of learning languages late in life, I present:
    1. Joseph Conrad
    2. Vladimir Nabokov

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