Wednesday, June 1, 2011

In Praise of Monolingualism

One of the standard markers of being sophisticated is learning a second language. This is regarded as an unadulterated "good thing", and the multilingual sophisticates look down on the mouth-breathing, Walmart-shopping, non-passport-owning plebs that never bothered to learn a language other than English. Don't they know what they're missing? The chance to speak to people in other countries! The chance to learn about the assumptions of one's own language at a deeper level! The chance to read great books in their original language!

Now, gentle reader, I must confess to once being drawn towards such logic. Several times I slogged away through my teach-yourself-Spanish mp3s, usually in the lead-up towards a trip to some Spanish speaking country, and out of a sense that it would be cool.

What I would inevitably find once I got to said country is that knowing a little bit of a language is basically no better than not knowing anything. In particular, the range of questions you can ask and understand the response for is almost the same as those you can get with pointing and gestures.You can ask what stuff costs, as long as you know numbers. You can ask for directions (e.g. to the bathroom), but anything that's not immediately visible will be an answer too complicated to understand. You can maybe read a menu, but even that can be done (and I did once) just by pointing and making animal noises. The simple reality is that a wad of money that you're trying to spend, and possibly a phrasebook, is about as useful as a year or two of learning a language.

The main reason to learn a second language is when your first language isn't English. English has become what Esperato fanboys always claimed to want - a common lingua franca language that everyone could speak and understand. Strangely, the Esperanto folks aren't celebrating this fact.

The reality is that learning a language is one of those things that always seems great, as long as you don't consider the opportunity cost. If you force kids to learn a language at school, that's time they're not spending on maths, history or science. However the argument is always phrased as 'learning a language is important!', not 'learning a language is more important than spending the time on science', even though that's the relevant comparison. Sounds a bit less convincing the second way, doesn't it?

In my case, the opportunity cost was the fact that I didn't get to listen to music while driving to work, and had to concentrate hard the whole drive. What a trivial cost! Who wouldn't give that up?

Well, in the end, me. After noting this discrepancy between my stated and revealed preference, eventually I just became comfortable with what revealed preference was telling me - I didn't actually want to learn Spanish, and I did actually enjoy listening to my music. The only change was that I stopped feeling remotely bad about the fact that I don't speak anything other than English.

In the mean time, the google translate app, which now speaks sentences in dozens of different languages and can be carried around in your phone, has done little to modify my earlier views.


  1. But then there's this:

    which, for the likes of me, no longer laddish, makes me think I need to brush off those scraps of Arabic/French/German/Spanish and start using them every day!

  2. Yeah, I don't know. I could only read one of the studies (this one, but it didn't seem to control for race anywhere. This is obviously correlated with the number of languages you're likely to speak and a number of health and longevity outcomes. In other words, imagine that bilingual people are more likely to be Asian or Eastern European, and they have different rates of dementia - then you can't conclude that the bilingualism is the actual cause of the difference.

    I put it in the 'interesting, but far from conclusive' category.