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Is Learning a Second Language a Waste of Time?

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In an increasingly global economy, fluency in a second language is often touted as an important asset to individuals, not to mention employers. But is learning a second language in school really worth the time of U.S. students?

Possibly not, according to economists interviewed on a recent episode of Freakonomics Radio, a public radio show that examines everyday life from an economic perspective. (Listen to a podcast of the show here: "Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?")

Albert Saiz, an economist at MIT, pointed out that the financial return on investment for English-speakers learning a second language appears to be surprisingly small. In a recent study, Saiz found that, on average, the wages of U.S. college graduates who speak a second language are just 2 percent higher than the wages of college grads who don't speak a second language. (Read his study here: "Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States.")

Some languages are more lucrative than others, Saiz found: German boosts wages by 4 percent and French boosts wages by 2.7 percent, while Spanish only increases pay by 1.5 percent. But, he said, learning a foreign language in the United States does not produce anywhere close to the financial returns that workers in Russia, Turkey, and Israel get from learning English (a foreign language for them), which bumps their salaries up by 10 to 20 percent.

Then there's the issue that few Americans say they learned to speak a foreign language very well in school. How few? Under 1 percent, according to Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University. The Americans who say they speak a second language well tended to learn it at home, he told Freakonomics host Stephen J. Dubner.

"If people either are going to get some big career benefit out of it or it enriches their personal life, then foreign language is great," Caplan said. "But if it's a language that's doesn't really help their career, they're not going to use it, and they're not happy when they're there, I really do not see the point."

For many of today's students, the career benefit of studying a second language in high school comes from the fact that it's an entry requirement for lots of competitive colleges. The University of Michigan, the University of Texas at Austin, and UCLA are among the colleges that require two years of the same foreign language in high school, and encourage more. Most Ivies are looking for four years. Advocates offer other reasons for second language study, including increasing the United States' global competitiveness.

But studying a language in school takes time. That's time that could be spent learning something else, Caplan noted on the show.

Readers, what do you think? If students don't retain what they learn from language classes and boosting other skills could pay off more, should students in middle and high school be spending time studying foreign languages?

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