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A libertarian for language learning

August 20, 2012

I shouldn’t be trusted about whether colleges should have language requirements. Studying languages and cultures changed the way I personally see the world so much that I can’t take the anti-language-study case seriously. And then, I have no reason to think that I can ignore self-interest better than people in other fields.

So I was glad to see Tyler Cowen arguing in favor of language study, contra Bryan Caplan. It reminded me of Cowen arguing, also in response to Caplan, that culture matters in ways that aren’t captured by looking at the adult incomes of separated twins.

I think Cowen is clearly right that there should be more language instruction in elementary school. I also think it’s a mistake to think that only people who become “fluent” benefit from learning a language.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2012 1:22 pm

    See Radishchev for early support of the idea.

  2. August 21, 2012 12:14 am

    If by “we converse with those who lived many thousand years ago,” Radishchev means that we have access to texts written in the other language, he might be on Caplan’s side: why deal with the “repulsive and burdensome” process of learning a language if the “most delightful ways” are already open thanks to translations and the popularity of English? Not everything in the passage fits this reading (especially the “new chain of ideas” part), but the desire to “unite and co-ordinate the inventions and the thought of all peoples and all times” seems to take language difference as only an obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of universal truth. If Radishchev lived in a world where all the books he cared about were available in Russian and people spoke Russian everywhere he traveled, would he want to learn other languages anyway? I’m not sure he would.

    By the way, I like the juxtaposition of Radishchev and Petr Kile in your original post!

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