Learn a language

Mandarin, German, or French. But maybe Spanish. Also, 7 other things worth your time.

A French guy I knew thought he was pretty funny. He told a joke that went like this:

What do you call someone who speaks two languages?


And what do you call a person who speaks three languages?


But what do you call someone who has only learned one language?


Touché. It’s true; about 80% of Americans speak only one language, according to the US Census Bureau. Compare that to 44% of Europeans who only speak one language—a majority of Europeans (56%) are at least bilingual.

But some research suggests that maybe it’s time for future generations to think differently. We'll start with a study by the Centre for Economics and Business Research and Opinion in the United Kingdom:

  • They interviewed 2,000 British adults who had children under 18 years old, trying to determine how many of their children spoke languages other than English.

  • Then they surveyed 500 British business leaders, asking them to predict which foreign languages they thought kids should study in order to be more successful and improve their employability.

Results: About half of British kids are monolingual; a quarter are either not interested in learning new languages or think it's too difficult to do so.

At the same time, the business leaders advised that learning another language would be crucial for success and wanted their own kids to study Mandarin Chinese, German, and French—in that surprising order.

This was a British study, so I assume French is on the list mainly because France is the closest non-English-speaking country to the United Kingdom.

(Please don't anyone email me about Welsh. Or Gaelic. I mean, “déanann aon duineairgead ag labhairt Gaeilge,” amirite?)

For American kids, French should probably be replaced in the top three with Spanish. But don't get too hung up on which Romance language your kids should study.

The bigger point is that they should study a language in the first place—and stick with it.

In the United States, a series of studies from 2015 showed that less than 1% of American adults are proficient in any foreign language that they studied in the classroom.

This data doesn't include Americans who either immigrated to the United States or who were the children of immigrants, and who grew up with a second language spoken at home.

But even if you add Americans who grew up with a second language spoken at home, studies cited in The Atlantic show that only about a quarter of Americans speak a foreign language at all—and less than an eighth believe they speak that language "very well."

Total cost or benefit: $67,000 (at least)

The biggest challenges facing American students in the language arena, according to The Atlantic: too little funding and too few language teachers, plus a persistent aversion to broadening linguistic horizons.

Example: 198,000 American college students studied French in 2013, while only 64 Americans in the entire country studied Bengali formally. Sixty-four! Set that against the fact that about 75 million people worldwide speak French, whereas 193 million speak Bengali.

Yet researchers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and LECG Europe found that adding a second language results in a 2 to 3% annual earnings bump.

How to learn another language

OK, great, but like reading Middlemarch or going through Marine Corps boot camp, learning another tongue often seems like something that people are glad they did only in retrospect.

So how do you motivate kids to put extra effort into studying foreign languages?

There are a lot of guides out there, but Dr. Antonella Sorace, a professor of developmental linguistics at Edinburgh University, provides 5 top tips for improving foreign language proficiency:

1. Repetition. Also, repetition. "Hearing words and phrases repeated in different ways and in different situations helps children to remember them better and to figure out how the language works," Sorace suggests.

2. Play games. Playing games in a foreign language makes learning fun. She recommends Pictionary and I Spy, since coming up with words is part of the game.

3. Travel. Specifically, travel to places where your kids will be heavily encouraged to speak the languages they're studying. "The more input from native speakers, the better, so holidays are the perfect time to practice," Sorace says.

4. Watch TV. That is, watch TV in the language you're trying to learn. Also, music: "Listening to music lyrics teaches children how the language is constructed," Sorace says, "and helps them to develop authentic communication skills."

5. Be positive. I think this could go for anything your kids are trying to learn, but Sorace reminds us that a lot of success comes from attitude. "Positive interest and enthusiasm about the language your child is learning will give them confidence and makes the whole process much more enjoyable," she suggests.

OK, discussion time: Are you multilingual? Are your kids? Were you the very rare reader who might have known what “déanann aon duineairgead ag labhairt Gaeilge” meant without clicking through? Or do you think this is all bunk and that with digital translation technology, studying foreign languages is a dying pursuit? Let us know in the comments.

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7 other things worth your time

  • Speaking of languages: Language-learning app Duolingo Inc. on Monday filed for a US initial public offering and revealed that its revenue more than doubled in the first quarter this year. The company was last valued at $2.4 billion after a $35 million funding from Durable Capital Partners and General Atlantic in November. (Reuters)

  • A brewery in Finland says it’s showcasing its green credentials by making goose poop beer. I will not be trying it, nor will I try to learn Finnish. (Food & Wine)

  • French police are looking for the woman who caused a giant crash at the Tour de France with a cardboard sign reading, “Allez Opi-Omi,” or “Let’s go Grandma and Grandpa!” She’ll face a lawsuit, organizers say. (Yahoo News)

  • A federal court on Monday dismissed the Federal Trade Commission’s antitrust complaint against Facebook, as well as a parallel case brought by 48 state attorneys general, dealing a major setback to the agency’s efforts. Shares of Facebook rose more than 4% on Monday following the rulings, sending the social media company’s market capitalization above $1 trillion for the first time. (CNBC)

  • A pool contractor who was at Miami’s Champlain Towers South condo days before the building partially collapsed last week, leaving 9 dead and about 150 missing, said he photographed “serious corrosion,” including damage and standing water in the garage, just 36 hours before the collapse. The contractor was there in order to gather information to bid for a contract. (Miami Herald)

  • The FBI obtained a warrant to search a Pennsylvania cave for fabled Civil War gold without the permission of state officials over concerns they would claim it as lost property, court documents show. A warrant application … discloses that Dennis and Ken Parada, a father-son treasure hunting duo, went to the FBI to share rumors about the final resting place of the cache of gold bars. Although some historians doubt whether the lost gold even exists, the FBI later obtained a warrant to search a cave in Elk County on state-owned land, the supposed resting place of the treasure. (Washington Examiner)

  • Is the pandemic over? Depends who you ask. A new Gallup poll says 57% of Republicans say yes, but only 4% of Democrats do. (Mediate)

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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: Pixabay. I wrote about part of this for Inc.com long ago. Want to see all my mistakes? Click here.