Is learning a second language worth it? [Researchers say not really, to which I say el burro sabe mas que tu]

by Charlotte on May 28, 2014 · 33 comments


I can still vividly remember her face — her dark hair curling around her face, her hands gesturing widely as she told me a very dramatic story. I nodded and grinned. Then I remember her big eyes filling with tears. Wait, what? I wiped the idiot smile off my face and wracked my brain for the English translation of the word she kept repeating. Finally, after some interesting and animated charades, I realized that my high-school Spanish teacher had failed me miserably. He never taught me the word for miscarriage. 

I’d been sitting with this woman in Chiclana, Spain, for half an hour, the whole time smiling and bobbing my head like a maniacal puppet, pretending I was following her. And the whole time she’d been telling me about losing her baby. (Don’t ask me how I ended up in Chiclana, talking to a woman I’d just met about dead babies. That’s a whole different story!) My point: I felt like a total tool. My real point: My Spanish was not as good as I thought it was and not remotely as good as I needed it to be.

That was my second visit to Spain (beautiful, beautiful country) and according to my teachers I was “fluent” but in reality all fluent meant was that I could reliably figure out which bathroom to go into when there weren’t pictures on the doors. (Hint: It’s the one all the other women are going into.)

My classroom Spanish failed me in myriad ways. I once ordered “cerveza” as the drink with a Happy Meal at McDonald’s not realizing it was beer. (I know what you’re thinking – why on earth was beer listed under the kids menu? But what you should really be asking is why was I eating at McDonald’s instead of a nice tapas bar.) I had to learn the hard way that a totally normal word in Spain Spanish is a curse word in Latin American Spanish. (Although it gave me a whole new perspective on the Pitbull song?) And of course I missed out on allllll the jokes.

My husband, on the other hand, really is fluent in Spanish. And so sometimes when we don’t want our kids to know what we’re talking about, we speak in Spanish. Which usually involves more interesting and animated charades… and a headache. Because over the years my Spanish abilities have decreased even farther than what they were that dismal day in Chiclana. I can still read it well but speaking it is a whole other story. My husband tries to coax me to speak with native speakers, rightly pointing out that that is the best way to get better at it but these days when people ask if I speak Spanish I just say no and save us all the trouble of having to listen to me slaughter their native tongue. (It occurs to me now as I write this that this might be more of an issue with my perfectionism. If I can’t do it perfectly then I won’t do it at all by golly!)

This drives me nuts. Learning a second language has always been really important to me and I feel like it’s something everyone ought to do. For many people in the world, it isn’t even considered a lesson but rather just life. Plus I’d like my kids to learn Spanish and if I can’t even manage a few words then how do I expect them to?

And then I listened to this Freakonomics podcast about whether learning a foreign language is really worth it. Their short answer was that from a monetary standpoint, no, it isn’t. Apparently the small increase in salary you get from being bilingual isn’t enough to compensate for all the “cost” of learning it. One of their experts even panned teaching kids a second language in school saying, “There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language” and adding that making kids study something they won’t use later is “cruel” and a waste of time and resources. The show also pointed out that with over 1/3 of people on this planet being able to speak English to an adequate degree, it’s quickly becoming unnecessary to learn other languages.

Of course that all depends on what your definition of “worth it” is. From an economic standpoint (which is where Freakonomics always starts) then perhaps it isn’t. But for me learning another language isn’t about earning more money or doing business in another country. For me it’s mainly about communicating. I like being able to understand people and talk to them. And while it does seem like so many people are learning English, I would point out that on a macro level Spanish is the second most popular native tongue (Mandarin is the first) on the planet. And on a micro level, I encounter Spanish speakers daily.

Regardless of what language you pick to learn, however, it has benefits that go far beyond the language itself. Many studies have found that learning another tongue actually reshapes our brains. For kids, it improves their memory, executive function and is even correlated with better math skills. For the elderly, it can help delay the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And for everyone in between it helps keep our brains flexible and “younger”. There’s also this weird little bit of research that shows that we may make better decisions when done in a foreign language as it “provides greater cognitive and emotional distance”.

The problem with all that, of course, you only get the benefits as long as you use the language. And unless you speak it every day, you can lose fluency very very quickly.

For me, the benefits of learning a foreign language far outweigh the costs. Especially now that I found this cool app called DuoLingo. (Nope, they’re not sponsoring this post. I’m not getting paid to pimp them nor do I have any relation with the company at all. It’s just something I found on my own and love so I wanted to share it with you guys!) It’s FREE, super easy to use and I swear it’s teaching me better Spanish than all my previous book-learning. (You can also learn French, German, Portuguese and Italian.) Not only does it teach you vocabulary and conjugation and stuff but it has you speak and listen to the language as well and you have to pass those off before you can move up to the next level. I’ve tried several other paid Spanish-learning programs and I’d say this is as good as any of those, if not better!

I installed it on my tablet and phone so I can do a lesson while I’m waiting in the school pick-up line or waiting for the dentist or whatever. It’s really convenient, well done and fun. Oh and there are no ads! Plus, its emphasis on speaking whole phrases has really helped my confidence in speaking out loud. The computer grades your pronunciation so at least I have an idea if I’m sucking or not. So far I’ve only worked up to talking more with my husband but I’m hoping to branch out to other real, live people soon. I love it.

So what’s your take – do you speak a second language fluently? If so, how did you learn it? Anyone else have an embarrassing foreign language story to tell??

{ 33 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue May 28, 2014 at 2:41 am

As a native German, the English language is actually my second one. I started learning it at school (age 6), and thanks to blogging, I’m still learning new words and phrases all the time. I think I’m quite good at reading and writing, but probably not so good at speaking English.
In Germany, Kids have to learn at least one foreign language to graduate high school, most even study two (my second foreign language was French, but I’ve forgotten most of it).
Living in Europe means that there are many different languages floating around. A few examples: my step dad is from Poland, my husband was born in Korea, and all his co-workers speak Russian most of the time. Nastrovje! ;)
Last summer my husband and I went on an epic road trip to the Black Sea, crossing eight foreign countries in less than two weeks. I even had to quickly figure out the Cyrillic alphabet to be able to read the street signs in Bulgaria. My head was spinning!
As a result, I’m only fluent in German and English, but I do know a few words and phrases in at least 10 different languages. So does my husband. I guess it’s a European thing. ;)


Charlotte C May 28, 2014 at 3:01 am

In common with many of my cohort, fourteen years of daily Irish instruction left me able to ask to go to the bathroom and advise you to read the instructions fully before the exam begins. In a pinch, I can also remark that we won’t go out to play because it is raining. If you ask an Irish person to “Say something in Irish” there’s a pretty good chance you’ll get one of the first two.

To say that Irish is often badly taught is a staggering understatement.

Whatever country I am in, I always figure out how to translate menus pretty quick. Priorities!


Gráinne May 28, 2014 at 5:51 am

Laughing over my laptop. Yes! The first phrase that pops into my head is “an bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?”. Anything more would be a struggle!

By the time I did the Leaving Cert I was more comfortable in German than Irish. Terrible, isn’t it?


gabri May 28, 2014 at 4:06 am

Each new language makes the world a bit biger. So i think it is worth to learn it.
I’m from switzerland so I had to learn at school french and english. English I use all the time in my job and yes, english helps me to earn more money.
My sister found a good paied job because she speeks well french.
Perhaps it is different in Europe, but here you are surrounded with a lot of different languages.
And for example in France we got at two places the Camping space for free just because I used my rusted french to talk with the people. People like it if you at least try to use their language, no mater how bad you are at it.
Oh and I’m working with people that only speak english and no german, they miss alot of the social life around them.


EmmaS May 28, 2014 at 5:32 am

It seems like Freakonomics have a very anglocentric perspective… Being a non-native English speaker, there is no choice but to learn a second language, English. Swedish is my first language, then I learned English as a kid, when we lived in Boston. In school I studied German and then I moved to Montreal, where I learnt French. So I have four languages, but I would love to learn some more!

I am so grateful I know different languages because it really opens the world!!! If I only spoke Swedish, I could not read this blog, for example…;-)

Best way to learn: by living abroad as a kid or by having a love relationship with someone from a different country! And when it is too late for the two, I think it really helps being very curious. If I cannot eavesdrop on people, life looses its meaning…


Carla May 28, 2014 at 5:33 am

I used to rock the hebrew (conversational not biblical :-)) but Ive not used it in so long Ive forgotten most of it.
check in with me in the fall?
I have delusions of rosetta stone this summer.


Tuuli May 28, 2014 at 6:29 am

What Emma said about anglocentrism…English is my second language as well. To get my master’s degree I had to pass exams in three languages other than my mother tongue. All in all I’ve studied 8 languages besides my own (some only at a very rudimentary level), and each one has gone a little way to opening my mind to understanding other cultures. Learning English is a financial imperative in many (most?) countries so yes, native speakers of English can get by without learning other languages, but what a lot of missed potential for intellectual and social development that would be, not to mention leaving one with a frighteningly one-sided view of the world, culturally and politically. (Apologies for that sentence, too tired to edit it.)


Kelly May 28, 2014 at 6:45 am

I have been using DuoLingo for about a year now to learn Italian – I love it! I think it is worth it – exercising your brain, expanding your horizons. I always feel kind of ashamed that as Americans, there is not much emphasis put on learning a second language from an early age, as there is in other countries.

Plus, if I’m going to fulfill my dream of someday living in Italy, I better learn the language! :)


Heather C May 28, 2014 at 7:14 am

I studied Spanish for 5 years in high school and middle school and then in college I studied German and spent a semester living in Vienna. I could speak, be understood, and understand most of what was said to me by the time I was done. Now, however, 20 years later, I understand far more of both languages than I am able to call out of my brain (not to mention when I go to try and say something in either language my brain will come up with parts of the sentence in German and try to fill in the blanks with Spanish. Goofy 40 year old brain). I agree with other commenters that the study seems to be looking at things strictly from an Americanized point if view. Maybe you don’t earn more learning another language but I have found studying a Latin based language has helped me understand the root of many English words better and I think learning anything new is fundamentally good. I have also been using Duolingo to brush up on my German and I like it.


Jess May 28, 2014 at 7:53 am

I took German for a few years, then French for one and ASL for two. Now I’m Italian (through Rosetta, but I wanted to add duolingo too). I remember little bits of the German, but it came very naturally to me. As did sign. But carrying on a real conversation now would be hard. I had to translate in college once for a quick conversation and it was bad. Luckily the guy could read lips too and helped me out.
Now, my sisters are learning French and German, but we don’t have any Spanish for our tour of Europe… ;)


Charlotte C May 28, 2014 at 7:54 am

Oh, and if it’s a waste of time to teach material that won’t increase earning potential and won’t be recalled after graduation then… fair enough, but why single out languages? You could object to the teaching of almost any subject on the same basis.


JLVerde May 28, 2014 at 10:13 am

I was just going to say the same thing.

Schools would be devoid of art, music, literature, gym, and home economics. Wait, some schools ARE devoid of those things already and aren’t using the excuse of “it won’t get you more money later in life”. So sad.


JavaChick May 28, 2014 at 9:10 am

Being Canadian, I started learning French in school in grade 3, and it was a mandatory class until high school. I chose to continue anyway, probably because it was an easy class for me, if I’m being honest. I was in the advanced or bilingual class, and I did well at it but never had a chance to use it so now I would be completely lost. I can understand a lot when reading, but I’m sure I couldn’t follow a conversation.

I may check out that app to see if I can refresh my skills.


samc-a-roo May 28, 2014 at 10:10 am

Ne láche pas!


Darwin May 28, 2014 at 9:15 am

My Fun With Languages:

I am Canadian, so I was quite expert at a young age at being able to decipher the French written on the cereal boxes.

I quickly learned that the French in France was not really anything like the French in Quebec, which is almost…slang?…in comparison…mixed a lot with English words.

In high school, my instructor told me that I spoke French beautifully, but I totally sucked at writing it.

(And I would always forget the proper word for some of the accents when spelling French words aloud. “Chapeau Chinous” was only amusing to my instructor the first time.)

I always loved the fact that English never rejects a word because of race creed or national origin. (Yes, I have read a lot of Richard Lederer CRAZY ENGLISH, THE MIRACLE OF LANGUAGE, THE PLAY OF WORDS, GET THEE TO A PUNNERY, ANGUISED ENGLISH).

Like Richard Lederer, I am also fond of the fact that there is no muss and fuss when it comes to adding new words in English.

“This is a ‘microchip’”.

Everybody is like: “Okay!”

And this without spending five years trying to decide if it is masculine or feminine. I can see that is important…but five years important?

Seems a long time until the word is added to the language.

Especially if one is trying to learn the language.

“So…what do we call it in the meantime?”

I took a Hebrew class in university.

But…with the real Hebrew speakers and readers around, our paths did not cross frequently enough for me to strengthen my skills…plus I was doing plays and rehearsals from 6 in the morning until 1 in the morning with classes between…so I had no extra time to study. And that was needed.

Plus I enrolled in the class because of a cute girl who smiled at me and asked me to.

I was indeed interested in learning…but it was impractical to do so with limited time.

(The girl and I were later involved in a school field trip to L.A. – movies studios, make-up studios and a day in DISNEYLAND. She had been there previously…I had not…it rained and the Park had all but emptied, and we ran from ride to ride holding hands as she gave me a personal tour. So I guess I was forgiven for dropping the Hebrew class.)

Another girl was deep into learning Spanish, and was soon to be spending a semester in Chihuahua, Mexico. I was around enough Spanish speaking people that I could often understand the gist of what was going on, and she thought that I knew the language .

To illustrate that I did NOT know the language, I purposefully mispronounced Chihuahua as CHI-WHO-A-WHO-A.

Surprisingly, she only found that amusing for a short time.

I had a great many friends in university who collectively spoke a HUGE variety of languages, so we were never at a loss at a foreign restaurant.

I used to know a phrase or two in more languages than I know now.

I ALWAYS wanted to be able to sing WOODEN HEART by Elvis Presley with the German phrases included.

I am, as previously mentioned, half native.

My mother never wanted us to learn the Cree language.

You would not think “native” immediately if you saw her, and she wanted the same for us kids.

She did not want us singled out for racist abuse.

She herself…for the longest time…while on the phone speaking to relatives…would cover her mouth with her hand while speaking Cree…as if ashamed.

THAT was because she was in Residential School as a child…and they beat her for speaking her own language.

Racism against natives is much like the African American experience, except we are being accepted much more slowly.

Johnny Depp played an Native American in major motion picture.

How many ACTUAL natives do you see in movies and TV?

I lived and worked on the home reserve for a time in my late teens.

I fought wolves, pneumonia, gangs, forest fires, blinding blizzards, fell through the ice in a river AND had a tree fall on me.

Good times.

I knew enough to know when my cousins were setting me up for a joke, but that was about the extent of my knowledge of the language.


Abby May 28, 2014 at 9:52 am

I think the idea of speaking more than 1 language is great. In practice I took 5 years of honors Spanish, traveled in Spain, and came out with a few words I can use in a Mexican restaurant. I also studied Hebrew for years and probably have a pre-schoolers vocabulary. I used to feel really bad about it but I’ve learned to accept that I just don’t have a brain that learns languages well or easily. My mom is the same way whereas my dad and brother can carry on a conversation in languages they haven’t used in years. People sometimes act like not knowing or wanting to learn another language is a moral failing or self-centered or something negative. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with focusing your time and energy on things that don’t cause you headaches and frustration for very little reward. And I think there’s less judgement on people who speak only 1 language, when that language isn’t English. That said, whenever I travel internationally I try to pick up some useful words both for my benefit and to show people that I do want to communicate with them. Even if you can just say thank you I’ve seen over and over again how people appreciate it. And if I was going to live in another country I would certainly try to learn the language!

My favorite traveling language story comes from trying to buy my husband and I tickets to the Kremlin in Moscow from the ticket agents. They just kept saying the same sentences in Russian to me, repeating them at a louder and louder volume when I didn’t understand. That stereotype definitely doesn’t just apply to English speakers, lol!


samc-a-roo May 28, 2014 at 10:08 am

GASP! This statemet scares me (and is also why many people think Americans are arrogant) “The show also pointed out that with over 1/3 of people on this planet being able to speak English to an adequate degree, it’s quickly becoming unnecessary to learn other languages” – so it is ok to skip learning antoher language coz others are learning your language, while others learn more languages and become more intelligent, we can just let our kids become complacent and lazy. without effort to learn more?
That is just what is wrong here… as far as I’m concerned, I want my kisd to learn as many languages as possible. English IS my second language, but I had to make tons of effort to learn it myself, what they teach in school is just not sufficient (in Canada, you learn the other official language as a secon language). I took Spanish in college and learned relatively fast (after 2 years, I was also fluen)t… but lost the speaking part like you, after these many many yeasrs, I don’t have the confidence anymore (but can read some). I think the more you learn, the easier it gets. True many people can’t speak or ewrite their native languages properly, but I thnk the more you learn about grammar and rules in other languages, it makes you more apt to notice it in your native tongue… ok, enough rambling…


Nicholle May 28, 2014 at 10:22 am

Here in Canada, people gripe about having to learn two languages. I lived in central Europe for many years and met small children who could speak 4 or 5 languages without thinking about it much (German with mom, Hungarian with dad, Slovak with friends, Croatian with grandma, and so on). I speak English, French, and Slovak along with a little Spanish, Italian, and German. The Slovak lets me get along in Polish and Czech, too. Languages are fun. They stretch your brain and let you meet new people. I made my son go to French immersion for the first 7 years of his schooling–I just told him that school was in French. Spelling in two languages was a challenge, but it sorted itself out. We speak French together for fun every now and again.
I work as a book editor and we’ve started doing kids’ books in Cree and English, so I’ve been researching Cree grammar (I’m writing the English bits that will eventually get translated, but it helps to know something about Cree). It’s fun. Language gives you insight into how people of other cultures think.


Darwin May 28, 2014 at 11:37 am

And Nicholle, you probably know a lot more Cree than I do…and I am half-Cree!

Of course there are also a few dialects of Cree (which when I was young were known as Plains Cree, Mountain Cree and Swampy Cree) and I have relatives that can function easily in all three along with French (I have an uncle named Jean-Marie) and English.


Nicholle May 28, 2014 at 3:39 pm

Darwin, there’s also Woodland Cree. The education system in Alberta uses Plains Cree, but I like how the different dialects treat words. A killdeer (a shorebird) is “little kerchief-wearer” in Plains Cree because the bird has two black stripes across its chest that look like a little scarf, but in whichever type of Cree is spoken in Ontario, it’s “bird that announces” because of its loud call.
In some languages (I’ve forgotten which ones), the word “stranger” is the same as the word for “enemy,” which I think tells you what they think of strangers.


Darwin May 28, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Right! I forgot about Woodlands Cree.

Cool distinctions on thought processes as to what stands out…the bird’s look or the bird’s call.

Perhaps one tribe likes to hear things before they see things? (Always my preference, as I always like to know what’s coming BEFORE it gets to me.)

And yes! The whole stranger/enemy thing…That does say a lot about what they think about strangers.

Also…the Swampy Cree phrase for “Do you want to fight?” is actually…

“Come here and hit me.”

Which tends to leave no doubt as to intentions if the demand obtains the requested response.


Leth May 28, 2014 at 10:48 am

I’m bilingual in French (native English speaker) and I downloaded the duolingo app a while back too. I just learned a cool fun fact about it, that the creators use it not just to yeah languages, but when you’re translating sentences in the game, you’re actually helping translate the Internet into other languages. There’s a TED talk out there somewhere about it, but I don’t have the link at the moment.


Cindy May 28, 2014 at 11:11 am

I had french immersion schooling from grade 6 to 12. I can read french now but I can’t speak it at all and I only understand a little. For me, I have found that if you don’t use it you lose it very quickly. I have never had reason to use the skill outside of school and now it is gone. I have even gone back twice as an adult and my skill did not come back.


Darwin May 28, 2014 at 11:40 am

Oh! And Charlotte?

I know enough to know that in the brackets of the title of this post, you said (To the Researchers) something like:

“To me you are a donkey.”


Azusmom May 28, 2014 at 12:12 pm

I like to quote the classic 80′s John Cusack film “The Real Thing”:
“You’re flunking English. It’s your mother tongue.”
I understand a little teeny bit of French, and can curse in Spanish (I used to teach in East L.A.), but that’s pretty much it.


Darwin May 28, 2014 at 12:22 pm

But you speak “Theater” fluently!

To many a casual observer that is like a foreign language.


Kevin May 28, 2014 at 2:15 pm

I took two years of Spanish in high school, two years of Russian in college and then spent three years living in Germany in the military. With all the practice I got using German while I was there, I could muddle my way through most conversations, generally with difficulty. One of the first things I learned was how to ask someone to speak slower. One of the single biggest lessons I learned was that if I made a real effort to converse in their language, people treated me much better than if I assumed they would deal with me in English. It has been over 30 years since I was in Germany and basically all I can do is say hello in three foreign languages. I admire your efforts and good luck.


Gingerzingi May 28, 2014 at 6:47 pm

I’ve been using the Cat Spanish app. I don’t know how good it is, but it’s effective in that I enjoy it so much I stick with it!
Mi profesor es un gato. Los perros son tontos.


Alison Mosca May 28, 2014 at 7:12 pm

I think it is a shame that more schools do not begin a second language in pre-school! I took 4 years of French in High School and on a trip to Quebec in 11th grade, we couldn’t even ask where to go to get the bus…it was sad! I always wanted to be fluent in several languages…it just seemed like such an amazing ability to speak and understand someone who spoke a language different than yours! My bil grew up speaking only Ukranian to his dad, and English and Ukranian with his mom. He speaks 7 languages fluently incl. Spanish, Italian, French, German and Russian along with English and Ukranian. It is so amazing to me when he speaks to my sister in English, his mom or brother in Ukranian and then to a good friend in Italian…all without stopping to think about it! How I wish I had that skill! I want to learn Spanish for an upcoming trip to Spain…at least enough to show I am trying when I speak to someone in Spain…in my (fantasy) mind I will be speaking fluently!


Véronique May 29, 2014 at 10:59 am

French-speaking native here. In my opinion, having more than one language to pull from your head colors your thoughts/emotions/decisions in different ways. The word “moon” evoques a different feeling for me than “lune”. Same goes for “barfing” and “vomir” (I’ll spare you the details on how the images differ in my head for that one).

Expressions also differ which speaks to cultural differences. In English for intance, we hear “absence makes the heart grow fonder”. How cute. How quaint. In French, we say “loin des yeux, loin du coeur”… which literally translates to “far from the eyes, far from the heart”. Eeek. Harsh. But it may speak to cultural differences, the English are generally perceived as a colder people while the French, more passionate.

It also translate to art. I love French Canadian poetry for instance, but the English Canadian stuff not so much. Same goes for modern theatre. But in television, and in humor, English (British, Amercian) are in a league of their own. So happy I speak English or else I’d miss out on all that goodiness.


HappinessSavouredHot May 29, 2014 at 1:17 pm

I speak French (first language), English (obviously) and Italian (functional level, i.e. I wouldn’t starve or sleep on the street). I teach a second language (French). I am a professional translator (English to French). Languages are like different genres of music, they all stem from the same motivation to convey meaning and emotion, but do so differently. Learning a new one truly is fascinating!


Dr. J May 31, 2014 at 6:36 am

I’m so glad I suffered through two years of Spanish in college! Not only when I’ve been in South America, but even if south Florida, being able to even try tom talk to people is fun and connecting! Not at all like school where we were being graded, people only want to be helpful!


Caleb June 6, 2014 at 1:06 pm

It is always beneficial to be fluent in multiple languages. Not only can it benefit you cognitively but it can also help your career as well.


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