Monday, January 09, 2006

More federal money for teaching foreign languages?

Little noted in mainstream media and, as far as I know, major blogs too, was that President Bush on Thursday called for $114 million in federal money to teach American children a foreign language. I would have completely missed it were it not for this alert from the Foundation for Economic Education.

Remember what Bastiat said about government spending: it necessarily deprives the private sector of the same money. That same $114 million could be used to hire 3800 workers at $30,000 a year each, or 10,600 workers for a year at the federal minimum wage of $5.15 per hour. The $114 million will hire far fewer teachers, even if they are really worth their salaries, because so much of it will inevitably be lost in bureaucracy. Even if it's money borrowed from foreigners, even if it's money the Federal Reserve prints up (creating it out of thin air), that's still $114 million that could have gone to more worthy endeavors.

For purposes of national security (specifically intelligence gathering), do we need more translators who can speak Arabic, Chinese and Russian? As one who generally supports the "War on Terror," I say, certainly. Do we need $114 million worth? I doubt it, even at private sector prices. With 142.8 million Americans working (as of December 2005 BLS figures), and about half of them with any income tax liability, that's 71.4 million Americans paying about $1.60 each to "promote" increased foreign language studies. Whether you'd have spent it on a Snapple (though you couldn't buy one for that in Central Park), part of a gallon of gasoline or getting an extra egg with breakfast, you would have spent the money as you saw fit, and on something you judged to be an efficient, worthwhile exchange. But the amount is small enough to make it not worth your while to fight, but consider every other wasteful program that big government starts. That aggregate is worth fighting.

Furthermore, how necessary is it that more Americans learn a foreign language? When younger, I believed so, but that was before I studied any microeconomics (or any economics at all). I am in no wise saying Americans shouldn't bother, but I'm pointing out it's not criticial most foreigners are more than willing to learn English. That in itself is common knowledge, but not why it is so. It's because Americans as a whole have extremely high opportunity costs, not just in what we produce (see my entry "The error of protectionist economics" for more on that), but in how we spend our free time. We'd rather spend time leisurely, especially with our families, than learn a new language, and we can certainly afford to spend our time enjoying life.

And it turns out we don't really need to learn other languages as much as foreigners need to learn English. That the U.S. is the world's premier importer (pretty much for the sole reason that we're the only major economy with great growth and sizzling productivity) means that foreigners love to do business with us, and that means having to learn English. If they wait for us to learn their language, someone else will probably be learning English so he can get our business. That further increases Americans' opportunity cost of learning another language. Some years ago, I heard a statistic that 70% of the world can speak English. I wonder what it is today.

To a lesser extent, travel choices illustrate how foreigners need to learn other languages more than Americans. Americans have an immense variety of vacation choices within their own country, not to mention Canada and the UK. In seeking the same variety in Europe, it's not hard to fly for an hour and be among people whose native language is different. Oh, and there's that little thing called competition: foreigners love Americans' tourism dollars, so those in appropriate industries will learn English too.

When I started junior high, I had my first opportunity to take foreign language classes. My father's mother was French and taught him a little, and he really wanted me to learn it as my second language. I, however, chose Spanish, and subsequently studied it in 7th, 8th and 9th grades. I wanted to continue it in high school, but my father convinced me to try three years of French. The teacher was terrible, though, and in fact I don't think there was a second year class offered, purely from a lack of interest. Fortunately I had learned a bit more Spanish outside the classroom, so for 11th grade, I took the same class as if I had taken Spanish in 10th grade (skipped a year, in other words). Then I took three quarters at the University of Utah (quarters since it hadn't yet changed to semesters). The last class was in 1997, but still enough to satisfy my language requirement when I graduated from SUNY Purchase with my B.A. in economics.

Since then, I've had far too high an opportunity cost to maintain what was once a semi-conversational proficiency. My Spanish is still pretty good if you ignore that I've forgotten much of my vocabulary, though it seems to approach conversational level if I consume a little alcohol. A few years ago, when some friends took me to a bar to celebrate my birthday, I had already had several drinks when I began talking to a young woman I didn't know. I quickly picked up on her accent and, in Spanish, asked her where she's from. She's from Colombia, she said, and after a couple of minutes she complimented me on good Spanish. News to me!

Maybe it's because I effect a pretty good "geographically indistinct" South American accent...though I'm actually trying to sound like Ricardo Montalbán (whose greatest role was as the greatest Trek villain of all time, Khan).


Blogger Mike said...


Monday, January 09, 2006 6:38:00 PM  
Blogger Perry Eidelbus said...

Haha. I can actually quote "Star Trek II" in almost all its entirety.

Blast it, I might have to watch it tonight...

Monday, January 09, 2006 7:41:00 PM  

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