Is Learning a Foreign Language a Waste of Time?

Jun 3, 2014 by

In an op-ed piece entitled “What You (Really) Need to Know,” published in the New York Times in January 2012, Lawrence Summers, former president of Harvard University and former secretary of the Treasury, calls on universities to reduce the substantial investments made to teach students foreign languages. Though he understands that “it is essential that the educational experience breed cosmopolitanism”, he thinks that the efforts made to master a foreign tongue are no longer “universally worthwhile”. In his utopian worldview, English is perfectly sufficient for such utilitarian purposes as “doing business in Asia, treating patients in Africa, or helping resolve conflicts in the Middle East”. In his excellent rejoinder, Paul Cohen, an associate professor of history at the University of Toronto, highlights the “heavy political and social valence” carried by “this particular dream of a linguistically unified world”. In his view, the spread of English “is at once a consequence and an instrument of …imperial power”, first British and now American, just as other languages promoted, and were promoted by, other empires in the past (for an excellent overview, see Nicholas Ostler’s Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World). As Cohen argues, instead of being a step towards global harmony, “to cease teaching languages is quite simply a recipe for cultivating anti-American resentment around the world”.

Beyond such potential international ramifications, limiting college education to English may have significant repercussions on the home soil. Recent research shows that learning a foreign language is beneficial for a person’s cognitive development (although most of these benefits arise from language learning in one’s preteen years); the New York Times, which published Summers’s piece, recently reported on precisely this phenomenon. Learning a foreign language—at any age—may even help delay Alzheimer’s; once again the New York Times did not miss that story. But besides its possible socio-political and cognitive/medical implications, the revamping of American college curriculum, proposed by Summers, betrays his warped understanding of some basic linguistic issues. According to Summers, our brave new world is characterized by “English’s emergence as the global language, along with the rapid progress in machine translation and the fragmentation of languages spoken around the world”. None of these claims, however, proves valid on a closer inspection.


First, let’s consider whether English has emerged as the actual global language, while other languages become ever more “fragmented”. Here are some facts. Many of the world’s nearly 7,000 languages are spoken by small communities; the median language size is estimated at between 6,000 and 10,000 speakers (the continuous disappearance of smaller languages means that this number is gradually growing). Many of the smaller languages are endangered; some 200 languages have already disappeared in the last three generations, and many more will likely vanish in the next few decades.* Estimates of the rate of language endangerment vary from source to source, but the more radical predictions foresee half of the extant languages disappearing in the next half century. Yet, English is not the only winner in this linguistic war, as other languages, including Spanish (in Central and South America), Portuguese (chiefly in Brazil), Arabic (in North Africa), Russian (chiefly in Siberia), and several of the languages of India, gain speakers when communities abandon their indigenous tongues. Thus, instead of the “fragmentation of languages”, mentioned by Summers, we see a growth of not only English but of other languages as well. Many tongues besides English count as “mega-languages”; thirteen languages are spoken by more than 75 million people each, which is ten times the size of the largest language listed as vulnerable by UNESCO’s online Atlas of the World’s Languages in Danger. Such mega-languages includes Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Arabic, Portuguese, Bengali, Hindi, Russian, Japanese, German, Punjabi, Javanese, and Wu Chinese (a slightly different list of the top eleven languages, based on different population counts, is given in the image on the left). Even if non-native speakers are taken into account, English speakers worldwide are still only half as numerous as those of Mandarin Chinese, undoubtedly the world’s largest language. The next ten most populous languages are Telugu, Vietnamese, Korean, French, Marathi, Tamil, Yue Chinese (Cantonese), Turkish, Persian, and Italian, spoken by at least 50 million speakers each. In fact, nearly 4 billion people speak one of these 23 languages natively.

These mega-languages are not just widely spoken, but they share certain other properties that make them highly unlikely to fall off the global stage any time soon. With the exception of Wu Chinese, they all have an official status, either on the sovereign state or statoid level, which is often formalized by the state’s constitution (as is the case of French and Russian, for instance). They have all been standardized (though many non-standard dialects survive alongside the standard forms). They all have written forms, and quite a few of them use a form of writing distinct from the Latin alphabet used by English. They all have literary traditions. They all have major cultural significance for their speakers and for other peoples as well. For example, Persian and especially Arabic have traditionally played an important role in Islamic societies; today, Turkish is gaining ground in this regard as well, as is Indonesian, though it is spoken by a “mere” 23 million native speakers. Italian is vital for lovers of opera, while many philosophers swear by German or French. The political status of Russian is important enough to cause a brawl in Ukraine’s Parliament; more recently, a publication of a dictionary of the Pomor dialect, predicated on the notion that it is distinct from Russian, led to criminal charges for high treason against the dictionary’s creator. Linguistic purity matters too, with many of these mega-languages associated with some formal institution in charge of preserving the integrity of the tongue (examples include Académie française in France and the Russian Language Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences). This list can be continued. It is hardly likely that the speakers of such institutionally supported languages will be prepared to give up on them any time soon.

It must be noted that the world’s vulnerable languages, though they may be spoken by relatively large communities, typically do not share those properties of mega-languages. The top ten tongues in the UNESCO list of endangered languages are such widely spoken languages as South Italian (7.5 million speakers), Sicilian (5 million), Low Saxon (4.8 million), Belarusian (4 million), Lombard (3.5 million), Romani (3.5 million), Yiddish (3 million), Gondi (2.7 million), Limburgian-Ripuarian (2.6 million), and Quechua of Southern Bolivia (2.3 million). First, note that speakers of many of these languages are switching to a language other than English: speakers of South Italian, Sicilian, and Lombard switch to Italian, those of Low Saxon to German, those of Limburgian-Ripuarian mostly to Dutch or German, and Quechua speakers are most likely to shift to Spanish. Second, of these top ten vulnerable languages only two—Belarusian and Quechua—have an official status anywhere, only three—Belarusian, Romani, and Yiddish—have had standardized forms, and only three—Sicilian, Belarusian, and Yiddish—have literary traditions. These issues contribute to the increasingly precarious status of these languages.

The global reach of English is indeed great; to cite from Cohen’s rejoinder,

“Estimates put the number of English-speakers (both as a native and a second tongue) at near five hundred million. Anglophone tourists traveling in many parts of the world are generally relieved to discover that they can get by with English. Universities across Europe have switched their language of instruction in certain degree programs entirely to English. Anglophones marvel at the impressive mastery of English displayed by well-educated interlocutors from the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and Germany. The working language for the cosmopolitan community of engineers and managers employed by the European aerospace giant that manufactures Airbus aircraft is English. In ports and on the high seas, ships’ captains communicate in a standardized form of English known as Seaspeak. Pilots and air traffic controllers learn a similar form known as Aviation English. World leaders today generally chat in English when they gather at summits. During Jacques Chirac’s presidency, even France—the modern nation-state that has invested perhaps the most energy and resources in promoting its national vernacular within and without its borders—ceased insisting on the systematic use of French in international organizations such as the European Union and the United Nations.”

And yet, the domination of English is not quite what Summers conceives it to be. Chinese and Russian, among other languages, have a vast presence online. Wikipedia boasts 285 language editions, of which the German, French, and Dutch ones have over 1 million articles each, while Italian, Polish, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and Portuguese have over 700,000 articles each. India’s Bollywood film industry produces movies in a large number of languages: according to Cohen, “in 2010 alone, 1,274 films were produced in a total of twenty-three languages—of these, 215 were shot in Hindi, 202 in Tamil, 181 in Telugu, 143 in Kannada, 116 in Marathi, 110 in Bengali, and 105 in Malayalam (and 117 films were dubbed from one regional language to another). Only seven were produced in English”. Egypt’s huge film industry produces films in the local language (in this case, Egyptian Arabic), not English, as do film industries in most other countries. Across the vast Spanish-speaking world, telenovelas enjoy great popularity. Again, the list can be continued.

Even in the U.S. itself English has been competing—to some people’s dismay—with other languages. As anthropologist and linguist Edward Sapir so aptly put it in 1929:

“Few people realize that within the confines of the United States there is spoken today a far greater variety of languages … than in the whole of Europe. We may go further. We may say, quite literally and safely, that in the state of California alone there are greater and more numerous linguistic extremes than can be illustrated in all the length and breadth of Europe.”


The same phenomenon is even more pronounced today: although many indigenous Native American languages are either extinct or on the verge of disappearance, numerous tongues have been brought to this country by immigrant groups. As reported in an earlier post, 181 immigrant languages are spoken in the U.S. today, with an alphabetical list running from Adamawa Fulfulde, a Niger-Congo language from Cameroon, to Zoogocho Zapotec, an Oto-Manguean indigenous to Mexico. In California—the largest “heritage language” state—43% of the population report speaking a language other than English at home. New Mexico and Texas trail with 36% and 34%, respectively. Other states with high proportions of non-English-speakers include New York and Arizona (29% in both), New Jersey (28%), Nevada (27%), Florida and Hawaii (26% in both). In absolute numbers, Texas, New York, and New Jersey together have about as many heritage language speakers as California alone.


Among the languages spoken by immigrants, Spanish is the most common by far. In California, for example, 67% of the 10 million residents who use a language other than English at home speak Spanish. Other languages spoken by significant immigrant communities in California include Tagalog (4.8% of non-English speakers), Chinese (3.7%), Vietnamese (3.3%) and Korean (2.4%). The Santa Clara County, the home of this blog, is one of the most multilingual areas in the country. In this county, 74% of non‑English speakers speak Spanish, but Vietnamese, Chinese, and Tagalog are common too. In San Francisco County to the north, only 27% of “heritage language” speakers speak Spanish, while 40% speak Chinese; other tongues one is likely to hear in San Francisco include Tagalog, Russian, Vietnamese, and French (the distribution of various languages in California is discussed in more detail in an earlier post). Nor are these “heritage languages” restricted purely to the home use. When I call my bank, I have to choose whether I want prompts in English or Spanish. At least six local TV channels here broadcast only in languages other than English (mostly, Spanish and Chinese). Voting materials arrive in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, in addition to English. Hospitals, courts and local administration offices provide interpreters—free of charge.

And what of the third cornerstone of Summers’s linguistic utopia, “the rapid progress in machine translation”? In my Languages of the World blog, I have written extensively about the shortcomings of the currently available machine translation tools, including Google Translate. As a professional translator in the life sciences field, I refuse to take on translation jobs if the customer or the mediating company insists I use the so-called “translation memory” tools. I have on occasion used Google Translate, but only to translate individual words or very short phrases, or as a “first-pass” translation for languages that I know well. As I have pointed out elsewhere, Google all too often fails to translate both words in context and grammatical concepts, such as gender. In fact, it fails most in piecing together the grammatical structure of a sentence, something than even a child can do for his of her native language. Though it offers translation in 65 languages (and is set to round the number to 100 before too long), for most language pairs Google Translate uses so‑called “intermediary languages”, usually English. Going beyond the most easily translatable forms of language into something as complex as poetry or humor, Google Translate performs even more poorly. I will leave the readers—and Mr. Summers, whose former home of Harvard has one of the best Slavic departments in the country—with a Google Translate-produced rendition of my favorite Russian poem, Alexander Pushkin’s “I loved you once”, alongside a couple of human-produced translations: even the worst of them, in my opinion, beats the Google Translate “masterpiece” by a long shot, which is not even an adequate word-for-word gloss or a set of grammatical English sentences. Enjoy!

Translated by Google Translate:

I loved you more, perhaps
In my heart is not extinguished;
But now you do not worry;
I do not want to sadden you.
I loved you silently, hopelessly,
The timid jealousy was stressed;
I loved you so sincerely, so tenderly,
As God grant you another love.

Translated by Mikhail Kneller:

I loved you and this love by chance,
Inside my soul has never fully vanished;
No longer shall it ever make you tense;
I wouldn’t want to sadden you with anguish.
I loved you speechlessly and wildly,
By modesty and jealousy was stressed;
I loved you so sincerely and so mildly,
As, God permit, may love you someone else.

Translated by Dr. Daniel Feeback:

I loved you once; perhaps I should exclaim,
My love still lingers deep within my core.
But I do not want to cause you any pain,
So grieve thee not for me a moment more.
Silently and hopelessly I loved you,
Tormented, I was too jealous and too shy.
May God provide another who will love you,
Just as gently and as fervently as I.

Translated by Genia Gurarie:

I loved you, and I probably still do,

And for a while the feeling may remain…

But let my love no longer trouble you,

I do not wish to cause you any pain.

I loved you; and the hopelessness I knew,

The jealousy, the shyness – though in vain –

Made up a love so tender and so true

As may God grant you to be loved again.

And finally a humorous “modernized” translation by Dina Belyaeva:

I dug you, babe, and reckon that sick feeling
Has not dissolved, still lingers in my gut.
And that’s none of your business. I’m chilling.
Not that I wanna bug you, my sweetheart.

I dug you to a point of being useless,
Like frigging dummy steeped in jealousy.
I dug you, but you’re obviously clueless.
I trust some other dude will go at it.


* The size of a language (by number of speakers) is a predicting factor, although not all endangered languages are small, as I discuss in more detail in an earlier post.




Ostler, Nicholas (2006) Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World. Harper Perennial.


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