The Wiki Man

The economics of learning languages

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

27 February 2021

9:00 AM

There is a kind of conversation which sounds intelligent, and which makes sense at first hearing, but which deeper thought reveals to be stupid. A classic example of this is the dinner party trope where some poncy polyglot belittles the British or Americans for being terrible at learning foreign languages.

The raw facts seem to bear this out. But further consideration reveals a reason behind this discrepancy. Seen through the lens of time, it is much harder to learn a foreign language if your first language is English than if it isn’t. How so?

Well let’s imagine how a Swede, say, might approach the issue: 1. ‘Do I need to learn another language?’ 2. ‘What language should I learn first?’ Easy answers. 1. ‘Yes’ and 2. ‘English’. Swedes need English not only to speak to English people, but even to speak to Danes or Finns — to swap herring recipes, perhaps, or to coordinate their shameless reciprocal voting tactics for the next Eurovision Song Contest.

Now for most native English speakers aged 25 or under — the decisive age for this decision — the respective answers to those questions are: 1. ‘I’m not sure’ and 2. ‘No idea’. The world does not really have a second second-language.

Moreover, for an English speaker,the act of learning any other language is not progressively rewarding: indeed my learning Swedish is almost completely useless until my Swedish is better than the typical Swede’s English, which would require that I live in Sweden for several years. A Swede gains useful fluency with every new English word learned — and all they need do is watch TV (there’s not, I think, a single episode of Dallas that they didn’t see).

Economically it might be worth $20,000 for a young Italian to attain proficiency in English, even if he never leaves Italy. Much as I’d love to learn Italian, unless I plan to live there for a year or more, it is of no monetary value at all. This explains why there are far more European students at our universities than the other way round. They’re learning two things for the price of one. Free English lessons with every physics degree.

I use this example because it is a perfect case of a hidden asymmetry. To use the language of consumer electronics, there is no backwards compatibility with learning languages. Their plugs work in our sockets, but ours don’t work in theirs. This helps explain why patterns of migration are overwhelmingly weighted towards the English-speaking world.

Look deeper and you’ll see such hidden asymmetries everywhere. And particularly in perception.

One thing I hear people saying is ‘Videocalling is all very well, but it’s not as good as a real meeting.’ I agree. It’s true. But then I have to point out that the videocall we are engaged in would never have happened in the real world. ‘You’re in Montana and she’s in Delhi.’ If this were a physical meeting, it either would never have happened or it would have cost £6,000 in travel and accommodation and taken six months to organise. The ‘cost’ of a videocall (the fact it’s not a ‘proper meeting’) is salient and visible. But the far greater opportunity cost of assuming that all human commercial exchanges must entail physical colocation and face-to-face contact escaped our notice.

Costs are always much more salient and easily quantified than opportunities. You get blamed for unnecessary costs far more easily than for lost opportunities. This is partly why large organisations lose the impetus to innovate. You end up with low costs and no opportunities. Historien upprepar sig. The history book on the shelf is always repeating itself.

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