Let me start off by saying: If you want to move to Germany, and are buying a German book, more power to you. It’s a bit cliche now, but more people really should travel – two thirds of Americans don’t even have a passport. Learning a foreign language can certainly help with traveling.

However, most foreign languages aren’t taught to international adventurers. They’re taught to college students (or high school students, or middle school students), who take language classes because schools require them to. (Or because elite colleges require them, which is largely the same thing.) One statistic I found says that 44 percent of high school students are in a foreign language class. Since many won’t take such classes for all four years, we don’t know how many students have ever taken a language class, but my guess is a good majority. If, for instance, the average language student took two years in high school, then about 90% of students have learned a language at some point.

How well do these classes work? Terribly. Did you learn a foreign language at school? Quite likely. Now, can you hold a reasonable conversation in that language? Can you watch a TV show, or write an essay, or read a book or newspaper? Probably not. What about your friends? They probably took language classes too. Do they remember anything, beyond a few words or phrases? Probably not. The only Americans I know who speak foreign languages well worked abroad. (Actually worked abroad, not just visited, or went on a school trip with a bunch of other Americans.)

But that’s just anecdotal evidence. What do the statistics say? According to one poll, 26% of Americans can speak a language other than English well enough to hold a conversation. That sounds pretty good. (Let’s ignore, for simplicity, that this is a self-reported number, and that it’s easy to overestimate your ability in a language you don’t use much.)

However, many of these are first-generation or second-generation immigrants, and learned that other language from their parents, not from schools. How many? Well, the US Census says that 18% of Americans speak a language other than English at home. Subtracting, this means that only 8% of Americans even claim to be able to have a conversation in the languages most of them learned in school. This isn’t a precise method, because of polling errors and what not, but we’re looking at something like a 90% failure rate. That’s an utter disaster. How would we feel about a law school whose graduates flunked the bar 80% or 90% or 95% of the time?

Why do they fail so badly? I won’t guess, since languages aren’t my specialty, but the author of How To Learn Any Language has some interesting thoughts:

For some reason, most schools teach modern languages as they teach Latin: you learn grammar rules, you memorize long lists of uncommon words, and then use it to study centuries-old literature. Oh, and you do all this surrounded by people with different levels in the language. This way of learning/teaching might be great for your culture, but you should not be surprised if all you can say when you get to Mexico is si or no.

The obvious conclusion is that foreign language requirements (and admission preferences at elite colleges) should be dropped. It doesn’t matter how important, or unimportant, you think learning a language is. The current methods obviously don’t work. And everyone knows they don’t work – even if you speak a language reasonably well, how many people do you know who took a language in school, who can’t use it to order a pizza? Quite a lot, probably. Why spend a lot of time and money on something that everyone knows won’t work?

The less obvious, but probably more important, conclusion is that we should look very critically at our curriculum’s supposed ability to teach stuff. If you spend a year studying English literature, it’s hard for anyone to know what your skill level is, or how much it improved. You’d probably have to take a long test to measure it. And even if you flunked such a test – which people often do – school officials can invent vague, non-disprovable gibberish about “critical thinking” and “becoming a well-rounded person” and “learning how to learn” to justify literature classes.

But foreign language skills are extremely easy to measure. You either speak it or you can’t. You can understand the newspaper or you can’t. You read the book or you don’t. And, in this one area where success or failure is easy to measure, what we measure is pretty universally lousy. To quote Feynman, “UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!”. How lousy is it in other areas? It’s hard to know for sure, but, eg., from a mathematician:

How many people actually use any of this “practical math” they supposedly learn in school? Do you think carpenters are out there using trigonometry? How many adults remember how to divide fractions, or solve a quadratic equation? Obviously the current practical training program isn’t working, and for good reason: it is excruciatingly boring, and nobody ever uses it anyway. So why do people think it’s so important? I don’t see how it’s doing society any good to have its members walking around with vague memories of algebraic formulas and geometric diagrams, and clear memories of hating them.