Thursday, December 30, 2010

Open Letter to Kristof

Kristof wrote another horrible Op-Ed. The thesis is that everyone should learn Spanish because it'll help them converse with someone, sometime and maybe make their retirement go smoothly. (It'll also help people who need it for their jobs but they already learned it so that's irrelevant.) It's not clear whether he thinks learning it will help unemployed people find jobs or not, but you get the sense he thinks it might.

Here's my open letter in response:

These language columns drive me insane so I'm just e-mailing for the record on why they are so wrong.
1. Let's start with the premise that education is about training people for a good job as the column presumes, since it argues for Spanish on practical grounds.
Some representative anecdotes. We have three graduates of Local High School's class of 2006. One got a nursing degree and found a job in that field. The other got a useless B.A. in Classics and can't find a job. One didn't get any advanced training but he knows Spanish. (He may or may not be Hispanic.) He works at Wal-Mart part time or something. 
What's the difference between these three people? Well, one has technical skills. One has no skills. And one has Spanish, which isn't exactly a great skill. Now if you're advising a young person on how to spend their time to secure a good job do you tell them to get the nursing certificate, or maybe a minor in computer programming or do you tell them to learn Spanish?
2. Suppose there are two languages in a country, A and B. Learning the minority language has negative externalities because it makes it easier for the minority language speakers to hold on learning the majority language. In the long run that is bad for everyone because you can get a two-language equilibrium (e.g. become Quebec). Why is that bad? One, you waste time and money printing signs. Two, more importantly, its bad for social capital because you create a natural way for people to divide themselves and have civil strife.
I know it sounds harsh but here's the reality for Hispanics: the faster they assimilate the faster people will stop hating them. The faster Americans learn Spanish, the slower they assimilate (and maybe Americans become marginally more tolerant). Who benefits?

1 comment:

  1. I agree with all your points. It's funny because I was just reading that blog post by Kristof and thinking about all of your arguments in regard to that.

    However, I also think that the main reason Kristof wrote that post was that everyone these days has become obsessed with the idea of learning Chinese because they think China is the next superpower / their children will find it much easier to find a job if they teach them Chinese, etc. I think the main reason he wrote that piece is that he is trying to tell people that Spanish is more useful than Chinese for Americans (which I agree with).

    Of course I think you're right in the fact that maybe it would be a better idea to write op-eds questioning the rationale for Americans learning foreign languages at all.

    happy new year ^^