Bryan Caplan

Letter from a Linguist

I'm Bryan Caplan, Professor of Economics at George Mason University and New York Times Bestselling author.

Bryan Caplan
Jun 23, 2022
3 min read

I recently received this letter from an education professor who studies foreign language acquisition. Reprinted anonymous with his permission. Enjoy!

Dear Dr. Caplan,

I saw your brief interview with Rob Maas about CRT on James Lindsey’s Twitter feed and then watched the whole interview in which you mentioned foreign languages. I’ve been researching this topic since 1990. The language field has always kept the measurement of how much Spanish, French, etc., that students learned vague and mysterious. I finally had the opportunity to conduct a study in which I could measure how much of a language that monolingual US students mastered after 1, 2, and 3 years of Spanish courses in high school by using a standardized measure normed with native Spanish speakers. The short answer, as you said, is not much at all. I’ve attached two papers with some of these findings. I had to “pull my punches” to get the papers published, but the results are clear that most students, even after three years, are non-fluent and illiterate in Spanish.

These are the first studies that have done anything like this, that is, measuring the achievement of students in high school language classes in a quantifiable manner. The interesting thing is the reaction among US language educators–crickets. No one wants to hear the findings or even to discuss them. All of these papers have been rejected for presentation at conferences for the foreign language organizations (e.g., ACTFL). I’ve been told over and over that it is “unfair” to compare US students to native Spanish speakers, but frankly, that should be the yardstick to determine how literate or fluent one has become in a language. The most common retort is that one cannot measure language achievement with a test.

Given students’ poor language performance coupled with the dramatic increase in the diagnosis of learning disabilites, the notion of a “foreign language learning disability” has also become commonplace. “Learning disabled” students now receive a waiver or course substitutions for the language requirement (where it still exists) in high school and college. Of course, the evidence has shown that there is no such disability. But, as you have found, evidence doesn’t matter. In any case, I thought you might enjoy having your observations about foreign language validated. By the way, I agree with what you wrote in your book and what you said in your interview about schools and learning. I finally had to exit the university in 2015 after 35 years. In retrospect, it was just in time.


The Myth of the Rational Voter: Why Democracies Choose Bad Policies - New Edition, – Illustrated (2008)

The greatest obstacle to sound economic policy is not entrenched special interests or rampant lobbying, but the popular misconceptions, irrational beliefs, and personal biases held by ordinary voters. This is economist Bryan Caplan's sobering assessment in this provocative and eye-opening book. Caplan argues that voters continually elect politicians who either share their biases or else pretend to, resulting in bad policies winning again and again by popular demand.

Purchase on Google Books

TRANSCRIPT: The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan is worth the read. In case anyone is wondering why we link to Google Books versus Amazon, it's not because we receive monetary compensation for one versus the other. We, at planksip, support Google Books over Amazon simply because our Journalists use a shared copy for commenting. Of course, we have to purchase individual copies for each contributor on any given project or story, but the ability to create a shared Google Doc directly linked to the book, research or citations is extremely valuable.

If you would like to sign up to be a planksip contributing writer, feel free to set up an appointment with me directly.

If your writer's voice is fiercely independent and embodied as the protagonist for the truth, if you feel like you have something to offer planksip and want to be a contracted, employed or official contributor then let's chat.

Subscribe to our Newsletter and stay up to date!

Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news and work updates straight to your inbox.

Oops! There was an error sending the email, please try again.

Awesome! Now check your inbox and click the link to confirm your subscription.