Sunday, August 12, 2012

Foreign Language Education: What Matters is Utility, Not Skills

This is my response to Bryan Caplan's "The Numbers Speak: Foreign Language Requirements Are a Waste of Time and Money". I have two easy criticisms, and one based on Economics.

I Easy criticism 1

First, easy, and almost boring criticism: why is there such a big surprise that only a very small share of people who studied on average only two years of a foreign language in school happens to speak it very well? Is it necessary to argue that two years of foreign language study is thousands of miles away from being enough for acquiring a good command of a foreign language? Two years of a given foreign language usually correspond, at best, to the completion of the beginner's level.

Also: is it necessary to argue that mastering a foreign language (speaking it "very well") requires way more than school: it includes movies, music, meeting natives of that language, if possible spending time abroad?

II Easy criticism 2

Over 4000 respondents, «25.7% of respondents speak a language other than English», and the survey «only followed up with the other questions if the answer to the first question was "yes"». Then, people who actually stated their foreign language skills were about 1000. Can a 1000 individual sample be representative of a 312 million people country? Maybe it can... but I have huge doubts about that: it sounds like an epic assumption to me. But note that the starting point of Caplan's article are statistics based on such a sample, while Caplan's conclusions apply to the whole population (the «Americans»).

A related not-so-easy criticism: Caplan's conclusions apply to the «Americans», whether they actually speak a foreign language or not. However, the sample is (at best) representative of only those who do speak a foreign language. Do conclusions based on that sample apply, again, to the whole population? This is relevant: people who don't speak a foreign language may still have benefited with foreign language education, had it been, say, of higher quality - had they, actually, learnt some. The fact that someone does not speak a foreign language doesn't mean their demand for it is zero...

Relevant but not so obvious: it is possible that a respondent who does not speak a foreign language at the time of the survey did speak some in an earlier period of her life, benefited from it, and eventually lost it. This is specially likely in the case of old people (see more about age below), as foreign language fluency easily drops with time if there is no practice, and as personal interests change as one's life goes on. There's also the case of emigrants who stayed abroad for a relatively short period, and who have returned for good to their country of origin long time ago: they may not speak a foreign language now, but they did it in the past, and may have greatly benefited from it.

People who don't speak a foreign language are part of the debate - but they are not considered in Caplan's article.

III Economics criticism

Now, the economics criticism, or, what really matters is utility and demand.

Caplan's article is based on an assumption that is not stated. The assumption is: the utility derived from having a poor command of a foreign language is very low and, thus, the "demand for two years of foreign language education in a fully privatised world" would be very low. In this case, supplying two years of foreign language is inefficient - a waste of money.

There is an alternative assumption: even people with a poor command of a foreign language may well derive a high utility from that skill, to the point that their "demand for two years of foreign language education in a fully privatised world" is high or, even, very high. In that case, the present quantity of foreign language study at school is not inefficient, it is not a waste of money, in the sense that it might correspond, even if only roughly, to the equilibrium quantity that would emerge in a fully privatised world.

While I accept the first assumption has a fair probability of being true, I believe as well that both of them are reasonable. And it is because both of them are pretty much reasonable, that I find Caplan's article not that much convincing.

Let me be a bit more clear about the alternative assumption: the fully privatised society means a place where there are no State owned schools, which are funded by taxation, and which offer their services at price zero or at a "social price". Also, in that society, taxes are low, or there are no taxes at all, and no State owned anything. The utility of people who just speak "not well", or even "poorly", might already be high enough so that in such a society they would have demanded and paid for those two years of foreign language education. If this is true, then foreign education is efficient in our society, at least for them.

Since there is in reality no truly free market for foreign language education - because of compulsory schooling at price zero or social price - it is extremely difficult to estimate the "demand for two years of foreign language" that would exist in the fully privatised world. Thus, we are left with this uncertainty: two years of foreign language in school may be or may not be efficient.

Important too: what was the age of the 4000 respondents? The interpretation of survey's results should be different whether all the respondents were, say, 16, or all of them were, say, 81.

Speaking a foreign language poorly at 16 still leaves a high chance of enhancing that skill some time later. That means the claim "demand for foreign language education is high" has a higher likelihood than if we were talking about 81 year old people. Speaking a foreign language poorly at 81 indicates there might have not been much interest in foreign language learning through an entire life, which points (not necessarily) to a low demand for it and, thus, supports the claim of foreign language education being inefficient.

In short: "speaking a foreign language poorly at 16" does not specifically or strongly point at any of the two alternatives, low demand or high demand; the same at 81 does. But Caplan is silent about the age structure of the respondents.

Furthermore, individuals are different (an à la Palice truth even libertarians sometimes seem to forget). Some of them do enjoy a great utility from foreign language skills even when the skill is low - Caplan himself provides his own example in his article. This is specially true for those individuals who continue learning that language. Then, it would be interesting to have at hand a survey that asked the same respondents at two different points in their life, to check whether they continued or not language education beyond those first two years in high school.

People who only poorly spoke a foreign language at 16, but continued their foreign language education, would provide a signal that their demand at 16 might have actually been high, which would give support to the claim that "for some individuals, even a low level foreign language skill might correspond to a very high utility".

I guess the "mistake" in Caplan's article, if I can talk about mistakes in an opinion matter, is assuming (again, not explicitly) that there is a very simple correspondence between foreign language fluency and utility. If fluency is low, then the utility must necessarily be so low that demand for it would not justify the supplied levels we actually see in the real life. While I agree there should be a positive relationship between fluency and the utility derived (if higher skill then higher utility), I disagree that a low skill necessarily means such a low utility that such a person would never buy foreign language education in the fully privatised world (in that world, people pay low taxes or no taxes at all, in which case there would be higher available income).

And this is even more likely if one keeps in mind, again!, that individuals are different: while it is very likely that for some people a low skill corresponds to low demand (and vice-versa), for some others a low skill might correspond to a pretty high demand.

After all, we have all to start from a zero skill level, even those who mastered a foreign language started from that point. And isn't it accepted (at least among economists) that marginal utility is decreasing? Then, why should anyone assume that the demand for foreign language education after only two years of it is low? Finally, and taking Caplan's assertion on diminishing returns (though he is talking about diminishing returns of money, not of a service's quantity): if returns to education diminish with quantity, what is it more likely at low education levels: high demand or low demand?

IV Conclusion

Of course, obviously, evidently: if the aim in Bryan Caplan's article is to fight against compulsory education and government spending on education, then one should prefer the assumption "if low skill, then extremely low utility, hence, extremely low demand, and this is true for most if not all individuals, which happen to be not that different from one another after all".

It then should be evident for anyone defending a given political objective: as one qualifies and qualifies even more their favourite assumption, so that it perfectly fits one's political aim, the less the assumption sounds reasonable, or the smaller becomes the validity scope of the assumption, or both (this was essentially the reason I disagreed with one article written by Caplan also on education, see somewhere below in this blog).

Also, one should prefer the 4000 respondents were all old - but were they? One should prefer that the "demand for two years of foreign language in a fully privatised world" is low - but is it? And how can anyone tell? Where is such estimation?

Under those preferred assumptions, inefficiency of "two years of foreign language education" should be the conclusion. But as I have shown here, that conclusion rests on too many assumptions (and the way these are chosen, and whether to make them explicit or not, depends on each one's own political aims, which is just fine and legitimate).

Of course and obvious as well: if people could only express an opinion after having at hand a complete and sound cost-benefit analysis based on the best possible demand function estimations, only a few would feel their opinions were justified. Opinions are legitimate "even" if they are not supported by the biggest and best economic study, which is usually not available. But, then, opinions have to rest on assumptions. And assumptions can be explicitly stated or not, can be reasonable or not, can be strongly substantiated or not.

The basic assumption in Caplan's article is not stated, it was not substantiated, and while it has a fair chance to be true, I find the alternative at least as reasonable as the reference one. Thus, the article is not much convincing: one has only to keep in mind that what matters is utility and demand.

Foreign language education is a waste of time and money? That depends on the assumptions! If the share of people such that "low skill implies low demand" is big enough, then yes. But how do we know? The survey on which Caplan bases his article is not the answer because it asks about skills, not about the utility derived from those skills. So we are left with two alternative assumptions, both reasonable and, thus, we are left not with one conclusion but still with a question to be answered: is foreign language education efficient?

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Ao Contrário do que se Diz

Ao contrário do que se diz por aí é muito fácil ser de direita em Portugal. A esquerda é tão dominadora que ser de direita é alguém colocar-se num círculo fechado e sujeito a uma constante pressão por todos os lados. É fácil: tal como um círculo, a direita é uma coisa muito bem contornada. É ser definido por uma força circundante e exterior. Essa força poupa energia a quem é de direita: a sua identificação não requer esforço.

O difícil é ser de esquerda: esta é tão abundante que ser da mesma é o mesmo que não ser de nada. É um universo demasiado amplo e que, não recebendo pressões, é rarefeito. Daí que ser de esquerda é pertencer a um muito muito grande, logo, é uma pertença muito pequena. Dizer que se é de esquerda é portanto dizer muito pouco, um quase nada.

Por outro lado, o círculo da direita é muito apertado. As pressões de fora empurram todos os que estão dentro gerando confusão. A direita portuguesa é confusa porque é misturada à força nesse círculo minúsculo. Tão confundida que acredita numa indefinida compatibilidade.

Mas abrindo esse círculo a outros limites, a pressão interna dilui-se e o círculo divide-se em sectores mais pequenos. Com mais ar, os sectores separam-se e as direitas esclarecem-se: identificam-se e, até, opõem-se.

Mais do que a pressão externa que define, o que falta à direita portuguesa é o ar que separa e clarifica. Por enquanto, a direita está ainda muito confundida. Mas também se diga que já foi pior - pelo menos para mim.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Three Parts Phoebe, One Part Lady Gaga

The Ting Tings - Hang It Up.

Monday, November 28, 2011

An Epilogue to the Previous Post

It is rather strange to fail to acknowledge how multidimensional education is. Perhaps that is a consequence, for some, of living in the "Ivory Tower". For some people, say economics researchers, the real world is so far away that they end up discussing things that are actually so simple (and so right) for the lay person. In one thing I agree, thus, with Bryan Caplan: one can have plenty of education (say economic education) and still fail to see the world as it really is. [Objectivism is a good thing and also much necessary in the "Ivory Tower".]

Would anyone but economists ever feel the need to discuss and have doubts about the multidimensional importance of education? Would anyone but economists ever believe that people study and get education for only one reason, and that would be to signal ability in order to get a job??

Education as Much More than Just a Mechanism to Allocate People into Jobs

This is a reaction to Bryan Caplan's "The Magic of Education" posted here.

First, formal studies DO teach things related and about the real world. One learns the real world from studying at school, at least in my country (which is very far from being the best in OECD's PISA). Of course, spending one semester abroad teaches you more than reading about life abroad. Opening a car's hood and playing around with the engine helps you more if you want to be a real-world mechanic than reading a book about cylinders and pistons. Still, "indirect" learning does improve one's knowledge of the real world. Still, reading that book about engines improves, even if only a little, your knowledge of cars.

Second, Bryan Caplan's argument is based on a fundamental premise: people study to find jobs and only for that. Assuming that premise, I agree that people study way too much for the jobs they get, they study things way too unrelated to those jobs. And, keeping that premise, a huge part of studying and doing exams is not but costly signalling. Then, the conclusion of the argument is right: since what matters is the relative ability of potential workers, decreasing the "standard level" of education would save costs while still letting education work as well as a ranking mechanism aimed to allocate people into jobs.

It is easy to accept that those signalling costs are too high for the objective of allocating people to jobs: consider all the time- and money- costs of education incurred by students, parents, governments. But is it that the allocation of people to jobs is the only objective of education? Is it the only reward of education to signal a potential employer that you are a good worker? And, if not, if there are other benefits of education, are still the costs bigger than the benefits?

The fundamental premise in Caplan's text is wrong: people study for much more than finding jobs. Education is much more than that. Keep in mind the word "some" before the word "people" for the rest of this paragraph. Some people study for pure pleasure. People study out of curiosity. People study to be able to more adequately relate with the physical and social worlds. People study to develop and change their own beings. Human beings are much more than just job-seekers and workers: there are uncountable other dimensions more to being human and formal studies answer to those dimensions too: just think about musical education and languages, but, then, why not history? For instance, my nationality is part of who I am. To understand that aspect of my being, it was helpful to read history (both in and out of the classroom). And, no!, just going out and living in the real world was NOT enough to understand my own nationality: I had to read, to study.

Bryan Caplan seems to ignore that people CONSUME education: education is taken for immediate benefits, pleasure, utility, not only as a means (signalling) to an end (to get a job). Education is consumption and its benefits as a consumption good should be assessed when doing cost-benefit analysis. But, then, since education is consumption, does it still make sense to decrease the "standard level" of education??

I don't want to spend much time about the sub-topic of the "education externalities". Even if they are zero, my previous argument holds the same. I will just mention that it is already unpleasant to suffer with the lack of education of others (when one cannot avoid it) and I don't like to think what the real world would be if people were on average even less educated. Can you imagine how worse television would be? I guess Caplan's answer to that is: if you yourself were less educated too, you wouldn't notice any difference! In the limit, if all people were equally and absolutely ignorant (except for the knowledge necessary for working...), we all would be much happier. But... would we??

Finally, knowledge is accumulative: can one really have a "real life" job without any formal theory? Say a lawyer without ever studying a bit of philosophy, a manager without a bit of mathematics? And skills require mind training, which is a function of time and effort.

Post scriptum: accepting that the objective of education is either "for real world jobs only" or "full personal development" must have consequences in terms of the politics of funding education (who pays and why, which social benefits, etc.). But thinking about what education is and is for can be done without (and before) those political concerns. Actually, it SHOULD be done before thinking of those consequences. The discussion of what education is for can also be done prior and without the debate of who the educators should be (teachers only, teachers and parents, etc.).

Monday, September 05, 2011

Forte Apache

The blog Albergue Espanhol is closed. Now, I write in Forte Apache. All my posts there can be found easily here.

Thursday, September 01, 2011


Nos países em que a educação é levada a sério e os seus níveis de qualidade são altos, o primeiro de Setembro é dia de festejos e celebração nacional.

Nos países em que a educação é uma bosta (a pública, não a privada), a um de Setembro ninguém faz a menor ideia do dia em que a escola começa, nem se começa.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I'm With You

Yesterday I enjoyed the concert Red Hot Chili Peppers performed live for an audience worldwide. It was my third RHCP concert. This time, "live concert" meant in real-time but not in real-space: the concert was taking place in Germany while I was in a big cinema room in Tallinn, Estonia.

As usual, the concert was very short. I understand how physical a RHCP concert is for the those who watch it and, even more, for the ones who perform it. But, still, RHCP concerts are always so unsatisfactorily short. Except for the spontaneous jams, they seem so much programmed, following a sort of schedule.

The main news about the Red Hot Chili Peppers is their new guitar player, his articulation with the other band members, and how all that changes their music. So, how are the new Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Both during the concert and in the new cd, the sound of the guitar is much less prominent than in most or all their previous albums. By less prominent I really mean it acoustically: guitar's sound is less powerful relatively to all other musical instruments and voice. Also, there are no guitar solos - or guitar sequences deserving that name. On the other hand, there are now non-guitar solos: trumpet and piano. On top of all these changes, rhythm as been reinforced with a percussionist added to the contribution of drummer Chad Smith.

The result is, thus, a lot more emphasis on rhythm, with melody being provided almost exclusively by Kiedis' voice. The guitar is only there to complete the musical background and deliver some special effects, in a band where real and raw effects has always been the main focus.

In John Frusciante's era, the Red Hot Chili Peppers evolved from funk to funk-rock to "just rock". This brought them an immense popularity. It also brought them excellent music. Meanwhile, John Frusciante had perhaps become too important for the musical taste and feelings of the other bandmates. Frusciante sang, riffed and soloed, he seemed to have the decisive hand in choosing most of the musical landscapes, and the majority of songs were driven by him.

With Frusciante's leaving the quartet, it may be that the older Chili Peppers want back a bigger share of artistic control. That means more rhythm, funk, speed and less indulgence in soloing. It is in this light that one can understand the almost secondary role of the new guitar player and the introduction of a new percussionist.

Actually, during the concert, it seemed there was an excess of percussion. Chad Smith is more than an excellent drummer: why then the need for extra percussion? Maybe turning down the volume of Klinghoffer's guitar was not enough: in order to keep him from being a new Frusciante and move the sound of the Peppers again in the melodic rock direction, it was necessary not only to cut his power and forbid him from doing riffs and solos but also to bury his sound under extra percussion lines.

(This reminds me a little of the first album Metallica recorded with their then-new bass player and how that instrument became almost inaudible in that cd and afterwards).

Further, the few times Josh was freer to do "his thing", he sounded much like Frusciante, entangled in all that magic of pedals and guitar effects. Had been Josh allowed to do a real clean-guitar solo, I am pretty sure he would have sounded exactly like Frusciante. Maybe this is the reason - or the extra reason - for the shift in the Peppers sound: whether they are seeking the old pre-Frusciante funky style or a turn from the melody oriented music, there is no space for much similarity with John and that is why he had to be musically contained.

Klinghoffer was chosen, thus, not because he is alike John but even though that; what really mattered in picking him was his musical talent. I hope he will be given enough freedom to show that talent and let it develop.

Leaving aside internal changes and comparisons with previous albums, "I'm With You" has plenty of powerful rhythm. It delivers a continuous of energy along its fourteen songs, all of which attain the same level of high quality and ability to move one's body and soul. Dancing to it is a reinvigorating experience.