Fareed Zakaria recommends learning a new language

On his CNN’s tv show GPS, Fareed Zakaria recommended to learn a new language as one of the tips on restoring the American Dream.

“One example, it is never too late to learn another language and that itself would be a powerful step in the right direction. If you are fluent in Spanish or Mandarin or Hindi, all of a sudden this new world has many new opportunities for you.”

Here is the link for the video:

Here is the link for the transcripts:

Similar articles have been fluttering around the British Press, arguing that Britain will come out of the recession in a much worse position if people don’t start learning other languages. The world economy will become even more globalised and interconnected than before.

I am not optimistic that his advice will be widely taken in the Anglo world – although, who knows? Stranger things have happened. Even if people decide to learn a foreign language, they won’t know how to go about doing it. They’ll probably take a class, which probably won’t be very good, and they’ll give up.

It was an interesting interview.

@davidmachin. However, mentioning foreign languages is only a minor part of what Zakharia, and the CEO he talks with, think. They mostly say about the need to be mathematically and technologically savvy.

When I once visited and spent a year in first class American University, I was stricken that so few students of science and math were native Americans, and so many were foreign students and immigrants. The Americans seem all wanted to study law, finance etc, (and they were wise). Is it temporary? - I remember to ask myself. In a recent book about US patent applications I read, if only I am not mistaken, that on one American inventor there are hundred of American lawyers.

Yes, I wonder why that is as well. We have that in Canada as well, I think, but we’re still largely a resource-based economy so I assume that we get a bit lazy and think we can just live from our resources. The US had that huge push for science and math in the 60s, but it then disappeared somehow. Engineering has somehow become “uncool”. I don’t know why that happened.

As for me, I was good at math and science, but I didn’t like it - and I think that’s largely because of how it was taught. We were learning how to jump through hoops. This sort of question will be on the test, and this is how you solve this sort of question. There wasn’t a lot of big picture stuff. It was only in university that I rediscovered how cool and interesting science is.

That problem of people in the US wanting to go into finance and law has been written about. I think it’s related to the financialization of the economy and the ridiculous salaries and bonuses that people were able to get. Even if you wanted to be a working scientist or engineer, it’d be tough to accept a nice, albeit modest, salary versus the hundreds of thousands or millions per year you could get in finance or a top law firm.

They need to change how languages are taught. More listening to stories and reading in the early years, or even versions of “immersion” in other words learning through interesting content.

The cost of taking the “humanities” at University, like the Arts, History, Literature, Languages, Philosophy and psuedo knowledge like Gender Studies and the like should be borne in large part by the learners. Science, math and the hard subjects should be heavily subsidized. That wold bring about a change.


Your last message is true not only about Canada, but about Russia. The situation around engineers’ salaries seems to be so hopeless to many of our people that they decide to quit their engineering jobs and/or study for a second degree and go into finances or business, or trade. Engineering is really “uncool”. Many believe that it is for fanatic people who don’t plan to have family, are satisfied already with their living standards, etc. It’s a “hobby”.

I also don’t know for sure why that happened but there is an opinion popular here which states that this “uncoolness” of engineering we have now because the competition of the industries of the USSR and the Western world has ended with the end of the USSR.

As I can see around me, learning of foreign languages is fairly popular in our country. Many people learn foreign languages in hope to find extra money through usage of their skills, and, despite of the economic depression, there are still many people, I can say this about young engineers, who dream to leave Russia and find a decent job abroad. They have a little out-of-date information about the need in them out of Russia, I think.


I agree that that would bring about a change, but I couldn’t disagree more with the idea. I disagree with the idea that the primary purpose of universities is to teach people marketable skills.

The primary purpose of universities, I think, is to generate original knowledge, new research, new scholarship, etc, as well as to train the next generation of scholars and researchers. Not all of this will be particularly useful for industry - and that’s fine. I think we all know that if history degrees were unsubsidized, not many people would take them - and how would historians then make their living if they were not employed by universities to teach history courses?

However, I agree that we need to rethink the nature and purpose of undergraduate education. Most people don’t become scholars/researchers. They get an undergraduate degree and then enter the workforce, or they continue on to a professional school (medicine, law, etc.) of some kind.


Yes, I guess a lot must be related to the end of the technological competition between the USSR and the USA. But, as long as Americans aren’t going to study match and science, it seems there must be places for Russian engineers who want to leave their country.

Much of what is taught in the humanities in University is either easy to read about in a book, or learn on your own (languages), of limited interest, or an opportunity for professors to vent their ideological prejudices, and therefore should not be subsidized by the state. This is even more so the case given that a majority of students taking these courses come from families that can afford to pay for these studies, yet all tax-payers are forced to subsidize them.

See what is happening in the UK right now.David Cameron’s Culture War by Naomi Wolf - Project Syndicate.

Typically the left likes to present this as the government just helping business. However, business hires people, and that supports the economy. Society has the right to decide which studies it finds of general benefit to society, and which are more of a personal interest or indulgence, and to decide how much it wants to support the former and the latter.

Language learning is an example of a field where investment in University courses gives little return. A program to encourage more self-learning would be cheaper and more effective.

The government could subsidize LingQ memberships for example!! Only those truly interested would learn, as is the case now in any case.

Sorry, nothing seems to come up for that link.

Well, I won’t try to hide the fact that I’m on the left, but I don’t object to helping business. I also don’t agree with your characterisation of the humanities. Nevertheless, I’m content to let universities decide what is important to research and what is not. I think the government can and should fund things that it thinks are going to be important, but I basically want academics to be able to pursue their own research interests, whatever they may be.

I agree that much of what is taught in humanities courses can be read about in books. And the humanities don’t change so quickly - unlike the sciences (both natural and social), so the books you read are less likely to be out of date. But I don’t think that’s really the point. By going to school, students can actually interact with the people who are writing these books, and discuss things with them, and with each other. But besides that, this is how we support our scholars. My principal concern is that the academic/scholarly/research community is adequately supported.

You’ll probably disagree with this, but I think that if a university decides that someone has contributed to original knowledge in a manner that warrants a PhD, then that person should be able to get a position at a university and continue their work, whatever it is. I don’t think universities are giving out lots of warrantless PhDs. You may have a different opinion on that. If the scholarly “class” starts to get too big, we may have to think about limiting its numbers or something, but for now, I think all scholars should be supported. Part of how we currently do that is by having them teach classes, including classes for undergraduates. They have to compete, in a sense, because if they can’t attract any students to their courses, then their courses will be canceled.

I don’t think the undergraduate experience can be replaced by just reading books. However, I agree that we need to think about what the purpose of an undergraduate education is. If academics stop teaching these classes to undergraduates, we will also need to think about how we fund our scholars.

Learning languages doesn’t really fit into what I’m talking about because it’s not a scholarly activity. It’s usually mixed in with studying literature and/or history and whatnot to make it more academic, but it’s basically not a scholarly activity. Universities now do lots of things which are not scholarly/academic/research activities, so we may need to think about whether these activities should be taught in universities or not.

Again, my principal concerns are that scholarship of all kinds (including scholarship in the humanities) is adequately funded, and that academics are free to pursue their own research interests whatever they may be. I trust the academic community to be self-regulating. There will always be some fruitcakes who slip through, but I don’t have major issues with the academic community.

I also think that young people should be able to spend some time enjoying the “life of the mind” as an undergraduate, even if they don’t plan to go on and become scholars themselves.


The problem is that Russia does not produce many engineers now and their education is of less quality than when USSR was alive. One of the significant reasons is that many professors of engineering disciplines quit their jobs in Russia in 1990s because of the rapid drop of their salaries. Some of them emigrated (mostly to Europe, Canada, USA and Israel) and some of them lost their skills because of switching to other jobs. Engineering faculties of our technical universities now have a real difficulty with filling their teaching staff vacations. There are no people in ages from 35 to 55 to fill these vacations because they had small children in 1990s and obviously had to change their professions at that time in order to make some money. Of course there are some people employed in the university where I work because it is still functioning, but most of them work part-time because of low salaries. A person who needs to rent an apartment simply cannot work in an engineering university full time.

Let’s see some numbers (Moscow):

Full-time job in a university, Specialist degree: $400/month
Full-time job in a university, Ph.D. degree: $600/month
Full-time job in a university, D.Sc. degree: $900-1000/month

Full-time job in an engineering company (or doing research in a university, 40 hours/week): $1200-$1800/month

Moscow public transit system ticket valid for one month of unlimited use: $60/month

If you need to rent an apartment and live there alone, that’s a tough situation.

Apartment near to industrial part of Moscow, perhaps not far away from an engineering company: $800/month

Apartment at the outskirt of the city, get to work in 1 hour time by public transit system: $500/month

Is it much compared to Canada, US and Japan?

I cannot say that engineering jobs are prestigious here. I work in both a university and a company and I feel so many problems in the air that I really worry for my future. By the way, I’m not married and neither are most of my colleagues of the same or similar age.

The same is true about researchers. During the last 2 years the government started to spend money on research and promote research jobs and projects on tv channels, but many ordinary people question the quality of this “research”, which is done after nearly twenty years of stagnation.

A young engineer or student surely needs to do a lot of self-education in addition to their university studies. Some people are frustrated by that because they have to invest their free time, to be “fanatics”. If one couples that with 2-3 hours per day spent in traffic, he has almost no personal time. This is very demotivating. I am one of those fanatics", but I question my lifestyle permanently. I’ve decided to try to learn English mainly because I want to read more professional books and articles and to watch video lectures via the internet. Our books in Russian are slightly out-of-date, one can easily guess it.

I agree that if you know foreign languages, you can try more opportunities if they exist in the countries of your new languages. I learn a language by myself because I think this is more effective. I simply cannot afford costs schools charge. And now I’m learning only English because I don’t think I can find a good job connected with other Slavic languages which I used to willingly learn before.

So, I don’t think that today’s Russia can substantially help the world with many competent engineers. Of course there always will be people who don’t like Russia and are happy to get a job abroad at any cost; but I think there won’t be enough of them to fill the almost whole industry of the other country. We share the same problem.

"Is it much compared to Canada, US and Japan? "

Salaries for similar jobs are 6-8 times higher I would guess. Rent and transport for a similar size city (Toronto for example) is 2 times higher… another rough guess,

Great post by the way.

My understanding is that most engineering jobs start above the median salary in the US, that is, over $45,000. Those are the entry level jobs. With a graduate degree I believe the salary increases ~20-30,000. Salary does, of course, depend on the engineering field.

@Bortrun :

“[1] I was good at math and science, but I didn’t like it - and I think that’s largely because of how it was taught. We were learning how to jump through hoops. [2] This sort of question will be on the test, and this is how you solve this sort of question. [3] There wasn’t a lot of big picture stuff.”

I agree, You’ve given a very characteristic description of the plague here at schools, especially with [2]. But sorry, you were NOT good at math and science - it’s impossible to be good at it without loving it! It’s perhaps just others in your class were even worse. No offense meant ;-).

[3] " There wasn’t a lot of big picture stuff". Exactly! To me, curiosity to " a big picture stuff" is the sole source and pleasure of science.

Actually, in an every day work of any professional scientist, she or he rarely deals with the-big-picture stuff, (Though sometimes, the most strong, brave and lucky ones do). Still, being a scientists gives you the ability to know of the big picture’s existence and appreciate its glory. As Steve once said about languages and cultures, the view from within (when you know the language of the culture) turns out to be much richer then the view from the outside (when you do not it) The difference between culture and science is that, in my opinion, without science you’d often miss the view even from the outside.

@ Dmitry,

In the area of Toronto where I live, 10 min on the public transport to the York University, a bachelor student would rent a decent apartment for $800. It is indeed a decent apartment, with two rooms and a separate kitchen, so that more often than not two students would share such a rent.

I fully understand your difficulties. From 1989 to 1993 I happened to live and work in Chernogolovka in the Institute for Physical Chemistry. (It was a special science city 60 km from Moscow. 18 purely Scientific Institutes funded by the Soviet Government were located there. There are no analogs to such a system in the USA. Another and more known example is Dubna, the Center for Nuclear Research).

I was the youngest and perhaps the most promising Ph.D. in the lab. By 1991, I was keeping already two jobs ( the second was in the Institute for Chemical Physics in Moskow, on the Lenin Prospect. By that time, I was married, and my family with a 1.5 year old kid and the pregnant wife lived in Chernogolovka in a dormitory, in a single room 12 square meters area, sharing the toilet with another family and with a kitchen on the other side of the common corridor, because the State dropped building the promised flats. A pack of diapers for the kid was 30 rubles, a loaf of bread -one ruble, the dormitory rent -30 rubles, the round ticket to the Moscow Institute - more than two rubles and more than four hours afoot, my doubled salary - 250 rubles. So we used to live without the diapers for the kid :wink:

@Ilya, by “good at it”, I’m just referring to grades. I usually got between 95% and 100% in math class in high school, but I did not love it. I just found it easy to jump through those particular hoops. I got those grades without studying. That’s what I mean by “good at math”. I think that qualifies :slight_smile: In order to be good at math and science at high school, all you really have to be good at is remembering things (formulas, terminology, etc.) and understanding complex concepts quickly.

I think that part of the problem is the same as language education - a focus on tests. It’s hard to test big picture stuff or true understanding - just as it’s hard to test general language ability. It’s much easier to give a fill-in-the-blanks grammar question, just as it’s easier to give a fill-in-the-blanks calculation question.

Just as language classes introduce you to new words and grammatical constructions and then expect you to produce them on tests without having enough time to get used to them and assimilate them naturally through input, math and science classes introduce you to knew forms of calculation, or new concepts, or terminology, and then tests you on them without giving you time to naturally become familiar with them and assimilate them through low-pressure exposure to genuinely interesting things.

I tend to agree with Steve that tests are at the heart of our educational problems. However, I live in Japan where everything is based on test preparation, so I don’t get a lot of sympathetic ears for my opinions :slight_smile: If it were up to me, I would eliminate testing from school, or reduce it to where it is just a tool for the teacher to gauge how much the students can understand.


I’ve heard something about the difficulties in Moscow. In Canada, I had a Ukrainian roommate who was older than me, and had been in Russia during the change in 1991. He was an electrical engineer who later immigrated to Canada.

Also, because I’m an English teacher living abroad, I’m always researching the conditions in different countries and thinking about where I would like to live next. I’ve been interested in Russia for a long time, but when researching the conditions, I realized the difficulty of living in a city like Moscow. I don’t know how ordinary people are able to make a living there. So I kind of gave up the idea of moving to Moscow.

I agree with what’s been written about engineering (at least for Canada). A salary of between $50,000 and $80,000 would probably be typical. That’s an above average, professional-level salary. In fact, a lot of people go into engineering not because they love it, but because it provides a stable career and a good salary.

“So, I don’t think that today’s Russia can substantially help the world with many competent engineers.”
In my understanding, Russia could not really “help” with the competitive engineers even before. Engineering is more closely related to the trade, to the current technology of the current country, then science and math.

But Russia have “helped” the word with scientists. This year Nobel prize winners in Physics are the two former “Russians”. Being asked, each of them fully rejected a possibility of their return to Russia.
And Russia have “helped” the world with people who were able to re-teach themselves into new hi-tech professions. The mechanical engineers were able to turn into e.g. software engineers.

We know that Medvedev and the Russian government are now trying to lure the former Russian scientists back. But hardly people here take it here seriously. I’ve heard Medvedev, on his last visit to the USA, suggested Sergey Brin, the second founder of Google, who is a former Russian, to meet. My friend told me that Brin refused to meet. My friend told me what Brin had told about Medvedev.

Perhaps Brin does not love Russia enough. Who knows. What is clear, Brin not like Medvedev and Putin.

I agree about the tests. But, unfortunately, everybody seem to copy the American (is it indeed American ?) model.