Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Short answer: It depends on what you mean by “worth it.”

Freakonomics (one of my podcast favorites) recently did a short show on the merits of learning a foreign language. Most of the foreigners in Spain whom I know would argue that learning a foreign language is indeed quite beneficial. We are always posting articles on the benefits of bilingualism. There are myriad other reasons too: you become smarter, you know your native language better, you stave off Alzheimer’s and dementia, your memory improves, you become more perceptive … In short, the benefits are endless.

But what about financial benefits?

 

78568751Source: Getty Images

Freakonomics talks to Albert Saíz, a Spanish (Catalonian) professor of economics who specializes in immigration. He wrote a paper titled Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States. Saíz wanted to figure out just how much a person can gain (future earnings) by knowing a foreign language. He talked to 9,000 college grads about how their knowledge of a foreign language had affected their wages. Here’s what he had to say:

… I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.

So $600 a year? That’s not that much.

Many of us come to Spain to put off the “real world” for a couple of years, to travel, to meet new people, and to learn more about ourselves. But I used to think that the fact that I knew Spanish would help me immensely in the future. After all, Spanish is being spoken by an ever-increasing amount of people in the United States. (Who knows where we’ll be in even twenty-five years?) But perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps knowing Spanish will serve me very little in the future. I wonder what all the past auxiliares would have to say about that.

In the end, though, learning Spanish has been more than worth it for me. Not only have I spent the past 3–5 years here, on and off, but I’ve met my husband, a whole new Spanish family, and grown by leaps and bounds. I’ve stretched my capacities and stepped outside my comfort zone. I’ve gotten to know myself better and learned to deal with difficult situations. I’ve experienced many work environments that will help me to navigate the workplace, wherever I end up.

Disclaimer: This study was U.S.-focused, meaning that it looked into the benefits of English-speaking people knowing another language. The benefits of knowing English are often much more straightforward, and we can see such benefits in Spain today. Knowing English has never been more essential for many of our global neighbors.

Has learning a foreign language been worth it for you?

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12 comments

  1. Financially worth it, no! I am not fluent in Spanish, so I do not consider myself bilingual (yet). I do travel extensively to Spain and Central/South America and it has helped me immensely to speak at an advanced intermediate level when abroad. I love being able to surprise someone with my Spanish when they clearly think I am just a southern girl from North Carolina. Ha!

  2. Great post, Kaley! Learning Spanish is one of the main reasons I’ve decided to teach English and live in Spain. I’m not sure what my future holds in terms of employment, so I’m not sure if being bilingual will affect my future earnings or not. I do know that I want to learn Spanish for my own enjoyment. I want to speak a second language. For me, I think my “investment” is worth the return, whatever that may be.

  3. “It depends on what you mean by ‘worth it.’ ” Nailed it. I think in the US we are way to obsessed with money and so naturally we ask if learning a language will make us richer. It won’t ecessarily, but it will enrich your life in many other ways. ;)

  4. I think this is a really interesting take on it. You’re right — language alone (at least for Americans) doesn’t really give a high return across the board, though in certain very specific positions it could be a determining factor. Still, it’s not something that sets one apart the way a Master’s does in some fields (yielding thousands more a year) or other special qualifications.

    However, there are latent effects of language that are harder to measure — and you touched on some of them. The way that language opens the mind and maybe provides opportunities that people would have never had otherwise? Well, it’s hard to tell the return on investment in that sense. Learning another language can change us at the deepest level and it’s hard to know, for some of us, what our identity would be without it, even if we can’t measure its impact. And that seems to be what your experience is and it’s definitely mine as well. Still, this is an awesome way of looking at it and fascinating! Thanks for sharing, Kaley!

  5. I did get hired for my French language skills last year. I am constantly providing French translations, reviewing coworker correspondence in French, looking over French documents… Spanish may be coming later into play later this year which has me freaking out because I am obviously a little rusty. I did my darndest to find a job that used my language skills and through a little luck and a lot of determination I did. My education was expensive for those degrees–I was definitely going to put them to use somehow! I don’t think I’m making that much more than my peers though but I don’t really care so much about that. If you want to make learning a language worth it (and you can just learn a language for fun too), you also have to make something happen for yourself. (Easier said than done, I know). You can’t just sit around passively and think, “Oh learning this language may be useful but I don’t know how or why.”

  6. I don’t think I’ll ever get much of a return in terms of finances, but I think it’s been absolutely worth it for the depth of experiences I’ve had abroad. There’s no way I would have gotten myself into the same situations in Spain and Russia without my language skills–for me, life would be immeasurably less interesting without my second/third languages (imperfect as they may be)!

  7. My husband is biligual, from childhood, so he never really had to learn a 2nd language (if anything, his 2nd language is English because he began learning it in kindergarten), but sometimes he is just a little bitter that while his language skills pay off in life, not so much financially. He has used his Spanish skills often when he has Spanish-speaking patients. But his mono-lingual coworkers get paid exactly the same as him and the hospital has to hire an interpreter when they are working with Spanish-speaking patients. It can be a bit disappointing that even though he’s saving the hospital money, he doesn’t reap any financial benefits from that, but, ah well, it’s his heart language and he loves speaking it.

  8. That’s interesting, as I heard all through my life that learning a second language was a great way to be more marketable and earn more. I guess I’m not really surprised, though, as I can’t say I’ve ever gotten anything more out of it. Regardless, language learning is great and valuable for other reasons, so it can’t hurt!

  9. I saw this study, too, and German was almost double Spanish, which motivated me for about 5 whole seconds and then I went back to speaking English ;)

    I actually need someone to force me to learn, but unfortunately everyone I ask won’t assume the responsibility haha

  10. Those studies always give me pause… I really think it depends on how you value worth. For me, I think learning opens you up to so much more as far as culture and enrichment. Also how you plan to use your language skills and where also can be a big factor. Where I am you can make money but then again I am in an international city and you need to know your stuff (oral and written) both in English and your second language. I am debating which language to dabble in next, French or Portuguese. The idea of being able to speak even the basic pleasantries is so exciting.

  11. I was already trilingual before learning Spanish, and I still thought it was worth going for it. Right now, I work at a big travel company, and they sometimes contact me to translate something or answer an email. I get paid the same even though I have this skill, but I feel like, just on that alone, gives me an advantage towards future opportunities.

    I do know people who have higher income because they speak another language besides English.

  12. This is such disappointing research – 2% salary increase after I spent many thousands of pounds on a Modern Languages degree?! In my case at least it has been totally worth it, as I was headhunted while at university into a Spanish company, specifically because there’s a shortage of Spanish-speakers in the UK. A foreign language was a pre-requisite for my job (and I work in business, I’m not a teacher/translator) so it’s worked out ok, but this is terrible news if we’re attempting to persuade more English-language natives to make the effort to learn another language. Really interesting post Kaley. x

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