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?
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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.