Better than Bling: The Other Reasons to Learn Another Language

Hello, dear readers – I’m back from a short break in blogging! Work got busy and my list of ideas sat untouched for a bit. But I’m back, and will blog more this summer – hopefully every other week. I’m still working on the focus of the blog, but for now, I’ll be focusing on all things linguistics, applied linguistics, and teaching.

Recently I listened to a 2014 episode of one of my favorite podcasts, Freakonomics, called “Does FL learning make economic sense?” The goal of the podcast is to illuminate the economics behind our everyday behaviors, or, as the tagline claims, to “reveal the hidden side of everything,” this episode took a look at the monetary value of learning a foreign language. It asked whether the small salary bump you get from learning a language is actually worth it. I’ll summarize a bit of the discussion here, but I also recommend checking out the podcast if you’ve got 20 minutes (pop in those earbuds and take yourself for a walk – why not!?).

In this episode, host Stephen Dubner interviewed Albert Saiz (pronounced like the word “scythe”),  who teaches urban planning at MIT, about his study in which he looked at 9,000 graduates to find out the financial profit of studying a foreign language. No doubt an idea worth investigating and supporting with data, given the many claims that learning a foreign language can be profitable on the job market.

Saiz summarizes his study this way:

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.

This is disappointing news, given that the average American student spends 2-3 years learning a foreign language. The better news is that some languages, like German (yay!), which increased salaries approximately 4%, tend to earn workers a bigger increase than other languages, like Spanish, which added a average of merely 1.5%. Brian Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, was convinced that:

All of this study seems to totally fail to teach people how to fluently speak foreign languages. So we can actually see in the data is that under 1 percent of Americans have learned to speak a foreign language very well in school. And this is very well according to them. And since people tend to exaggerate how good they are at things. If under 1 percent claim that they learned to speak a foreign language very well in school, then God knows how many actually did.

Both of these gentlemen bring up some pretty important points. Yes, becoming good enough to actually use a foreign language does take a lot of time. And according to these numbers, at least, it might not be “worth it” in monetary terms to learn a foreign language. But I’d like to respond to each of these points below, as a non-economist, as a German teacher and applied linguist who believes fiercely in the value of the humanities.

First, yes – learning a language to a point where you feel comfortable with it takes a lot of time, usually several years. Especially when you start learning as an adult. There’s a hypothesis in second language acquisition research called the Critical Period Hypothesis that suggests that language learning gets a lot more difficult to do as you get older. Once you hit puberty, language learning requires a lot more deliberate work and energy, and learning occurs in a different way (i.e. in a more explicit way) than if you learn a language as a child. In the US educational system, most students don’t start learning a language until they’re in high school (this was my case), i.e. around the time that they enter puberty. Now, the critical period hypothesis does not imply that if a person learns a language as a child, they’ll be able to remember it as an adult. However, there’s a good chance that language learning would happen more quickly if students engaged in it at the right time in their cognitive and neurological development.

The reality is, language learning is an arduous process that takes a long time. But so does becoming really good at anything else – knitting, cooking, math, history. (Here’s another Freakonomics episode about that – an interview with Anders Ericsson, author of the book Peak, which I am currently reading and enjoying).

Second, while I acknowledge that money can be an important factor in deciding whether to study a particular subject or develop a particular skill, one thing I couldn’t stop thinking about during this episode is that there are values in this world other than salary increases. I work at a liberal arts college, and attended one myself, and appreciate my education in not only German (my major) and music (my minor) but in all the other areas that my institution required me to take classes. My experience there taught me that each discipline has its own kind of value. As a teacher, I ask my students each semester why they’re learning German. Their responses vary widely, and they cite reasons like these:

  1. They’re interested in learning this particular language in order to be able to communicate with family members who speak that language.
  2. They’re interested in studying and/or abroad (this is especially applicable to several students of mine who learned German so that they can do research in Germany.)
  3. They’re interested in learning about their own cultural heritage, even if no one they know still speaks that language.
  4. Their plans for further study involve knowing German/Swedish (Several students studying history or art history have cited this reason for choosing German, for example.)
  5. They’re interested in learning about cultures and languages more generally.
  6. They’re interested in learning more about English (or another Germanic language) through German/Swedish.

Other reasons to learn a language: Learning to approach another culture’s values and perspectives with openness and curiosity. Seeing that/how other languages divide up the world differently than yours does. The pure pleasure of feeling new sounds roll off of your tongue. Uncovering the relationship between language and power, and seeing how language use reinforces structures of oppression. Discovering who you’d be, how your personality would change, if you spoke another language. The list goes on.

If it’s money you’re looking for, learn other skills that will earn you a bigger salary. But if you’re looking for any other reason to learn a new language, there are plenty. Language requirements don’t exist because colleges want students to earn more money. They exist to serve all those other reasons for learning a language – the ones that make you a better, more tolerant, more open human being.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *