Let me correct that: English will make you more money. Because the US, UK, Canada, and Australia have a lot of it. With other languages, you’ll have to be lucky.
Learning foreign languages will improve your relationships with others. A more fertile ground for diverse languages will produce a better crop of human beings, better able to understand and respect one another.
Cultivating the environment around us has value that doesn’t show up in standard calculations of “Return on Investment” (ROI). I listened to a speech by environmental activist, Vandana Shiva. Working the land with our neighbors produces a better environment and healthier community, but eating what we produce does not produce wealth that can show up in GDP. In contrast, industrial agriculture, which does produce capital wealth, creates environmental problems and destroys species.
I am a native English speaker. I can get a job paying six-figures without ever learning another language. Not so in, say, the Philippines or India, where English is more valuable for learning potential than a college degree is in the US. When we say that languages are “valuable,” we are saying that the economic system has made one language more valuable than another. I can get a higher-paying job with this language than I can with another.
Economics does not drive my desire to learn languages like these forces drive industrial agriculture. The desire for a healthier community for my children and neighbors drives me to learn languages.
A couple years ago I posted about a “Freakonomics” episode that crunched the numbers on the ROI of learning a foreign language.
The anecdotes that I’ve read show bias towards people who are already well-educated and privileged. So, if you are an international VP at a multi-national company, Mandarin will help you further your career. If I am a librarian at a suburban Minnesotan library, Mandarin will not likely make me more money.
This article in The Economist responded to the “Freakonomics” episode. The episode claimed that learning a foreign language offered one only a 2% premium in pay. The article, however, did the math and calculated that this would mean $67,000 over the course of a 40-year career—and even more for “premium” languages like French and German. The ROI over a longer period will make the difference worth it.
What no one has discussed is the difference in economic outcomes between learning English vs any other language. Perhaps a native English-speaker can gain 3.8% more money by learning German. According to this article, an immigrant to the US who improves the ability to speak English from “well” to “very well” can earn 30% more. That’s just one level.
If we believe in market forces, the rest of the world is incentivized to learn English faster and more fluently than English-speakers stand to earn. Our economy favors English.
No one has talked about what number of jobs requires what languages. I wonder if more jobs exist that require English compared to requiring German. If so, then a very large portion of dollars available in the world economy is only available to English-speakers. We can’t forget that when China does business in Nigeria or the Netherlands, they will be speaking not Yoruba or Dutch; they will speak English. The same would probably be the case in Germany. Similarly, a Nigerian who wants to have broad business opportunities will learn English, not Chinese, just in case a Dutch business person comes by.
My languages do not make me more money, but that’s fine with me. They make me more meaningful and deeper relationships. I speak to Russians and Ukrainians about the war in Donbas, and I speak in Arabic about the Syrian war. I learn about herding camels in Somalia and wedding traditions in Ethiopian. I connect with the people around me. On occasion I get an economic benefit. Twice I received a special “discount” at Russian bookstores in Paris and in Los Angeles. An Arab shopkeeper gave my daughter free gum for saying Shukran! “Thank you!” (in Arabic). My cousin and I got extra food at an Ethiopian restaurant, and extra shots at a Russian one. But these are not “income,” but gifts among friends.
If you are reading this, you are part of an economic elite who reads English. How will you use your economic advantage? Teach English for free so that your free gift can give someone else a leg up. Or upturn the economic paradigm and learn a language, so that someone else will benefit from you. Even better, engage in a language-exchange at a place like iTalki, where you can do both at the same time. Work on your Yoruba or your Dutch, or Somali or Oromo, to connect with others.