Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?
If you have to choose between love and money, where does your language motivation lie?

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.

Why are you learning languages?

Photo credit: Oengna via Hollywoodthing / CC BY-NC-SA


6 thoughts on “Languages won’t make you more money, so why do it?

  1. Rachel

    The only exception I can think of is that in Wales and Ireland, and to a lesser extent Scotland, there are some jobs that *require* proficiency in a second language, the national language, particularly public service jobs, and in others it’s considered a distinct advantage against other applicants. I can but assume the same is true in places like Canada, Belgium, and Switzerland.

    Of course, this is just a case of government beaurocrats pushing a language that’s useless elsewhere, as you recently pointed out, but I’ve been told even in Australia that putting my languages in the “other” section can encourage employers to choose me over other applicants. I’ve yet to see any evidence of it, though – I know exactly which part of my resume got me my current job, and it wasn’t the language!

    About the free stuff, though – given how geared the world seems to be to everyone learning English and no-one learning other languages, non-native-English speakers (particularly those with not-great English) get really excited when you speak their language! I still think it’s appalling that my white-as-north-west-European self offering a few basic phrases in Korean in an area with a huge Korean minority is remarkable enough to warren free food on every visit.

    I learn languages because I enjoy doing it, and everything that comes along with it. But on the other hand, there are certain jobs where speaking another language is not only helpful but might even be necessary for the job or getting it, particularly if you don’t mind relocating. There are the ever-present jobs in the public service, helping settle immigrants and so on, but I know a young couple who landed jobs teaching in the APY Lands (part of South Australia) after an interviewer saw that they’d taken an evening Pitjantjatjara course. At the shopping centre near where I grew up the other day, I saw a butcher advertising for help – “must speak English and Italian”.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Rachel

    Another thought – I’m not sure of the use of “prestige” languages (western European ones) in some sectors. In our final year of high school, my friends and I looked briefly into jobs with the EU, mostly because we all had relatives who were convinced that that was where our futures lay. Between us, we had a good ten or so languages, and all of us spoke English, German, and French. The verdict, however, was less encouraging – “Everyone speaks those languages,” one of my friends was told when she visited Brussels on a trip home to Belgium with her family. “We want people with skills in newer EU languages, like Croatian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Maltese…”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Becoming our betters selves through love and language – Loving Language

  4. Pingback: Polyglots needed as world gets smaller – Loving Language

  5. Pingback: Create habitats for endangered languages to thrive – Loving Language

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.