The ROI of Foreign Language Learning

Return on investment pie and bar graphs being drawn on chalkboardThe Economist’s Prospero blog illuminated a subject that hits close to the heart of most language learners: how much is all this work worth in the long run?

Riffing on a Freakonomics podcast covering the same topic that came to the disappointing conclusion that language learning delivered only a 2% increase in income, The Economist came up with some better math. Their answer should serve as a catalyst, not only for people considering learning a new language or the people stewarding language-learning programs in schools, but for also people trying to figure out which language to learn.

First, that 2% return in annual salary is real. It might sound unimpressive in the short term, but if the student/prospective international executive saves that increase and compounds the interest, that boost could add up to another $150,000+ in their retirement account.

The language makes a difference

But what’s more interesting is that the rate of return on your language investment actually varies depending on the language you learn. Like anything economical, the figure is based on supply and demand. Of the two most popular languages for American students to learn currently, Spanish and Mandarin, one represents a huge pool of native speakers in the United States who will always be preferred over American-born learners of the language. You can guess which language that applies to.

German, however, is both economically important and in decline among American language learners. Only 14% of US high schools offer German as a language option.

As The Economist computed it, learning German over Spanish right now could net you an extra $75,000 over the course of your career.

The additional gains

What cannot be discounted are the ancillary benefits of language learning. It’s well known that studying another language helps people make better decisions. Bilingualism improves executive function in younger students and fends off dementia in older learners.

All of this is assumed under the current state of our educational language-learning system, which leaves a lot to be desired in terms of national competitiveness. If more investment is made in resources and teachers, broadening language-learning opportunities for more students, the proficiency of American students will increase that bottom line.

One British economist estimates that his country loses 3.5% of their GDP every year due to a lack of foreign language proficiency. When we begin talking about billions of dollars lost or gained, increased investment is a drop in the bucket.

There is no losing proposition here. Language learning helps brains, careers, and nations develop.

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