It’s no big surprise that, in general, foreign language skills in the U.S. are a rarity. English is one of the most dominant languages spoken globally, which helps to explain why many of us here can get by with only speaking English — even when we travel out of the country!
If we look at the numbers, only about one in four U.S. residents claim to know a second language. To put this number in perspective, the majority of the global population and around 56% of Europeans are multilingual.
In our increasingly global economy, foreign language skills can help to set you apart as a job applicant and unlock opportunities for a more lucrative career. They can also make for a much more enjoyable trip abroad, too! But of course, it requires an investment in resources — time, money, and brain power — to become proficient in a new language. There’s an opportunity cost involved.
THE BENEFITS OF BEING BILINGUAL
If you’re able to say that you are proficient in a second language, consider how you can leverage your skills to help achieve your career goals. If you’re in the market for a new gig, being part of the small group of multilingual Americans can help to position you as a stand-out job applicant. Of course, some career paths will value these skills more than others — but we can’t think of an industry where additional communication skills or cultural understanding is a bad thing!
Having an edge on the local competition is great, but foreign language skills can also broaden the geographic opportunities for your career. Whether you’re interested in moving abroad full-time, occasional business travel, or just dabbling in international affairs, many global companies need candidates who can conduct business across the globe.
Financial Benefits of Being Bilingual
Even for those who aren’t interested in travel or the glitter of international affairs, there is evidence to suggest that you might see a monetary return on your foreign language skills. The research of Albert Saiz, an MIT economist, found that proficiency in a foreign language is one factor that could help to increase your salary. The findings suggest a 2% salary increase for most people.
This might not sound like a significant bump, but if you consider compounding interest over time as your salary (hopefully) increases naturally — a small increase should not be disregarded.
There are also several factors at play that could affect the amount you see as a “return” on your skills. Certain industries, or even certain companies, might be more likely to reward you for these skills than others. And, there is further evidence to suggest that not all languages are created equally when it comes to your bottom line.
The study found a trend that suggests the more common the language, the less it might affect your salary. Languages that were deemed “more common” are those that most in the U.S. tend to be more familiar with, such as Spanish and French. And on the flip side, the languages that are less common, or less familiar to U.S. culture, such as Mandarin, Farsi, or even German, were responsible for a higher salary increase. These trends suggest that the more specialized your language skills are, the more valuable you are to certain employers who are looking for those exact skills.
The economic value of knowing certain languages can also be affected by linguistic trends in a particular geographic area. For example, Spanish language skills may not be as valuable, economically, as we might think in the U.S., especially in certain regions.
Proficiency, or at least familiarity, with the Spanish language is not particularly uncommon here, even among non-Latino Americans. Therefore, competition can be high among bilingual Spanish-speaking applicants. While there are certainly other benefits to speaking Spanish in the U.S., it is less likely to set you apart as a unique job candidate, or bump up your salary.
If you’re strictly motivated by financial return, it might be wise to talk with your current employer, or someone within your industry, to get a realistic sense of how valuable foreign language skills could be for your specific career goals before investing your time and money in learning a new language.
Brain & Cognition Benefits
Learning a foreign language might not be the secret to a spontaneous salary increase, but we’d like to think about it as part of a recipe for success. We like to think that being multilingual makes us generally smarter, more effective at our careers, and therefore deserving of a raise. There is also evidence to suggest that learning a foreign language can generally improve your cognitive performance.
One study suggests that speaking in a foreign language exercises our brain in such a way that ultimately makes us better decision makers.
There is also research to suggest that being multilingual helps with executive function in children, and improves the symptoms of dementia in older people.
Travel & Cultural Understanding
The ability to communicate in a different language is bound to open up travel opportunities — whether traveling for work or for leisure. Plus, lessening the language barrier is a great way to allow for a more immersive experience in another country or culture. A more global perspective, in turn, can also benefit you in your career as well as your everyday life.
From an economical perspective, speaking or at least understanding the local language could help you to save a little money when you’re abroad. You could use your skills to find a cheaper restaurant away from the main tourist areas, haggle the price of goods at a local market, or just ditch an English-speaking travel guide.
THE COSTS OF LEARNING A NEW LANGUAGE
Picking up a foreign tongue is an investment. And if you’re going to put forth your money, time, and brain power you should understand the cost-benefit analysis for your specific situation.
Costs can vary drastically depending on what type of course suits your learning style best, and which language(s) you’re interested in learning. There are a few different types of courses and price points to consider. When considering the different price points, keep what you know about your learning style top of mind.
There are self-directed programs like Rosetta Stone and PimSleur, where a basic program can average out around the $100 mark for a three-month subscription or 30 individual classes, and there are in-person or online classes that can be found at some community centers or university extension programs which tend to be upwards of $1,000 per semester. Plus, there are always free resources like books, mobile apps, and online communities which you can use on their own or in supplement to a more formal curriculum.
Have you considered picking up a second language? If so, were you motivated by career aspirations or the potential for financial gain? We want to hear what you think about the subject in the comments below!