The benefits of learning a foreign language

Fewer than 18 percent of Americans report speaking a language other than English, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. He states, “That’s far short of Europe, where 53 percent of citizens speak more than one language. The United States may be the only nation in the world where it is possible to complete high school and college without any foreign language study.”

Many economists would argue that because of its poor return on investment, it’s just not worthwhile to learn a foreign language. Albert Saiz, an economist at the University of Pennsylvania, and Elena Zoido, an economist at the consulting group LECG, compared the salaries of American college graduates who spoke second languages and found that German, Italian, Russian and Chinese boosted income by about 4 percent, followed by French and Spanish, 2.7 and 1.7 percent respectively.

Throughout your career, this can accumulate to between $50,000 and $125,000. While that’s nothing to sneeze at, Saiz and Zoido found that “the effect of bilingualism on earnings is relatively small and compares unfavorably with recent estimates on the returns to one extra year of general schooling, 8 to 14 percent, which may help explain the current second-language investment decisions of monolingual English-speakers in the United States.”

Another reason many Americans feel it’s unnecessary to learn a second language is because so many people around the world speak English. If you’ve traveled abroad, you’ve probably had the experience of stopping someone to ask for directions, trying to speak their language, only to have them respond in impeccable English.

Learning a second language also requires a substantial commitment of time. According to the Foreign Service Institute, 600 classroom hours are required to learn languages like Spanish and French; this number jumps to 2,200 hours for Mandarin and Japanese. When considering opportunity costs, you have to ask yourself if those 2,200 hours would be better spent doing something else that may offer a better return. For many, learning a second language doesn’t seem worth it.

But there’s more to this argument than these numbers might suggest. Saiz and Zoido’s study also found a “wage premia associated with the knowledge of a second language, whether individuals actually use the second language on the job or not.” Evidence suggests that “individuals who speak a second language are more productive and earn higher wages.” This may be because “learning a second language may help develop cognitive and communicative abilities” which provide an advantage in any career field.

For parents who are uncertain about whether to encourage their children to pursue a second language, the study also states that “SAT math and verbal scores increase with each additional year of foreign language study … and students who completed a foreign language course in high school tended to have higher scores on the ACT exams in English and math.”

According to the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, a 2007 study in Massachusetts showed that students who studied a foreign language “outperformed their non-foreign language learning peers on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) test after two to three years and significantly outperformed them after seven to eight years on all MCAS subtests.”

The research also found that “children who study a foreign language, even when this second language study takes time away from the study of mathematics, outperform students who do not study a foreign language and have more mathematical instruction during the school day.” Learning a second language “is an exercise in cognitive problem solving” and is “directly transferable to the area of mathematical skill development.” What’s more, speaking and writing in a second language requires learning multiple ways to express an idea, which in turn improves people’s ability to communicate more effectively in their native language.

Challenging the brain to memorize and negotiate the meaning of new words, symbols and rules strengthens “mental muscles.” Perception also increases as the brain learns to focus on important information, while excluding what’s irrelevant. According to a recent study in the journal “Neurology” written by Dr. Thomas Bak, being bilingual is an “effective type of mental training” that keeps the brain “nimble” and may delay the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s by up to six years.

The incentives to learn a second language are compelling. Chris Thomas, manager of GE’s Commercial Leadership Program, says that job applicants who speak more than one language “are attractive and more marketable. There’s a growing need to understand and relate to customers and partners in a language that they are comfortable speaking.”

Scott Isenhart, manager of Procter & Gamble’s North America Talent Supply, states that a number of their jobs in Europe, Latin America, Asia and the U.S. require a foreign language, which gives bilingual applicants a huge advantage.

According to the Kiplinger Report, “Demand for linguists is soaring as technology sweeps up more data from the Internet, telephones, etc. The shortage is hampering intelligence gathering and crime prosecution. Arabic, Persian-Farsi, Chinese, Korean, Russian, Pashto and Uzbek speakers are scarcest.”

Hospitals, courts, schools, Fortune 500 companies and the State Department are all actively recruiting employees with language skills. The Department of Labor estimates a 42 percent increase in jobs for interpreters and translators over the next ten years. A few hundred jobs are posted on Simplyhired.com for positions in Alaska in which bilingualism is preferred or required. Nationwide, this number jumps to about 12,000.

When a country has an excellent economy, despite having limited natural resources, they tend to be very open to learning about their export markets and their citizens tend to speak two or three languages. A recent column in The Economist states: “A list of the richest countries in the world is dominated by open, trade-driven economies. Oil economies aside, the top 10 includes countries where trilingualism is typical, like Luxembourg, Switzerland and Singapore, and small countries like the Scandinavian ones. There are of course many reasons that such countries are rich. But a willingness to learn about export markets, and their languages, is a plausible candidate.”

The United Kingdom has been analyzing the negative effects that their lack of foreign language ability is having on their economy. A 2013 British Chambers of Commerce study found “a substantial negative effect on exports that must be attributed to language complacency.” More than 60 percent of companies who want to export don’t do so because of language barriers. Another study estimated that “language complacency” costs the British economy about $80 billion a year. I was unable to find a similar study for the United States.

The British are coming to terms with the idea that they can no longer expect everyone else to learn English if they hope to remain competitive. About 350 million people in the world speak English as their first language. But it’s worth noting that more than 950 million speak Mandarin, 400 million speak Spanish and 300 million speak Hindi. It may be time for Americans to consider the importance of learning the language and cultures of others as well.

Melissa Brown is an associate professor of Applied Business at the University of Alaska Fairbanks Community and Technical College. She can be reached at mcbrown@alaska.edu. This column is provided as a public service of the UAF Applied Business Department.

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