The Payoff For Language Learning.

An Economist piece had the following to say about the ROI for learning a foreign language:

“First, instead of $30,000, assume a university graduate, who in America is likelier to use a foreign language than someone without university. The average starting salary is almost $45,000. Imagine that our graduate saves her “language bonus”. Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe (a statement dubiously attributed to Einstein, but nonetheless worth committing to memory). Assuming just a 1% real salary increase per year and a 2% average real return over 40 years, a 2% language bonus turns into an extra $67,000 (at 2014 value) in your retirement account. Not bad for a few years of “où est la plume de ma tante?

Second, Albert Saiz, the MIT economist who calculated the 2% premium, found quite different premiums for different languages: just 1.5% for Spanish, 2.3% for French and 3.8% for German. This translates into big differences in the language account: your Spanish is worth $51,000, but French, $77,000, and German, $128,000. Humans are famously bad at weighting the future against the present, but if you dangled even a post-dated $128,000 cheque in front of the average 14-year-old, Goethe and Schiller would be hotter than Facebook”

As an aspiring polyglot with a passion for language learning, this is great news! I’ve got some groundwork laid in French, Spanish, German, and my Korean is pretty good, which I imagine will only become more valuable as time goes on.

It’d also be interesting to see the effects on earning potential of people who know languages which the modern economy has juxtaposed. For example, how competitive would a native English speaker be if they knew French and Mandarin to fluency? China has been investing heavily in Africa (I don’t know how much of it is in French-speaking countries, but it’s a reasonably safe assumption that some of it is), and a person could probably leverage those language skills for some pretty lucrative work with, say, hedge funds or multinationals doing work in that part of the world.

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