Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?

Monday, March 24th, 2014

Is learning a foreign language really worth it?

Dubner: Saiz is from Barcelona — Barthelona — and he’s an economist at MIT, where he teaches urban planning. On today’s show we’re asking about the return on investment of learning a foreign language and, wouldn’t you know it, Saiz has calculated exactly that. He tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages.He was surprised by what he found.

Saiz: Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.

Dubner: Now that’s not nothing. There are a lot of things you can do that won’t increase your earnings by even 2 percent. But still, that’s not a huge premium. And, I hate to tell this to our young Spanish speakers back at the Little Red School House in New York, but there is a rank order in terms of how different foreign languages translate into higher earnings.

Saiz: We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. So you know learning a second language is something that’s worth to do by itself, but as a financial decision, probably, if you’re focusing on financial returns, they’re relatively low, and you should focus on languages that are rarely spoken in the United States.


Dubner: So as Bryan Caplan sees it, learning a foreign language, especially in school, just may not be worth it. Unless — that foreign language is English. Remember what Albert Saiz told us? His study of college graduates found only a 2 percent wage premium for learning a foreign language. But those were American college graduates:

Saiz: I can tell you that there’s research in other countries. Actually the findings in the United States do contrast with what other people following the same methodology found in Turkey, in Russia and in Israel. In these three countries, actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent. So it’s really I think English speaking countries where that effect is relatively low. And again I think the explanation is very clear. English is the lingua franca.


  1. Toddy Cat says:

    Personally, I’d tend to doubt this, if only because every opinion Bryan Caplan has is wrong, except for his dislike of Communism; but of course, he’s also a pacifist, so the one negates the other.

  2. James James says:

    I can see how Spanish, French or German might not be very useful for Americans in America, which is a big continent where (almost) everyone speaks English. They’re a bit more useful in Europe.

  3. Maxx8864 says:

    Does this mean the English speaking world now has the problem of language privilege?

  4. Lodro Gyatso says:

    I would just like to point out that if you take that $600 p/a and invest it, thanks to the miraculous power of compounding, it actually adds up. If you invest $600 p/a for 40 years (the length of your working years) at a conservative rate of 3%, you’ll have $45,000 more than if you didn’t learn a language. And since the cost of learning a language in university is the same as the cost of, say, studying history, or economics, it is very clearly “worth it” to learn a language — especially higher-value languages such as German or Chinese.

  5. Lodro Gyatso says:

    I can see how Spanish, French or German might not be very useful for Americans in America, which is a big continent where (almost) everyone speaks English. They’re a bit more useful in Europe

    Actually, everyone in Europe doesn’t speak English. According to a survey conducted in 2012 by the European Commission (Europeans and their Languages), only 38% of Europeans over the age of 15 speak English at any level of proficiency. The number who speak well enough to handle the more complex demands on language entailed in trade is, expectedly much less; only 27% of Europeans who speak English use it for work.

    This is precisely the reason why foreign language skills are practical and profitable.

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