New language might not translate into career boost: experts

Significant investment in acquiring second language doesn’t guarantee career advantage

A 2005 report from a Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher found only a 2% gain in earning power for students with no non-English-speaking background who participated in second-language education programs | PR Image Factory/Shutterstock 

With Vancouver’s growing role as an international city – especially with the city’s ever-closer links to Asia – calls for native English speakers to learn a new language such as Mandarin Chinese to gain career or business opportunities have been increasingly prevalent locally.

But how much return on investment is an anglophone adult getting when he or she pursues a second language without any family or heritage links, solely for the purpose of career advancement? The answer, depending on whom you ask, may be disappointing.

“If you are 30 and you want to learn Mandarin to fluency, maybe you should join the NFL instead,” said Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. “Learning a language is difficult for adults.… You can put a year of your life into something and have a skill that’s still not anywhere near the professional level that will get you anywhere.”

While Canadian figures are scarce, Caplan said the average U.S. student puts in two years of study in foreign languages – not nearly enough to create a foundation for students to pursue fluency later in life.

“Two years yield essentially nothing,” he said, adding most adult students don’t have the commitment level to reach fluency. “There may be exceptions; it may be beneficial for police officers in L.A. to have some basic Spanish, for example. But generally, studying languages for economic gains is not a great bet.”

One of the few studies on the impact of a new language on an individual’s earning power was a 2005 report from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) researcher Albert Saiz, whose research on U.S. students graduating in 2002 showed only a 2% gain in earning power of monolingual students who participated in second-language education programs but had no cultural links or background in any other language.

The study also showed a disparity of earning power among languages in the United States. Spanish, for example, yielded only a 1.7% gain for non-Hispanic learners. French, meanwhile, yielded a gain of 2.7%. The most economically beneficial second languages, rated at an earning premium of 4%, were German and Asian languages such as Mandarin Chinese and Japanese.

In a recent interview, Saiz told Business in Vancouver that the earning-power gains related heavily to availability of bilingual labour in a certain market.

“Languages like German or Japanese come at a higher premium in the U.S. because there’s a higher possibility of getting a job using the language you are learning,” Saiz said. “With Spanish, it’s not going to be very hard for an employer in California to find a bilingual speaker.… And certainly, interest in Chinese has exploded since 2002, so it would be interesting to see updated numbers.”

Saiz also cautioned against focusing too heavily on the 2% figure, especially when compared with similar studies that put a year of general education at an earning-power gain of 6% to 9%.

“A 2% figure translates to roughly one-quarter of the impact of one year of additional general education, which is relatively low,” he said. “But that 2% number comes from a combination of a large number of people who don’t use the new languages at work and a select few who do use it while gaining a much larger premium than 2%. What we are measuring is the impact of learning a foreign language, not of using it. Many people learn without the intention of ever using it in a job.”

Olivier Clarinval, chairman of Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s department of language and cultures and a longtime language professor, said the Canadian situation is slightly different, since French is an official language of the country and heavily used in federal government bodies. Therefore, for French learners, there is a career incentive – since many federal jobs are simply unavailable to unilingual candidates. However, Clarinval added that he has seen an increasing number of students wanting to learn Mandarin Chinese to boost careers, though most of them are legacy students of Chinese heritage who would not have qualified for Saiz’s study.

“It’s true that many students hope to gain employment in a bilingual setting, and it is sometimes a naive goal that may be unrealistic,” Clarinval said. “That’s exactly why we don’t emphasize economics or career opportunities as goals for learning a language. The main motivator should be to expose yourself to a different culture, to understand the nature of language, including your own.”

He added that most language students drop out after the first year of studies, showing that a monetary motivation often wanes quickly.

“My main advice is to understand this is a long-term goal that requires a lot of work, and it almost has to involve travelling to or living in a country where the language is spoken, which is not an option for everyone,” Clarinval said, adding that an option growing in popularity is a cultural class that immerses students in a foreign culture without the language requirements.

“These courses are mostly taught in English, so that’s something that’s gaining a lot of popularity among students, because it doesn’t imply a commitment to language learning, but it has great value in intercultural terms. And these skills are going to become increasingly important – maybe even more so than learning a language. As technology advances, instantaneous translations will become more common … but that will not replace the value in having global citizenship skills as we become more globalized in our interactions.”

MIT’s Saiz agrees with the importance of sustainable motivations in language learning, noting that he himself studied Russian for a year before stopping.

“As English becomes the lingua franca of the world, it makes life easier for English-speaking countries like the United States and Canada,” he said. “We tend to think, ‘If other people want to communicate with us, we’ll let them switch to English.’ That definitely has a discouraging effect on language learning in North America.

“On the other hand, there are cognitive and consumption advantages to a second language. It makes you open-minded. There is research on the impact of learning a new language on delaying the onset of Alzheimer’s.… So you have to focus on intrinsic motivations. You have to motivate people with passion, curiosity and emotional fulfilment.”