Is learning a foreign language worth it?

The prime reason I learned German in high school was because it was compulsory. The second reason was the opportunity to break down the communication barrier with over 80 million people. It was only after I travelled to Germany after high school that I realised hundreds of millions of foreign students learn English for the same reason. Ever since, I’ve wondered about the value of those years of German classes, other than boosting my high school marks. Obviously there are monetary benefits through better employment opportunities. However, there are also monetary opportunity costs – how much would one earn had they taken up chemistry instead, or simply spent the time working? Learning a language also presents a myriad of intangible and some perhaps unexpected benefits, and costs. So what is the overall value of learning a second language?
Part of what drove me to learn German in high school was the prospect of opening up an entire country’s worth of employment and living opportunities. For many, the chance to earn a better wage or secure a more exciting job is their key driver to learning a language. Around a third of all people learning English do so for professional reasons. Yet a recent MIT study claims that fluency in a foreign language only adds an average of 2-3% to one’s earnings. Different languages lead to different results, with Spanish increasing wages by 1.7%, French by 2.7% and German by 4%. The only language with a much higher premium, around 10%-20%, is English. So for someone earning $70,000 a year, learning German could mean an extra $2,800 a year. At an individual level this may not seem large, but on a macro scale the difference is billions of dollars. The UK reportedly loses £48 billion (A$86 billion) a year, or 3.5% of GDP, due to deficient foreign language skills. In a country as dependent on its foreign trade as Australia, the costs may be greater. An extra 3.5% increase in GDP would make any politician’s mouth water. Of course there is always an opportunity cost to expending time and effort on anything.
Assuming the average time to fluency for a language like German is close to 1,300 hours, there are a sizeable number of alternatives to learning a language. For instance, if one were to simply spend that time working, and working at a conservative casual minimum wage of $20.30 per hour, one could earn $26,300. That extra $2,800 a year now seems less valuable. If studying at school, one could also take another, possibly more profitable, subject. For instance taking an advanced mathematical subject with calculus in high school could lead to a 6.5% increase in one’s wages. So, if money is one’s goal, a second language (other than English) may not be the best option.
While the monetary aspects are important, they do ignore the many intangible benefits of a second language. The study that found 33% of people learning English were for professional reasons, that 33% of people learning Thai were doing so because they had (or were seeking) a partner who spoke it, and that most people learn French out of pure interest for the language.
A second language can also bring some extraordinary benefits, such as improving rational decision-making and even offsetting the risk of Alzheimer’s disease. Needless to say, valuing the benefits of a second language goes beyond a monetary function.
Unfortunately, there is no definitive answer as to whether learning a language is worthwhile. The monetary ROI to learning a second language is ostensibly much lower than I expected. However, the intangible factors may far outweigh the monetary ones. Like many decisions, learning a second language must be made on a case-by-case basis. One may prefer an hour of German over an hour of calculus today, but an extra 2.5% in pay could mean a lot tomorrow.
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