Posted on by Peter Rettig

What is a foreign language worth?

Economist Article A recent article in the Johnson:What is a foreign language worth? responded to a podcast on titled: "Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast".


We find the Podcast fascinating: It describes experiments relating the knowledge of a foreign language to its effect on risk taking and decision making; an analysis by an MIT professor about how much knowing a foreign language can boost future earnings. (Spoiler alert: For English speaking countries, it turns out, not much.)

But the non-economic benefits seem to trump the economic ones: Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, puts it most succinctly: 

“If people are going to get some basic career benefit out of it, or it enriches their personal life, then foreign language study is great. But if it’s a language that doesn’t really help their career, they’re not going to use it, and they’re not happy when they’re there, I really don’t see the point, it seems cruel to me."

The Economist

No surprise, The expands on the economic benefit, using lifetime earnings and compound interest.

The picture looks better especially, for German and French, and a cited study estimates that the lack of foreign language proficiency in Britain costs the British economy about $80 billion or 3.5% of GDP, each year.

Nevertheless even the Economist concludes that " isn’t hard to think of school subjects that provide less return—economically, anyway—than a foreign language. What is the return on investment for history, literature or art?

Of course schools are intended to do more than create little GDP-producing machines. (And there are also great non-economic benefits to learning a foreign language.)..."

The Take-Away

If you are an adult interested in learning or improving a foreign language, you are likely to have very specific needs or reasons: You have selected your language to help your career, enrich your personal life, communicate with a foreign friend or partner, prepare for a trip to a foreign country, etc.

While some of the research and findings are interesting and fascinating – let's not forget either the benefits for executive functions and memory – your need and reasons will be very personal and unique and so should be your choice of the language learning method/vehicle/system: books, CDs, online or classroom courses, personal tutor, an immersion course in the foreign country.

The choices are only limited by your pocket book, and the time and effort you are able/willing to commit. Because one thing is certain: You CAN learn to speak a second (foreign) language fluently - after all, you learned to speak your first one as well!