“If I want to sell you something, we speak English. If you want to sell me something, dann sprechen wir Deutsch.” — Willy Brandt, German Chancellor
… The pros [of knowing at least one foreign language] are that working in a foreign language can [help] people make better decisions … and that bilingualism helps with executive function in children and dementia in older people…. The cons: one study finds that the earnings bonus for an American who learns a foreign language is just 2%. If you make $30,000 a year, sniffs Mr Dubner, that’s just $600.
But for the sake of provocation, Mr Dubner seems to have low-balled this. He should know the power of lifetime earnings and compound interest. 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.
Why do the languages offer such different returns? It has nothing to do with the inherent qualities of Spanish, of course. The obvious answer is the interplay of supply and demand. This chart reckons that Spanish-speakers account for a bit more of world GDP than German-speakers do. But an important factor is economic openness. Germany is a trade powerhouse, so its language will be more economically valuable for an outsider than the language of a relatively more closed economy.
But in American context (the one Mr Saiz studied), the more important factor is probably supply, not demand, of speakers of a given language. Non-Latino Americans might study Spanish because they hear and see so much of it spoken in their country. But that might be the best reason not to study the language, from a purely economic point of view. A non-native learner of Spanish will have a hard time competing with a fluent native bilingual for a job requiring both languages. Indeed, Mr Saiz found worse returns for Spanish study in states with a larger share of Hispanics. Better to learn a language in high demand, but short supply—one reason, no doubt, ambitious American parents are steering their children towards Mandarin. The drop-off in recent years in the American study of German might be another reason for young people to hit the Bücher.
Back to the salt mines, I go!