Last spring, Freakonomics did a podcast, “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?“
The answer? From an economic standpoint, no. Higher earnings is not an outcome of language study, according to all the data provided for the above reporting.
In response, The Economist published this article: “Language Study: Johnson: What is a foreign language worth?” which attempted to set the record straight by making the case for bilingualism–both by illustrating how much more you can really earn with a second language and how trilingualism being the norm is associated with wealthy nations (also cited: a study that showed the cost to the British economy of monolingualism at $80 billion a year).
One question I still have: what are the benefits to bilingualism beyond dollar earnings? Maybe you won’t earn more than your monolingual peers, but will you get more interviews, more job offers, and more opportunities to advance in your career?
If you can get a job because of your multilingualism, isn’t any earnings better than none?
Here’s just one completely anecdotal account from a student I taught a few years back in a Spanish for the Professions program at UNC-Chapel Hill:
[I] wanted to let you know that I’ve been putting my Spanish skills to the test over the past several days at a bilingual and binational conference on infectious disease along the US-Mexico border. I was able to successfully understand and participate in talks given in Spanish regarding binational disease surveillance efforts, dengue fever, and migrant health issues, among other topics. I was also able to act as a scribe during a bilingual breakout session and network with public health officials from Chihuahua, Sonora, and Tamaulipas.
Look at all the advantages he has over his monolingual English-speaking peers: he can understand everything at the conference (not just half of what is said), he can engage in conversation with everyone there (not just half the people), he set himself apart by acting as a scribe during a breakout session, and, perhaps most important, he had the skills he needs to network with public health officials from 3 Mexican states along the U.S.-Mexico border. That’s 3 important people in his rolodex that monolingual English-speakers don’t have access to.
This former student has positioned himself well as a candidate for medical school, something many candidates apply to year after year hoping each time that they’ll finally have the application that gets them admitted.
So here’s the question about the value of multilingualism in the context of medical school: isn’t it better to get accepted so you can get through and start earning than it is to have to work odd jobs each year so you can apply again with the hope of starting down that path?
The bottom line is: it’s not just about economic advantage and increased earnings; it’s also about access to opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise have.
Darcy Lear is a career coach specializing in job search documents, professional school applications, and interview preparation. For one-on-one support in preparing for your job search or to set up a campus workshop, contact Darcy: firstname.lastname@example.org