Is it worth it? Do the financial benefits of learning a language other than English outweigh the costs? Previously, we looked at the various costs of such an endeavor. We easily figured out that mastering a new language can easily run into the thousands of dollars. Let’s now turn and look at the upside.
Types of Financial Benefits
As with many things in life, benefits are harder to quantify than costs. We can calculate the costs of going to college (e.g., tuition, books, room and board) fairly easily. Knowing the exact financial benefits of learning a foreign language is harder: How much of one’s future salary and salary increases are due to time in college? Would a cheaper or more expensive school—or not going to college at all—have made a difference in life earnings? We can only estimate based on case studies and common sense to come up with an assessment. Needless to say, benefits vary by person. One way to approach the issue is to look at scenarios in which mastery of a non-English language would come in handy. Here are a few such cases.
Study Abroad Soon
It might be obvious, but many never think about it. Conduct your Masters studies in a foreign country. While there are programs in English, more schools offer programs in two languages (e.g., English and the local language) or in the local language only. Masters programs in Europe or Latin America cost a fraction of what they do in the US. The immediate financial benefits are the cost difference of tuition, living costs, etc.
Benefits are even greater if you are from the US, the US dollar is strong, and the currency of the country you are going to study is weak. In addition, your new network might be global, as foreign schools usually have a higher percentage of foreigners than in the US. Since you are abroad already and getting a foreign degree, you are on your way to getting job offers abroad. If instead you want to return home, you can do that, too. Your foreign experience should distinguish you in the local job market (assuming you attended an accredited university with a good reputation.)
Take Your Career Global
Many European blue-chip companies offer trainee programs. These are one- or two-year rotational programs to bring on new talent. You work in different locations across Europe and get exposure to different corporate functions. A typical requirement for those programs is mastery of English plus proficiency in at least one, ideally two, additional languages. Makes sense, right? How can you work in Paris, then Madrid, or first in Berlin, then Lisbon, without speaking the relevant language?
Let’s assume you’re a great interior designer or urban planner in Paris. You’d love to serve the emerging middle class of one of the high-growth countries in Asia. You look at the growth rates of Vietnam and are in awe. You would love to transfer with your company to Saigon, or even start your own little shop over there. Unfortunately, speaking Vietnamese is highly recommended, if not required, to be successful there. Without at least basic foreign language skills you lose out. Asia will remain a dream for you, but nothing more. A few thousand Euros might have gotten you into a country where you might have made millions over decades to come.
Escape a Recession at Home
As I outlined in my award-winning book The Gift of Job Loss, countries’ economies don’t all move together. You might encounter a big recession in the US, such as that in 2009-2010, while Poland, Germany, or Chile are booming. Leaving visa requirements aside, you could arbitrage out the different business cycles by moving abroad. Instead of sitting frustrated in Chicago and waiting for the rebound, you spend some time abroad and apply for jobs there. If your Polish/German/Spanish/etc. is sufficient, any employer will take you seriously and be happy to interview you. As at home, there are no guarantees, but you at least have the option to escape a dire situation at home. In fact, I just came across a story on LinkedIn about a woman with a perfect college GPA who is unable to find a job in the US. She would love to look for opportunities abroad, but the limitation of speaking only English is holding her back.
Working for a Foreign Company at Home
Management literature is full of stories and theories about how companies staff their upper ranks. Despite all the talk about globalization, many companies still have a clear preference to advance in-country men and women to the upper ranks. For decades, it was well known that in order to make it in a Japanese company outside of Japan, or a French company outside of France, one better has the passport, or at least speak the language of the company’s home country. If you think about it, it makes sense. Each company has a certain culture, history, and value. Each company needs to communicate internally.
While many global companies now interact in English in memos, emails, and board presentations, not everyone masters English. It is always easier to talk in your home country’s language. Thus, even if there is no official company policy that prevents foreign language speakers from promotion, it makes sense that there is a bias toward speakers of the home office’s country. It’s not discrimination, but the result of making communication, trust building, and even contracting, easier and less risky.
As a result, even if you never leave Houston, Texas, but work for a foreign company, your professional opportunities, including promotions and higher salaries, increase if you speak the home country language of your company. Hard to quantify, but for sure positive.
There are several scenarios in which speaking a language other than English can yield handsome dollars and cents. Access to opportunities you wouldn’t have otherwise can benefit you for several decades. Let’s go back to the cost of learning a foreign language. Let’s assume it’s between 3,000 and 5,000 dollars or Euros. That’s a blip in the ocean against the lifelong financial benefits you could reap from this investment.
© 2019 Michael Froehls – All Rights Reserved
Photo Credit © Petra Roeder - Dreamstime.com