Foreign Language as Life Insurance

Emergency exit sign on a dark background
Photo Credit © Thomas Humeau - Dreamstime.com
Written by Michael Froehls

Let’s assume your country goes downhill. I’m not talking about an economic recession or a party in power whose politics you don’t agree with. I am talking total economic collapse, a military junta, hard-core socialism, prosecution of religious or ethnic minorities, violence in the streets. Or maybe it’s the San Andreas Fault causing California to fall into the ocean and your only option is a new life Mexico.

History is full of events where people had to flee. Sometimes in haste, sometimes with a bit of planning. But what happens next? Unless you stashed away money in a Swiss bank account and it is still accessible, you will have to work to survive in your new environment. Speaking a foreign language can be your survival tool.

Foreign Language as Life Insurance

If you are from the Spanish-speaking parts of South America, you are good to go. Right now, over one million Venezuelans escaped their hell at home and are getting by in neighboring Columbia, or further south in Peru or Chile. Some are in Brazil, but unless they speak Portuguese, their opportunities are much more restricted there. And I would surmise that a country would be much more accepting if refugees who bear some kind of cultural or linguistic similarity to the host country.

If we view the mastery of a foreign language as a life insurance policy, two types of languages seem to be extremely useful for the potential refugee or emigre.

Most Spoken Languages

English, Spanish, and Mandarin. If everything fails, speaking one or more of these languages should be a good insurance policy. With English, you can get by in many countries. With Spanish, you are safe everywhere from the US to down thousands of miles in Patagonia; and there are Spain and the Philippines. Mandarin might be your access key to the safe harbor of China and all its satellite economies in Asia. Of course, this assumes that you are not too far away from any of the countries that speak these languages, or can get on a plane or ship to reach your destination. Keeping this issue in mind, an alternative strategy might be to learn the language of at least one of your neighboring countries.

Your Neighboring Country’s Language

As a US citizen, apart from Spanish, French might come in handy.  French-speaking Quebec might be your final refuge in case the coming border wall in the south prevents you from escaping to Mexico. In Colombia, mastery of Portuguese might be an additional safety valve, given that Brazil is huge, has well over 200 million inhabitants, a large economy, and still has lots of space left to settle. As a German, French would be my top choice, though Italian might be close second. Both are close culturally and neither harbors any wild resentments against a skilled refugee from Deutschland.

Needless to say, knowing the language of your neighboring country also offers potential career and financial benefits, and makes for more meaningful vacations in good times. Our focus here, however, was on dire times.


In the event that your country disintegrates or becomes hard to live in, speaking a foreign language might help you resettle in a new spot. You have a choice. You could learn one of the most-widely spoken languages as a bet of making it to one of the associated countries or regions; or you could learn the language of your neighbor country because of easier access. It is your strategic choice. Your choice may differ from my choice. Determinants would be personal preferences, assessment of risk and benefits, and a host of personal factors including passport, profession, and current location. 

© 2019 Michael Froehls – All Rights Reserved

Photo Credit © Thomas Humeau - Dreamstime.com


  • This really makes me think about all the times my mom told me learning Spanish as well was going to open more doors for me career wise. I never thought of it from this angle, but now that I will be applying for jobs internationally, I am so grateful to have this “insurance”. But it does put another question in my head, “Should I focus on perfecting my Spanish and polishing it up or should I learn another language as well?” Learning another language as an adult proves to be more challenging but something I’ve never let go of wanting to do is (learning French). Great article!

    • Great question. It might be a personal choice of whether to go deep or broad, but one way of thinking about it might be to ask “Is my Spanish already good enough to work in my field of expertise in Spain”? The European Union has a well-developed reference framework for language capabilities, from A1 to C2. Basically, B2 and above is supposed to be sufficient to study and work in a country. I would be more conservative and say C1 is needed for managerial jobs. You can easily test your level with some online tests from Instituto Cervantes, the global chain of Spanish government supported cultural and language institutes. In case of doubt, just sit in for such a test on the C1 level and see how it works out. Getting a C1 certificate might also be a great proof to submit when looking for jobs overseas.

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