Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It? A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: SuperFantastic)

(Photo: SuperFantastic)

Our latest podcast is called “Is Learning a Foreign Language Really Worth It?” (You can subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or listen via the media player above. You can also read the transcript, which includes credits for the music you’ll hear in the episode.) We produced the episode in response to a question from a listener named Doug Ahmann, who wrote in to say:

I’m very curious how it came to be that teaching students a foreign language has reached the status it has in the U.S. … My oldest daughter is a college freshman, and not only have I paid for her to study Spanish for the last four or more years — they even do it in grade school now! — but her college is requiring her to study EVEN MORE!

What on earth is going on? How did it ever get this far?

In a day and age where schools at every level are complaining about limited resources, why on earth do we continue to force these kids to study a foreign language that few will ever use, and virtually all do not retain?

Or to put it in economics terms, where is the ROI?

Great question, Doug! We do our best to provide some answers.

In the episode you’ll hear from Albert Saiz, an MIT economist who specializes in immigration. In a paper called “Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States”(abstract; PDF*), Saiz calculated how much learning a foreign language can boost future earnings.

Learning a language is of course not just about making money — and you’ll hear about the other benefits. Research shows that being bilingual improves executive function and memory in kids, and may stall the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.

And as we learn from Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, thinking in a foreign language can affect decision-making, too — for better or worse.

Bryan Caplan, an economist at George Mason University, talks about how much time the average U.S. student spends learning a language, and how well that learning is retained. (Spoiler alert: not very well!) Caplan also tells us what he really thinks about foreign language education in the U.S.:

CAPLAN: 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.

Perhaps most important, Caplan points to the opportunity cost of language study:

CAPLAN: There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language.

Finally: a big thanks to the fourth- and eighth-grade Spanish and Mandarin students at LREI (Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School) in Manhattan, and to their teachers and principal, for letting us listen in on a lesson. Or, shall we say: muchas gracias and xie xie.


*Review of Economics and Statistics 87, no. 3 (August 2005), pp. 523-538; published by MIT Press Journals. © 2005 President and Fellows of Harvard College and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Audio Transcript

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “Shimmy Go Go” (from The Jaguars)]

 

Stephen J. Dubner: Hey podcast listeners. You’re about to hear an episode about the ROI, or return on investment, of studying a foreign language. Which might lead you to think — huh, what’s the ROI on listening to Freakonomics Radio? Well, if it’s anything above zero, then we hope you’ll consider making a contribution to keep this public-radio podcast free and easy. Just go to Freakonomics.com and click on donate. Merci beaucoup… Toda raba… and ank-thay-ou-yay-ery-vay-uch-may!

 

[MUSIC: Grupo Tlacotalpan, “Siquisiri” (from Son Jarocho De Tlacotalpan)]

 

DUBNER: The average American student will study a foreign language for two or three years. Little Red School House is a well-regarded private school in Manhattan with a progressive style. Here, kids start with a second language in pre-kindergarten and go all the way through graduation.

 

SPANISH TEACHER: Ok, we are at Little Red Elisabeth Irwin and we are going to be in a classroom of 4th grade Spanish learners.

 

SPANISH TEACHER: Escuchan y repetan: Un genero.

SPANISH STUDENTS: Un genero.

SPANISH TEACHER: Excellente.

 

DUBNER: Kids at Little Red start out studying Spanish…

 

SPANISH STUDENT: Quien es un autor que te gusta mucho?

 

DUBNER: And as they get older they can either stick with Spanish or take Mandarin or French. How are they doing so far?

 

FOURTH GRADE STUDENT: Compared to like a normal Spanish speaking person in Peru, I’d say we are pretty bad, but like, for a person in 4th grade who is learning Spanish, I can say we are pretty good.

 

DUBNER: They are good! And they have big dreams about what learning a foreign language will help them accomplish.

 

FOURTH GRADER: If you have like a big business deal with someone and they don’t speak English then you could make, like, a lot of money.

 

FOURTH GRADER: I think I might want to work at a pastry shop or a bakery and maybe there will be Chinese or French people, so I could talk to them, like, “make another bread roll,” or something like that in a different language.

 

FOURTH GRADER: I might work at a store because then people who speak other languages might ask you questions.

 

FOURTH GRADER: So, I’m going to be a world-traveling architect, or I might be a scientist, or I might be a mechanic, or I might be a person who invents a car and gets millions of dollars.

 

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “Taco Taco” (from The Jaguars)]

 

DUBNER: On today’s show we’re asking: What is the value of learning a second language? It started with an e-mail from a listener named Doug Ahmann. He wrote to say:

 

I’m very curious how it came to be that teaching students a foreign language has reached the status it has in the U.S. … My oldest daughter is a college freshman, and not only have I paid for her to study Spanish for the last 4 or more years — they even do it in grade school now! — but her college is requiring her to study EVEN MORE!

 

What on earth is going on? How did it ever get this far?

 

In a day and age where schools at every level are complaining about limited resources, why on earth do we continue to force these kids to study a foreign language that few will ever use, and virtually all do not retain?

 

Or to put it in economics terms, where is the ROI?

 

DUBNER: Okay, we’ll bite: hey kid, what is the ROI on learning a foreign language?

 

FOURTH GRADER: If you learn, like, Spanish for example in this school maybe 20  years later you could become a billionaire in another country… but… very rare.

 

[THEME]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO, the podcast that explores the hidden side of everything. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Pearl Django, “Eleventh Hour” (from Eleven)]

 

DUBNER: On today’s show, we’re talking about learning a foreign language, like Mandarin:

 

EIGHTH GRADE STUDENT: When I asked him (speaking in Mandarin) I was asking him how old he is. So when he said (speaking in Mandarin) he’s saying, “I’m 14.”

 

DUBNER: Why do we do this, teach our kids a second language? The answer might seem obvious – like all education, it stretches your brain on any number of dimensions. But let’s try to quantify it a bit more than that. We’ll start with Boaz Keysar. He’s a psychology professor at the University of Chicago; his speciality is communication.

 

Boaz KEYSAR: Really, studying communication is entirely autobiographical because I realize that I am different when I’m using almost any language other than Hebrew.

 

DUBNER: Keysar is from Israel. His particular interest in communication has to do with how our decision-making is affected when we operate in a foreign language.

 

KEYSAR: Things like making investments. I’m much more likely to invest in the stock market when I do it in English. If I think about it in Hebrew I feel that I become more conservative.

 

DUBNER: So that’s surprising. But maybe, he thought, it was just him. So he ran an experiment with University of Chicago students, a little game with money.

 

KEYSAR: So, you imagine I give you $20.

 

DUBNER: Here’s the way Keysar’s game works. If he gives you $20, you’ll play a game with 20 rounds, a dollar a round. In each round, you can either keep the dollar, just put it in your pocket, or put the dollar on the table and flip a coin. If it’s tails, you lose the dollar. But if it’s heads, you get $2.50 — meaning you get your original dollar back and you win a dollar a half.

 

KEYSAR: So you don’t need to know a lot of math to realize that the expected value is positive, in other words, that on average you’re better off with the bet than with pocketing the dollar.

 

DUBNER: Now what does have to do with a foreign language?

 

KEYSAR: We were interested to see what happened when you make this decision when you are using a foreign language.

 

DUBNER: So the researchers had some students play in English. And others students play in a foreign language, Spanish.

 

KEYSAR: And it turns out, indeed, people were like almost 20 percentage points more willing to take bets. They were significantly more willing to take the risk in a foreign language.

 

[MUSIC: Ruby Velle & The Soulphonics, “It’s About Time” (from It’s About Time)]

 

DUBNER: That isn’t at all the result that he was expecting.

 

KEYSAR: I was actually stunned that it happened because it’s really the same person. All that person does is use Spanish now. And it’s the same dollar, it’s the same person, and it’s just randomly the case that you’re doing it in Spanish.

 

DUBNER: Now, it could just be that people didn’t understand as well in a second language – that this was more a comprehension issue than a risk issue. But Keysar, at least, was persuaded that he was onto something…

 

KEYSAR: Because of that we started thinking that maybe it’s an even stronger and more pervasive phenomenon than we even think, and not just about risk. And indeed we find that there’s all sorts of systematic differences that exist when you’re using a foreign language.

 

DUBNER: For instance?

 

KEYSAR: Like when we asked people to think about moral dilemmas. So would you sacrifice one person to save five.

 

DUBNER: You’ve heard this kind of dilemma before, right? A bus driver, let’s say, is going to run over five people and kill them – so do you go ahead and kill the driver before he can kill the other five? Now, normally, people are reluctant to say yes. But if you ask them in a foreign language…

 

KEYSAR: …we found that people are twice as likely to do that, to actually go for the utilitarian option to sacrifice one person to save five. Now, we didn’t do this for real. But I used hypothetical scenarios. But still, they said yes, I will do that.

 

DUBNER: So why might this happen?

 

KEYSAR: Now, the reason this could be interesting is that we know that the foreign language is much less emotional. It gives you less emotional resonance when you use it. The same word, love and amour, even though you know exactly the meaning, and when the meaning is identical. You still, if you’re a native English speaker you get a lot more out of love. And that’s been demonstrated in all sorts of ways. There are also physiological reactions, so you can show that people’s arousal is higher when they use their native tongue when these kind of emotional related words are used.

 

DUBNER: And so, Keysar says, when people think in a foreign language…

KEYSAR: They’re more reflective about their choices. They’re more likely to engage in cost-benefit analysis, in a way, and less likely to be swayed by all sorts of emotional reactions that they might have in general.

 

[MUSIC: Sonogram, “Brakhage by Seashore” (from Pixels)]

 

DUBNER: From Keysar’s point of view, this isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing – and in fact, his experimental examples aren’t very consistent, at least it strikes me that way. In one instance, the foreign language seems to increase your appetite for risk; in another, it makes you “more reflective.” But what matters is that the language always seems to affect something in the way you think, or process information, or make a decision. And that, really, is the point of the argument in favor of teaching a foreign language to kids. Learning a second language changes the brain! Now, the evidence for this is pretty compelling. Bilingual kids have been shown to have better memory and executive function. There’s some evidence that being bilingual stalls the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And there are other, more utilitarian pluses, as the fourth-graders at Little Red School House reminded us:

 

FOURTH GRADER: Well, I think a good thing that comes from learning a foreign language is that you can speak to more people. You know how to speak to other people if they don’t know how to speak your language you just go right into their language.

 

FOURTH GRADER: And also it sort of just makes you smarter to know all these different languages and it helps your education.

 

DUBNER: Okay, so that’s all good stuff. But, coming up on Freakonomics Radio – what about the opportunity cost of all that time spent learning a second language?

 

CAPLAN: There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language.

 

[UNDERWRITING]

 

ANNOUNCER: From WNYC: This is FREAKONOMICS RADIO. Here’s your host, Stephen Dubner.

 

[MUSIC: Heavy G and the Boogaloo Communicators, “Ms. Persuasive”]

 

DUBNER: I’d like you to meet Albert Sigh-eeze… Sayz… Sah-ez?

 

Albert SAIZ: I’ve been called almost everything so I don’t mind it.

 

DUBNER: Sorry, Albert Saiz.

 

SAIZ: It’s a Spanish name, and it’s pronounced scythe, exactly like the agricultural tool you use to mow the grass.

 

DUBNER: But it’s spelled S-A-I-Z.

 

SAIZ: S-A-I-Z, yeah, and again I get all types of mispronunciations, so I’m used to whatever you say.

 

DUBNER: Saiz is from Barcelona – Barthelona – and he’s an economist at MIT, where he teaches urban planning. On today’s show we’re asking about the return on investment of learning a foreign language and, wouldn’t you know it, Saiz has calculated exactly that. He tracked about 9,000 college graduates to see how a foreign language affected their wages.He was surprised by what he found.

 

SAIZ: Yeah, unfortunately, and I have to say, of course, because I try to speak three, I was pretty disappointed, and actually we found a very, very small return. What we did find is that after controlling for a host of characteristics, and using, a lot of experimental research designs that are basically trying to compare people who are identical for everything except for the second language, we did tend to find a premium in the labor market of about 2 percent of wages. In other words, if you speak a second language, you can expect to earn, on average, and that’s across many, many different people, on average you can be expected to earn about 2 percent higher wages. To contextualize this, think about your income or your wage being about $30,000, then you would expect to earn about $600 more per year.

 

[MUSIC: Matthew Aguiluz, “Organism”]

 

DUBNER: Now that’s not nothing. There are a lot of things you can do that won’t increase your earnings by even 2 percent. But still, that’s not a huge premium. And, I hate to tell this to our young Spanish speakers back at the Little Red School House in New York…

 

[Little Red student speaking Spanish]

 

DUBNER: … but there is a rank order in terms of how different foreign languages translate into higher earnings:

 

SAIZ: We know that the lowest return is Spanish, where you get about 1.5 percent, and then French 2.7 percent, and then German 4 percent. So you know learning a second language is something that’s worth to do by itself, but as a financial decision, probably, if you’re focusing on financial returns, they’re relatively low, and you should focus on languages that are rarely spoken in the United States.

 

[Little Red students speaking Mandarin]

 

DUBNER: Okay, so the financial returns to learning a foreign language are not so large. Which leads some economists to think that it’s mostly a waste of time.

 

Bryan CAPLAN: It makes me think that people are spending three years of their lives to acquire very few skills.

 

DUBNER: This is Bryan Caplan, at George Mason University.

 

CAPLAN: All of this study seems to totally fail to teach people how to fluently speak foreign languages. So we can actually see in the data is that under 1 percent of Americans have learned to speak a foreign language very well in school. And this is very well according to them. And since people tend to exaggerate how good they are at things. If under 1 percent claim that they learned to speak a foreign language very well in school, then God knows how many actually did.

 

DUBNER: Caplan says about a quarter of Americans say they speak a language other than English. And the people who say they speak it well tended to learn it at home, not at school. And all that school instruction does not come cheap – in money or time.

 

CAPLAN: It’s pretty close to about one sixth of the time that students are spending in high school assuming that they start the foreign language in high school. So maybe if you average over junior high and high school then you might be spending a total of about a 12th of your time. So I think a pretty reasonable first pass is to say that the cost of a foreign language study in U.S. schools is about a twelfth of the cost of junior high and high school. And when you multiply that by the total amount of spending, that is a lot. And remember there is something else that students could be learning at that time. There are so many kids who remain barely literate, and numerate in their own language. And that’s something where yes it’s true, it would probably not dramatically change their ability to read and write just to go and take the time on foreign language and putting it into that. But that’s a skill that actually really does pay in the world, so it’s really worth thinking about doing that.

 

[MUSIC: Das Vibenbass, “The Beast” (from Animals & Robots)]

 

DUBNER: So as Bryan Caplan sees it, learning a foreign language, especially in school, just may not be worth it. Unless – that foreign language is English. Remember what Albert Saiz told us? His study of college graduates found only a 2 percent wage premium for learning a foreign language. But those were American college graduates:

 

SAIZ: I can tell you that there’s research in other countries. Actually the findings in the United States do contrast with what other people following the same methodology found in Turkey, in Russia and in Israel. In these three countries, actually speaking English, which would be the second language, was associated with a substantial return of around 10 to 20 percent. So it’s really I think English speaking countries where that effect is relatively low. And again I think the explanation is very clear. English is the lingua franca.

 

DUBNER: Even Bryan Caplan, our language skeptic, is not so surprised by the English-language premium:

 

CAPLAN: Right, the incentive of real life is a very strong one. If you want to understand why so many people on earth learn English, it is because there are a lot of jobs on Earth that you can get because you learn English. And it also opens a lot of doors. It opens doors for you in terms of things that you can read, movies that you can watch, people that you can talk to, you know tourism, all of these things, these are all doors that are opened by English. Once when I was in Guatemala I was actually asking them how much does English improve your life here, being able to speak English improve your lives here, and all the Guatemalans that I talked to could, of course, speak very good English. And it’s night and day. Really the doorway into the international world if you can speak English here.

 

DUBNER: And by the way, Bryan Caplan, for all that he sounds like a language skeptic, or at least a language utilitarian, in real life, he’s a language romantic. He was in college. He fell in love with German – the literature…

 

CAPLAN: I can read Nietzsche in German…

 

DUBNER: The cuisine…

 

CAPLAN: [GERMAN WORD] which is kind of a fancy sundae. It’s really good.

 

DUBNER: German music…

 

CAPLAN: My favorite composer is Richard Wagner, of course.

 

[MUSIC: Lilo Brockhaus, “Wagner: Die Walküre” (from Wagner: Overtures & Preludes)]

 

DUBNER: But still… the economist in him trumps the romantic.

 

CAPLAN: But again, for me it fits the basic story of: if people either are going to get some big 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 help their career, they’re not going to use it, and they’re not happy when they’re there, I really do not see the point, it seems cruel to me.

 

[MUSIC: The Jaguars, “Taco Taco” from (The Jaguars)]

 

DUBNER: For what it’s worth: we get e-mails all the time from listeners in foreign countries who tell us that they listen to Freakonomics Radio in order to learn English. So,  have two things to say to you people. One, good luck with that! And two… you’re welcome.

 

FOURTH GRADERS: Adios amigos… Adios!

 

CREDITS

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  1. Steve says:

    As a student, I wondered this same question. As a teacher now, I see a lot of merit to studying languages; albeit it’s a lot easier to say that on this side of the fence. Aside from building a sense of cultural appreciation for others, understanding a second language allows people to think differently about the mechanics of their native language.

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    • NPW says:

      Very few things don’t have merit to learning, but what about in terms of opportunity cost? When I went back to college for a second undergrad I scratched one of my local state schools off the list because it required three semesters of a language I didn’t need.

      I needed to learn languages of my choosing, specifically; mathematics, Python, C, and VHDL. If time was an infinite resource learning French/German/Spanish/other would be great; but time is the only resource we can’t generate.

      The question isn’t if learning is a good thing, it’s if a second language is on the balance worth what we have to sacrifice.

      Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 18 Thumb down 4
  2. Quentin Langley says:

    The second half of the program hits a methodological problem.

    If, as research cited in the first part of the program suggests, learning a foreign language improves cognitive skills, then your 2% return figure falls flat. You are comparing people with otherwise similar cognitive skills as measured by grades in college, but those who speak a foreign language would have had lower scores without the cognitive boost – in other words, they are earning 2% more than people who are naturally smarter than they are.

    The evidence that it boosts cognitive skills also destroys any calculation of opportunity cost. This is ameliorated – and may be entirely wiped out – by the cognitive boost. For example, Caplan suggests you might get a better return having people focus on literacy skills in their first language. Possibly. But taking away the time spent on a foreign language, even if replaced with study of the first language, might not increase understanding of the first language. The inability to see things such as grammar in the wider context might reduce understanding of your first language. Speaking for myself, I didn’t really understand English grammar until I studied Latin.

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    • caleb b says:

      Agreed. Four years of Latin and I can’t remember much of any of it. My English writing skills improved immensely. The vocab learning alone made it worth it for me. Too bad my entire city now only has two school that even offer Latin.

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      • Tom says:

        You didn’t need the Latin. I can teach English speakers Greek and Latin roots and improve spelling and grammar without teaching a whole second language.

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    • Mina Wikant says:

      As a non native English speaker, I have experienced very much the same thing. As I learnt English, my understanding of Norwegian became much better, because I was able to see the similarities and differences in both words and sentence structure. When I started learning Spanish in school, it helped me understand more of both English and Norwegian. Knowing more than one language, even if not fluently, can improve the understanding of the native language, especially the nuances of meanings of words and the ability to reflect on the origin of words and expressions.

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  3. Norman Weersing says:

    I studied French for 2 yrs in high school and 1 term in college, before heading off to Viet Nam. I had wanted to learn German instead, but available courses eluded me by appearing in the same time slots as Math courses I needed. I figured then that I would never have much use for French. I thought wrong. It helped me get a better assignment in SaiGon and was key to meeting the young woman who became my wife. Over the years it has opened my mind to alternative ways of thinking about the world, life and work.

    It is misleading to inform children that we adults know what academic subjects will be useful in the world of work, or not. Most of the careers I’ve followed over the past 30 years did not even exist when I was in high school. Why should we presume to know what will be available to today’s child in 20 years?

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  4. Anita says:

    As a graduate student teaching assistant in a foreign language department, the language director of our program told us very bluntly why universities continue to require two years of a foreign language: we, the foreign language instructors, bear the burden of teaching college students the English grammar and writing skills they SHOULD have learned in high school but no longer do. You cannot gain a degree of proficiency in a foreign language without having a firm grasp of grammar and writing in your native language. In my own teaching, I spent as much time during the first semester teaching students the fundamentals of English grammar as I did teaching them the target language. I would imagine that something similar may be true of language instruction at the high school level: much of the work of instilling basic competency in the native language may actually be gained in the foreign language classroom, not the English classroom, where creativity and personal expression seem to trump the grittier, less glamorous work of learning grammar and basic rhetorical skills.

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    • Anita says:

      I’ll correct my own grammar: the first sentence should read, “When I was a graduate student teaching assistant … “

      Thumb up 6 Thumb down 2
    • James says:

      “You cannot gain a degree of proficiency in a foreign language without having a firm grasp of grammar and writing in your native language. ”

      I have to disagree with that. If you are raised in a bilingual environment, it’s possible to be fluent but ungrammatical speaker, and illiterate in both languages. I’ve certainly run across a number of young people who are fluent in both street English and Spanish, and whose literacy apparently begins and ends with tagging.

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      • emw says:

        Neurolinguistic research shows that native bilinguals don’t have a second language–both languages are handled by the brain as a native language in bilinguals. In order for them to develop a true “second” language, they have to learn a third language later in life. Only then will they see similar benefits in their first langauges.

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      • James says:

        That’s interesting, but not quite relevant to the point I was trying to make. Say instead you’re a immigrant farm worker who picks up English on the job, or an English speaker who picks up Spanish from his fellow workers (as in fact I was). It’s perfectly possible to become reasonably fluent in both languages, while speaking them in an uneducated manner, and possibly not being literate in either.

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      • Phil Persinger says:

        James–

        I think your comments are entirely correct as far as they go, but they bring up another issue– standardization of language– which lies at the bottom of many a murky cultural deep.

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    • Judith Ronat says:

      I learned English (my native language) grammar from learning Latin in high school. I never would have known when to use the subjunctive, had I not learned Latin.
      And what little Greek I know helps me not make the common mistake of thinking that words like phenomena are singular.

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  5. Alex BB says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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  6. Eric M. Jones says:

    C++

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  7. Suzanne says:

    Full disclosure from the top: I am an adjunct professor of Spanish and Portuguese, so I went into the podcast with some bias. I believe the bit about very little salary discrepancy between employees who speak more than one language and the ones who don’t. But I think a more interesting question would be: how many bilingual people beat out monolingual candidates for jobs in the first place? Also, there are myriad intangible benefits to knowing more than one language. I’ve never met a multilingual person who regretted learning or knowing more than one language. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about how speaking foreign languages can enrich a life, and the result is here: http://www.amazon.com/Say-Name-Your-Way-Multilingual-ebook/dp/B00BIV148M/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1394119590&sr=8-1&keywords=say+my+name+your+way

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  8. Ana says:

    ¡Adiós amigos! I’m a spanish speaker who happens to have know some English (most of it on my own). This program was awesome. In Latin America we have been told several times that English will make us have a better job.

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    • Enter your name... says:

      Learning English probably makes a big difference to people Central and South America. But if your sole language is English, then learning a second doesn’t increase your job prospects that much.

      Thumb up 5 Thumb down 6