Foreign Languages – worth the Investment?

In Germany, this question never really presented itself. First of all, learning a foreign language is compulsory. Secondly, there is a visible demand for such skills from employers and required even when applying for many apprenticeship places.

With English being the language of business and travel, how important is it for native English speakers to become fluent in another language? What are the benefits and are there some languages that are more ‘valuable’ than others?

Foreign Languages in Germany

In 2012, the Federal Institute for Vocational Education & Training (Bundesinstitut für Berufsbildung – BIBB)) carried out a study with 20,000 employees. Overall, 17.9% stated that their job demands expertise in a foreign language, with another 39.6% stating that they need a basic knowledge.

The higher skilled and educated an employee, the more likely is the requirement for foreign language skills. 68.8% of graduates of science, chemistry or physics are expected to have foreign language competency and in core IT jobs, the majority (63.2%) have to be able to communicate effectively in a foreign tongue.

English is the language most in demand by German companies and used by around 86.7% of all employees with a foreign language requirement.

The German school system caters for this demand, with English being the first foreign language most students learn. Before reunification in 1990, Russian was the first foreign language in east German states. French has been the second foreign language for many students, but Spanish and Italian are growing in popularity. And dependent on border regions, schools also teach Dutch, Danish or Polish.

Foreign Languages in English Native Countries

So if English is your mother tongue, how important is it for somebody in Britain, the US or Australia to invest time and effort to learn a new language?

In 2014, a joint CBI/Pearson survey of British employers stated that 65% of them value foreign language skills among their employees. The most popular languages were considered to be French (50%) and German (49%), and due to increased business dealings with China, a knowledge of Mandarin has also gained in importance (31%).

One year earlier, research commissioned by the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) concluded that the lack of foreign language proficiency costs the UK economy around £48bn (ca. 3.5% of GDP). It also stated that due to a lack of skills, 17% of vacancies were left unfilled.

This was followed by a report of the British Council on the Languages of the Future and identified, in this order, Spanish, Arabic, French, Mandarin Chinese, German, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Turkish and Japanese as the top 10 languages.

In England, foreign languages are now compulsory in primary schools, but no longer in secondary education.There has been a steady decline of students taking GCSE and A-Levels and in the academic year 2013/14, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 1,845 students studied French, 1,480 Spanish, 640 German and 635 Chinese across the UK.

Last year, a Freakonomics radio podcast in the US debated the question if foreign languages offered an ROI (return on investment). One of the contributors, Albert Saiz, an economist at MIT, was himself disappointed when he learnt that languages only add a small return on US salary packages – for example 1.5% for Spanish skills, French 2.7% and German 4%.

Benefits of Foreign Languages

The salary impact of those foreign languages may depend on the country, what demand and supply there is for a particular language and the individual’s competency. It may also improve chances of overseas assignments or international projects work. It is not unheard of that companies send their staff on overseas placements that have no local language skills yet.

Being able to communicate with other team members or business partners in their native language should also help establish better relationships and deeper local understanding. An individual who had to study another language can also empathise more with a counterpart trying to communicate in a foreign language. They may find it easier to understand foreigners’ accents or notice quicker that something is ‘lost in translation’ than a native speaker.

Students may also find, that they have more options when choosing a university by not being limited to their own country. They add enhanced language skills and overseas experience to their academic achievements, making their CV even more attractive to potential employers.

But how else can you define ‘value’ or ‘return on investment’ of language learning? There are various studies that have highlighted the positive impact on the brain such as better memory, but also later diagnosis of illnesses like Alzheimer’s.

Another interviewee during the Freakonomics radio podcast, Boaz Keysar, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, mentioned that it made a difference to decision making depending on which language he was thinking in.

Learning that Language!

There are many people today that grow up bi- or tri-lingual. Children speak their native language, but attend maybe an international French or German school, while living with their parents in a third language country. Or children of multi-cultural parents, where the mother speaks one, the father another language.

However, most of us are not that lucky and have to learn languages in different ways. School and university seem to be the obvious places, but there are also many other options.

That language learning doesn’t end after formal education in Germany is demonstrated by 11.9% of employees (around 4.3m people) that indicated in the BIBB study that they were planning further language training within the next two years. There are for example Germany’s ‘Volkshochschulen’ (evening classes funded by the public sector/donations), but also many private language schools.

Online training is also gaining popularity and students can study from home at a time that’s suitable for them. The internet enables them to engage with teachers all around the world and they can participate in either a virtual classroom, one2one lessons, supported by videos or online exercises.

Language holidays are another option to combine language learning with travelling and meeting locals and other like-minded people from around the world.

Or you could just take the plunge – take time out, visit the country, do some work, take classes and learn it ‘on the ground’. Your reward should be fluent skills, maybe a local accent and a very good insight into the local culture and people. You will have been challenged in a new country, had to adapt and learn many other new skills. And in terms of input and output, it may possibly give you your best return on investment!

Please feel free to share your experience of learning a language and what benefit it is to you. If you are a recruiter or employer, it would be great to find out more about your experiences.