The Value in Learning Less Commonly Taught Languages Posted by Jakob Gibbons on Jun 22, 2016 in Language Learning, Language News
Let’s be clear about one thing: while many folks behind finance blogs and money magazines continue to debate whether or not it’s “worth it” to learn a language, the entire rest of the world knows that this question has been conclusively answered for decades. Science, government, and the good old free market all agree that languages are a good thing and the more the merrier.
The normal narrative goes that learning a language will make you stand out to employers: shove your Spanish skills and that semester you spent in Seville towards the top of your resumé and just like that you’ve paved your way to a lucrative future. But learners beware: waste your summers abroad studying Hausa and majoring in Anthropology and you’re doomed to a life of financial ruin.
But here’s the thing. Your local corner store in your more-or-less linguistically homogenous suburb probably won’t give you a pay raise for learning Polish, but they’re just about the only employers left without a vested interest in your language skills.
Economic globalization means that people are producing and consuming across the world, national borders be damned. Google has offices in Dakar, Budapest, and Bangalore, where they not only need staff fluent in local lingua francas like French and English, but also need to market and provide customer service to speakers of Wolof, Hungarian, and Kannada.
I got a lot of insight into this after learning Dutch several years ago. The constant chorus of “but they all speak English” was enough that I often found myself wondering if my efforts were worth it or wasted. Now I know better.
Now I have the economic privilege of being a rare native English speaker who’s also proficient in a small regional language not commonly learned by foreigners, but least of all by native English speakers. Fortune 500 companies have stopped short of beating down my door to demand my services (maybe I forgot to update my address?), but after several years of speaking and working professionally with the language, I’ve carved out a beautiful niche for myself in which it’s not hard to stand out among the crowd of applicants.
Translation jobs? Dutch people speak great English, but not as good as a native’s. I just remind organizations that they can skip extra middlemen and pick up an all-in-one translator/native proofreader for the low, low price of me.
You don’t have to be a translator to make it worth it though. My Dutch language skills have landed me jobs and contracts with NGOs and government agencies in the Netherlands. If I ever decide I want to put down the freelance and punch a time clock, any company that’s got something to sell, market, service, or advertise in the Netherlands (which, to reiterate, is very nearly all the companies, because globalization) has a reason to cut me a paycheck.
I also happen to speak Spanish. I love it, and it’s also put money in my pocket. But if I were to send off a cover letter explaining to some company or client how I’m the perfect candidate because I speak English and Spanish, then if I got any response at all it’d probably be something to the effect of “cool story bro”.
As Donovan from Mezzofanti Guild points out, the more people who speak your language, the less value it adds to your profile as a potential employee.
Spanish is a great economic investment, and speaking it will open up jobs around the world, but in 2016, it doesn’t make you special. In the United States alone, there are well over 30 million bilingual English-Spanish speakers, healthily meeting the enormous demand for producers of Spanish language media, products, and services.
Outside of the Netherlands, on the other hand, there are like thirteen other people who speak Dutch.
The world is shrinking. Languages are disappearing and converging at the same time as we need more people who speak more of them. The world’s biggest companies already need speakers of Vietnamese, Bulgarian, and Amharic. Civil society organizations are dying to fill roles that require fluent speakers of language like Aymara, Kinyarwanda, and Tagalog. Successful startups with their eyes on emerging markets must be able to tell their stories in Serbo-Croatian and Turkish.
Learn a small language, a “useless” one or an “impractical” one. Go learn it and then put it to work at an NGO, language school, your country’s State Department or Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a tech startup, or any kind of business that needs to communicate with people in a language other than English.
But also remember that learning a language is for more than just business. When you learn a less commonly taught language, you earn a fancy new resume line, but you’re also helping save the world’s languages, promote understanding of all its peoples, and developing yourself into an impactful global citizen.
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