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How much does it cost to learn a language? With the demand for language skills sharply increasing, there may be a more pressing question: how much is it costing us not to learn languages?
An opinion piece in the Economist casually states that language learning has become so affordable that “the cost of learning a language is mainly measured not in money but in time.” Regardless of which metric you prefer, the cost of language learning is decreasing. The cost of not doing so, on the other hand, is becoming unaffordable.
Nearly everyone agrees that language skills are important and valuable to businesses and organizations from every industry. Even so, if language training takes too long and costs too much, most people will try to find a way to do without.
There’s a reason the demand for multilingual employees in the U.S. more than doubled from 2012 to 2017, with job openings coming from banks, insurance agencies, hospitals, engineering firms, and beyond.
A 2014 study by the Coalition for International Education found that almost 30% of U.S. business executives surveyed reported “missed opportunities abroad due to a lack of on-staff language skills” and 40% reported that language barriers prevented them from reaching their “international potential”.
A special report by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 64% of businesses believe language and cultural differences have constrained international expansion plans, with 49% reporting the communication misunderstandings resulted in “financial losses after a major cross-border deal has fallen through”. On the other end of the spectrum, 89% agreed that international communication improved revenues and profits.
Other studies support the idea that multilingualism is good for the economy. According to the World Economic Forum, “countries that actively nurture different languages reap a range of rewards, from more successful exports to a more innovative workforce.”
As the Economist Intelligence Unit puts it, businesses are “dangerously overlooking the need to invest in training”. But with the cost—in terms of both time and money—continues to decrease and the logistics and results continue to improve, the reasons for doing without are becoming nothing more than excuses.
But organizations cannot always expect the find the ideal candidate with the right combination of experience and language skills. As of the 2014-2015 school year, only 19.66% of K-12 students were enrolled in foreign language classes, indicated the language gap will not close anytime soon.
With innovative online training programs now available, the cost of language learning should no longer be measured in terms of money or time. The real cost of language learning is the opportunity cost of not doing it.
Imagine that someone is removed from their normal job and sent to a language school somewhere for training. Add up expenses for travel, facility, teachers and administrators, student food and lodging. Add to that the estimated dollar value of the disruption to operations because that person is now unavailable to do his or her job.
That’s too expensive, particularly considering that developing language proficiency takes much longer than the typical few-week long training course that is common for many professional skills. Beyond the beginner levels, even two more months of training moves the needle only slightly.
Of course, language learning does cost money and organizations looking to train employees pay in terms of dollars and cents, not hours and minutes. Innovative online programs can radically reduce the bottom line. In the same way that GPS and mobile devices revolutionized how we navigate, technology has radically improved the way we teach and learn languages.
Online learning has changed how we learn languages, but also when and where. When lessons are delivered online, students can learn anywhere, anytime, on any device. Remember that employee we mentioned above who was sent away to language training, leaving their work in limbo? Not necessary.
Instead of reporting to a schoolhouse for 4+ weeks, learners can train in place, staying where they are and completing language training part time. The cost of training is significantly reduced (remember, no travel, lodging, or facilities required) without the disruption of removing a key person from the team.
Technology is not the total solution, and cannot replace human instruction. We have found that the best answer by far is blending technology-driven learning with human instruction, using each for what it does best.
Computers excel at delivering game-like activities that adjust to each student and drive faster mastery. This lends itself to aspects of language learning like memorizing vocabulary and phrases, which can be executed much faster by a spaced repetition algorithm than a set of hand-made flashcards, for example.
Human instructors excel at planning and leading communicative and peer activities, creating a human connection with the language not easily replicated by technology.
When combined, it looks a bit like this: an instructor creates an online vocabulary lesson; students master the words and phrases through fast-paced, well-sequenced learning activities and arrive in class prepared to use their new vocabulary; the teacher facilitates a debate, a round-robin discussion, or any other compelling, communicative activity.
When done well, blended learning saves time—and increases satisfaction—for both instructors and students:
We’ve seen the benefits of blended learning first hand. A recent cohort of professional language students enrolled in our 12-week blended course achieved the same proficiency gains as a traditional, classroom-based 6-week program. The course may have lasted twice the calendar time, but the 12-week learners only spent four hours per week training, compared to the full-time expectations of the 6-week program. They also trained in place, learning part-time between shifts from the comfort of their own homes. Whether you measure the cost of language learning in terms of time or money, that’s a substantial return on investment.