The Best Reason to Learn Another Language

Kaplan has published an infographic showing various benefits to learning another languages. Bloggers have been invited to argue which of the four—love, travel, intelligence or money—is the most important benefit. Bring it on!

However, I am terribly indecisive, and I feel like I’m arguing whether apples, oranges, bananas or kiwis are the tastiest. We need some common denominators to be able to contrast and compare these incomparable benefits. Let’s choose to analyze the four contenders along the lines of:

  1. Short-term gain
  2. Long-term gain
  3. Motivationability (how well the benefit acts as a motivator)
  4. Personal net worth

Each will be given a score between 1 (low) and 10 (high). Then we’ll tabulate the total scores and announce a winner. (If you are impatient and want to skip to the conclusion, you can scroll to the bottom.)

But first, the infographic:

Love

Short-term

According to the infographic, folks find multilingualism sexy. If you are entering the dating scene and are looking to impress the opposite sex, being able to show off your cosmopolitan side can be advantageous. Alternatively, if you’ve completely exhausted the dating pool in your native language and you need to broaden your search to other linguistic groups, then this is an act of desperation. Either way, learning for love scores well in this category.

Score: 8

Long-term gain

In the long-term, if by learning another language you’ve scored a mate for life, then you stand to gain in terms of longevity and personal wealth. Your kids will grow up with the natural advantage of a multilingual home.

Score: 8

Motivationability

If you’re desperate and lonely, then you’ll do anything.

Score: 9

Personal net worth

The longest of long-term relationships—marriage—does in fact yield monetary benefits. The social science literature cites positive associations between marriage on the one hand and earnings, family income, and wealth on the other—a 77% increase over single people, in fact (which is quickly undone by divorce).

Score: 10

Travel

Short-term

Becoming functional in the language of the country you are about to visit holds immense benefits for the traveller. You can tell the taxi where you’re going, you can order strange food, you can haggle in the marketplace, you can meet new people, you can find your way back to your hotel if you get lost, you can communicate with police or doctors should (heaven forbid) something go awry. High marks for travel in the short-term!

Score: 9

Long-term gain

On the other hand, other than the happy memories and tacky souvenirs, there are no real long-term gains from vacation, except perhaps for broadened horizons.

Score: 2

Motivationability

The short timeline, the immediate reward, and the excitement of exotic locations make for great motivators. Whether you want to use the language to go shopping, avoid hustlers, or chat up the locals, there’s a reason for everyone.

Score: 10

Personal net worth

Vacation has a negative impact on your net worth—you just spent a fortune on that tour of Italy or that cruise to South America, when you could have made a lump-sum payment towards your mortgage. If I could this give a negative score, I would. I mean, I still could because this is my scoring system, but I’ll stick to my original plan of giving 1 as the lowest possible score. (Don’t get me wrong, I love vacations and travelling, but you have to face the economic facts.)

Score: 1

Intelligence

Short-term

Learning a language takes effort and time. The rewards at the beginning are relatively good because you’re starting from nothing and what you learn first is usually quite useful, but you won’t have staved off Alzheimer’s just yet. You may seem more intelligent, though, which is worth something. However, the very fact that you’ve started trying to learn a language shows how smart and forward-thinking you are.

Score: 5

Long-term gain

This is possibly the only benefit that holds proven long-term benefits. The evidence is massive that multilingualism provides a protective benefit against dementia and other neurological degenerative diseases. It’s too bad my scoring only goes up to 10.

Score: 10

Motivationability

Despite the published and celebrated results of scientific studies, the long-term benefits stand to be undermined by people’s short-term focus. Put in an incredible amount of effort now so that I might not get something in four or five decades? No thanks, that doesn’t sound like fun. As we’ve seen with healthy eating, exercise and daily meditation, any future gains are heavily discounted and soon lose out to immediate pleasures.

Score: 1

Personal net worth

Assuming that learning a new language does make you smarter (as opposed to merely preventing you from cognitive impairment), and assuming one’s net worth is linked to intelligence, then this category should score high. But no clear link has been established so this is a dubious claim.

Score: 2

Money

Short-term

In the immediate future, you are likely to fall behind in your goal due to the cost of classes and materials (even if you can do it cheaply).

Score: 3

Long-term gain

Questionable. If you aspire to be a translator or interpreter, then obviously you make more when you speak another language, compared to $0 if you speak only one. But translators don’t make heaps of money as it is, so you’d probably be better off studying business or dentistry than another language.

But salaries have more to do with markets than inherent abilities. If you are in the U.S. and you speak only Korean, obviously you can’t help but be better off learning another language (as long as it is English).

Score: 7

Motivationability

Money can be very motivating. If I were paid to learn a language, by golly you can bet I’ll be studying hard every spare moment I get (even though I already study hard every spare moment I get without being paid for it, but you know what I mean).

Score: 8

Personal net worth

Obviously money is important for net worth, so it’s kind of redundant to discuss this dimension of money. However, does speaking a second language improve your net worth absolutely? If you speak a minority language in a country (e.g., Vietnamese in the United States), then learning English will greatly impact your personal new worth. But will my salary go up because I speak another language? Not likely, and if it did I should be making a lot more than I do now.

Score: 5

The Winner!

No doubt that learning a language holds all four benefits, and clearly the four will be differently weighted depending on your circumstances. An immigrant to the U.S. with a family history of dementia who is seeking employment and wants to start a family might have a hard time choosing, but most of us come to this argument slightly biased. According to my un-scientific scoring system, the winner is…

Love!

Surprise! The best reason for learning a language is for love. Not for money, not for brains, not for vacation. And isn’t that the best reason of all for anything? You gain in the short-term, you gain in the long-term, you are better off in terms of physical health, mental health and personal wealth. A clear winner.

Final tally:
Love: 35/40
Travel: 22/40
Intelligence: 18/40
Money: 23/40

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