The Value Of A Second Language: How Much Money To Be Fluent?

During my time living abroad, about 90% of my friends were fluent in a second language besides English. This high percentage was expected, given that most of my classmates at the International School of Kuala Lumpur and Taipei American School were foreigners, where being bilingual or multilingual was the norm.

Upon relocating to McLean, Virginia, for high school, I noticed a decline, with only about 50% of my friends being proficient in a second language. Today, as I reflect on my current circle of friends, that percentage has declined further to around 40%.

It turns out, 40% is actually quite high given I live in San Francisco, a minority majority city. According to the Census Bureau data from 2019, 67.8 million Americans speak a second language at home (20% of the U.S. population). In 1980 there were 23.06 million Americans who spoke a second language at home, a third of what it is today.

Top 10 States With Largest Percentage Of Second Language Speakers

Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian, Polish, and Tagalog are the most common second languages spoken in America. Below are the states that have the largest percentage of second language speakers according to the American Community Survey from the Census Bureau.

  1. California: 44% of residents
  2. Texas: 36%
  3. New Mexico: 34%
  4. New Jersey: 32%
  5. Nevada: 31%
  6. New York: 31%
  7. Florida: 30%
  8. Hawaii: 28%
  9. Arizona: 27%
  10. Massachusetts: 25%

Struggled With Learning Spanish In High School

In high school, I decided to take up Spanish for the first time. Unfortunately, I began my language studies relatively late, and my brain struggled to grasp proper verb conjugation. The fact class started at 2 pm exacerbated the issue, as I tended to experience a post-lunch food coma, leading to occasional snoozing.

Even after four years of studying Spanish, I found myself unable to engage in an adult conversation for more than three minutes. In contrast, many of my classmates, who either spent part of their childhood in a Spanish-speaking country or had a parent proficient in Spanish, had no difficulty sustaining longer conversations.

Even though my Spanish stunk, my teacher still gave me an “A.” That was when I realized developing a good relationship with your teacher can make a big difference in doing well. Because I surely didn't deserve an “A!”

Regret Of Not Taking Studying Mandarin More Seriously

It wasn't until my time at The College of William & Mary that I made a conscious effort to reengage with Mandarin and strive for fluency. I even pursued a minor in Mandarin and embarked on a six-month study abroad program in Beijing in 1997, which turned out to be a magical experience.

The impetus to focus on learning a second language during college arose from the pressing need to secure a job after graduation. The sense of urgency stemmed from a desire to avoid a long-term stint at McDonald's earning $4/hour. I felt compelled to demonstrate that investing four years and approximately $40,000 in education was worthwhile.

The prevailing notion at the time was that possessing proficiency in a second language would unlock numerous job opportunities, both domestically and abroad. It seemed imperative for college graduates to acquire this skill in the rapidly globalizing world. Despite diligent studying, however, achieving fluency in Mandarin always eluded me.

Fortunately, my minor in Mandarin proved to be useful. It played a role in landing a position in the International Equities department at Goldman Sachs. While I initially worked on the Emerging Markets desk, I swiftly transitioned to the Asian Equities desk.

Given my major in Economics and my passion for investing in the stock market, the job turned out to be a perfect fit.

The Value Of A Second Language

In hindsight, I would confidently assert that the value of learning Mandarin amounted to at least $500,000, if not $1 million.

As an Asian individual who both looked and spoke the part, I had the ability to put the management of Taiwanese and Chinese companies at ease during roadshows while visiting U.S. clients. During the boom of the Chinese IPO market in the early 2000s, I frequently found myself assigned to accompany management on money manager visits across the country.

Upon transitioning to Credit Suisse two years later, my bilingual capabilities, along with my international upbringing and identity, made me a strong fit for their growing Asian equities business in America. This move not only brought a promotion but also a guaranteed pay raise.

Thirteen years later, I retired with a net worth of $3 million. Reflecting on my journey, without the ability to speak Mandarin, I might not have secured a job in the finance industry in the first place. The acceptance rate at Goldman Sachs for first-year analyst positions was less than 5%, and I didn’t come from a target school.

If I hadn't pursued a career in finance, my alternative path might have led me to become an eyeglass parts factory manager in Shenzhen, China. While it might not have been the most glamorous job, it was an exciting time as China was opening up to the world.

The Value Of A Foreign Language Without A Direct Income Component

If I hadn't found a job that utilized my Mandarin skills, the perceived value of a second language might have diminished. For instance, had I secured a position at PriceWaterhouse (got rejected) and primarily spoken English throughout my career, the value of my Mandarin proficiency might have dropped a lot.

However, I still contend that a second language is worth at least $300,000, even if it's not directly applied in your job.

Here are five reasons why:

  1. Enhanced Social Connections: Proficiency in a second language increases the likelihood of making new friends, finding love, and sharing experiences with others who speak that language. This is especially significant in addressing the loneliness epidemic post-pandemic, as many individuals would likely place a high value on alleviating feelings of isolation.
  2. Practical Benefits: Knowing Mandarin has translated into tangible financial benefits, such as saving money on home remodeling costs and negotiating better deals with tradespeople for property maintenance. I can quantify at least $100,000 in savings for a fixer I purchased in 2014 because I chose a Chinese contractor over a Caucasian American contractor.
  3. Cultural Enrichment: The ability to dream in a second language is a magical experience that opens up new and exciting mental landscapes during the healing process at night. Additionally, learning a second language immerses you in a new culture, fostering greater cultural awareness, improved emotional intelligence, and better connections with diverse groups. Notably, individuals who engage in online hate and participate in Twitter mobs are often observed to lack proficiency in a second language.
  4. More Creativity For Business: Knowing a second language may also stimulate creativity, allowing individuals to draw inspiration from different cultures and generate novel ideas for businesses.
  5. Enhanced Travel Experiences: Lastly, being proficient in a second language can enhance your travel experiences, enabling you to feel more at ease and reducing the likelihood of being taken advantage of when visiting a country where the language is spoken.

Given these considerations, I am inclined to upgrade the value of a second language back up to $500,000, even without a direct income component.

How Much Would You Pay To Speak A Second Language Well?

Considering I believe the value of knowing a second language is between $500,000 and $1 million, it logically follows that I would be willing to pay within that range to speak a second language well.

In today's context, if a genie presented me with the opportunity, I wouldn't hesitate to pay $500,000 to attain fluency in Spanish (spoken by 500 million people). Mastering English (1.4 billion people) and Mandarin (1.2 billion people) already covers 40% of the world's population. If I were feeling particularly affluent, I might even consider paying $500,000 – $1 million to instantly acquire fluency in French (spoken by 450 million people).

Of course, the perceived value of a second language is also influenced by one's current net worth. For instance, if your net worth is only $50,000, you might be willing to allocate a smaller sum, perhaps around $10,000, to achieve fluency in a second language.

What is the value of a second language (different from how much you'd be wiling to pay)?

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Paying For A Second Language Based On Percentage Of Net Worth

Given the variations in everyone's net worth, it might be more practical to determine a willingness to pay for a second language based on a percentage of net worth. The younger and less affluent you are, the higher the percentage you might allocate, and vice versa.

I propose that the value of a second language, calculated as a percentage of net worth, falls within the range of 5% to 20%.

With a lower net worth, you may be more inclined to allocate a higher percentage of your net worth to acquire proficiency in a second language, especially if it can significantly boost your career-earning potential. Acquiring a second language early in life also enhances its value since you get to utilize it for a longer period.

Conversely, with a higher net worth, you might be less willing to allocate a higher percentage of your net worth, as your career and earnings power are likely more established. The urgency to learn a second language for career advancement, finding love, or making new friends might be less pronounced.

However, individuals who are extremely wealthy may be more open to allocating higher amounts for intangible benefits that are challenging to acquire with money, such as language proficiency, a desirable physique, youthfulness, and more.

Paying For Private Language Immersion School Gets Easier

In my highly criticized forecast household budget, I have $80,400 for private grade school for two children. September 2024 is when I anticipate my daughter will start preschool 4 while my son begins the second grade.

$80,400 is a lot of money and I would rather not pay it. But it's impossible to get into one particular public Cantonese/Mandarin language immersion school in the city because we have a lottery system. And another public Mandarin immersion school is also hard to get into, somewhat run down, has high teacher turnover, and isn't in a great location.

As a result, we've decided to bite the bullet and try out this Mandarin immersion private school instead. We've tried for two years already with our son, and so far so good. The care is high, the community is great, and the teacher turnover has been low.

The school will be moving to a new 5.4 acre campus, which cost $40 million to purchase and $30 million to remodel. It will be one of the nicest, if not the nicest schools in all of San Francisco. The school opening should also be a good local economic catalyst to support west side San Francisco property prices, where I purchased our new home.

Total Cost Of Private Grade School Tuition vs. The Value Of A Second Language

The complete tuition expense for one child from Pre-school 4 through the 8th grade (spanning 10 years) is estimated at $410,000 in today's dollars. After assigning a value of $500,000 – $1 million for the ability to speak a second language well, the private grade school tuition now seems more reasonable.

So in a way, paying $410,000 for private Mandarin immersion school is like getting $90,000 – $590,000 off, if they indeed become fluent by the eight grade. What a bargain! Even if knowing a second language was only valued at $100,000, that would bring my estimated 10-year cost down to $310,000 in today's dollars.

If my kids were to exclusively only learn English in school, I would have more reservations about paying for private grade school tuition. That said, public schools provide a range of second language options. However, these language classes often commence in middle or high school, making it more challenging to master a second language by that stage.

How many languages do you speak well (intermediate/advanced/fluent)?

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Could Just Be A Coping Mechanism

This entire exercise in determining the value of a second language might serve as a way for me to rationalize the expense of private grade school tuition. As a graduate of public high school and college, I inherently favor public education, prioritizing value and viewing private school payments akin to opting for bottled water when tap water suffices.

Conversely, my wife, who attended a private high school on partial scholarship during her sophomore through senior years, strongly leans towards private grade school. Her experience of witnessing and experiencing violence at her public schools kept her timid through middle and half of high school. However, attending a boarding school had a transformative effect, fostering her personality and courage.

Therefore, I remain open in our decision to keep our kids in private school, transfer them to public school, or homeschool them when we embark on slow travel. Education, safety, and community stand as our primary considerations for our children. If any of these aspects deteriorate at their current school, we will not hesitate to make a change.

A Race Against Time To Learn A New Language Well

The value of a second language is subjective, but as I age and accumulate wealth, I increasingly appreciate the ability to speak Mandarin. I also increasingly regret not studying harder in Spanish class. The good news is that it's never too late to learn!

Unfortunately, the longer one waits to learn a new language, the harder it will be for most people to pick up. Consequently, I'm starting our kids early and trying to speak as much Mandarin at home as possible.

What I've also found comforting is that sending my kids to a language immersion school has helped me brush up on my own Mandarin skills. I occasionally do homework with my son and I'm constantly looking up how to say things in Mandarin to teach them too.

Despite the my greed for a private school education, I feel better about our decision to invest a small fortune so both our kids can learn a second language. I'm also excited to have a second chance to learn Mandarin again with my children.

Being able to speak, dream, and make friends in a second language is worth a lot.

Reader Questions

How much do you think is the value of speaking a second language well? Do you speak a second language well? Has speaking a second language helped your career or helped you make more money? If so, how?

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59 thoughts on “The Value Of A Second Language: How Much Money To Be Fluent?”

  1. Two years of Thai language and writing while in Thailand. The writing part was a huge mistake. I would have taken away a lot more without it. Only got passing marks because my teacher believed long earlobes (which I have) are a sign of favor from the Enlightened One.

    Two years of Spanish in the US, even got to reading books in it. But, with no chance to practice it outside of class, it is mostly gone. I think it would come back readily if I spent a couple of months with one of these computer language courses, but then what? I never plan to spend more than a month or two in Spanish speaking countries.

    On the other hand, I can develop applications in nine different computer programming languages. That, at least, has monetary incentive going for it (and some enjoyment).

  2. We sent our children to the Lycee Francais in Chicago and it was worth it. They attended the Lycee from age 3-14 and are now in American high school. Both are fluent French speakers and have a unique international perspective after so many years in an international community. The Lycee in Chicago is about half the price of other private schools (Latin, Parker). Most major cities have a Lycee. It was an outstanding education.

  3. AItakingover

    I feel like AI is going to make knowing languages and interpreters less important over time. Eventually you’ll put an ear piece in your ear or vision pro type device that will that will translate a foreign language instantly for you to understand with subtitles and maybe alter the voice so you audibly hear the person in your native language.

  4. I’m not sure I can put a number on the value of speaking a second language. I speak two, English and Japanese. Learning Japanese in Japan opened up a whole world for me that was previously closed. I did leverage language ability for work – fluency in English to work in Japan, proficiency in Japan to work in the US. You have to treat it like any other skill, and find a place where having the skill matters and where it multiplies your other skills. But it’s value outside of work, in opening up a larger world, that really matters. I have friends who only speak Japanese, I’ve experienced events effectively closed to non-Japanese speakers, and I feel at home in another part of the world. I even made a close friend who also has Japanese has a second language – it’s our only language overlap. I only wish I had the time and skill to learn additional languages on top of improving my Japanese.

    I don’t know if what you put into that school for your kids will pay off as well as another investment money-wise, but what you open up to them if they gain useful proficiency in Mandarin is extraordinarily valuable. It’s just nice know that it also might pay off financially, too. I think you’ve made a good decision giving them the chance to learn another language at a young age.

  5. I’m a professional translator and I speak five languages. Although I agree with you that languages are incredibly valuable, their worth is not mainly monetary. According to Indeed, the average translator makes $23 an hour (I’m glad to say I have multiple income streams and will not accept translation work for that rate). Another fact is that mastering a language is incredibly hard and a huge time sink. Most people who take four years of college-level courses will still not be ready to use the language professionally. If your motivation is making money, there is no way in hell you should be investing years in a skill that is going to make you $23 an hour. There are numerous ways to make that kind of money without an education.

    Lots of people have the vague idea that knowing another language will make you incredibly valuable on the job market. Maybe, *if you also have another, higher-paying job skill*. You gave a good example: you were able to advance more quickly in your career in finance because you speak Mandarin. However, just speaking Mandarin won’t get you anywhere–especially on the coasts, where there are way too many bilingual people. The fact is that being bilingual, by itself, is cheap. I would NOT advise most people to learn a language as a way of getting ahead in their careers. There are other skills that can be acquired much more easily and cheaply that will pay off more over time. I should also point out that just knowing a language by itself doesn’t make you a translator or an interpreter. Those are skills that have to be acquired in addition to the language. Is it worth it? I’d say that if you’re in it for the money, go to law school or be an anesthesiologist.

    I strongly agree with three of your reasons for studying another language: enhanced social connections, cultural enrichment, and enhanced travel experiences. Honestly, the value of these things is immeasurable, in the sense that it literally can’t be measured. People SHOULD learn foreign languages, absolutely. But as somebody who speaks numerous languages, I question the conventional wisdom that you’ve automatically got a leg up because you’re bilingual. It’s one more thing on your resume that might make you stand out. That’s about it. Also, past two languages (i.e. by the point that you’re become trilingual, quadrilingual, etc.), it’s doubtful ANY monetary value is being added.

    Like I said, the value of languages is immeasurable. Immense. Worth a million bucks? If that’s true, I should be a multi-millionaire. Thankfully I’m financially secure because I also have real estate business in addition to my translation career, which by the way is currently under serious threat from AI. Honestly, I’m ready to bail in the near future. Do I regret learning languages? Never. But the idea of becoming automatically rich because you’re bilingual–absolutely no way.

    1. Thanks for sharing! 5 languages is amazing! Which languages do you speak?

      Yes, going into professional translating sounds like a tough job, especially with technology and AI. I don’t mean for my kids to get into that profession, although, they could if they achieve mastery.

      Learning another tool is another tool of many to help one get ahead in this ultra-competitive world. It’s a differentiating factor, and something I gravitate to if I’m hiring someone. Same thing as gravitating toward someone who spent years mastering a sport and competing at a high level.

      “I strongly agree with three of your reasons for studying another language: enhanced social connections, cultural enrichment, and enhanced travel experiences. Honestly, the value of these things is immeasurable, in the sense that it literally can’t be measured. ”

      In other words, priceless. So if something is priceless, it’s well worth paying up for learning another language.

  6. Hi Sam, My Dad attended catholic school in Buffalo, NY in 1930s. The Nuns taught in English and Polish. The students were taught proper reading and writing of Polish all 8 years. Dad spoke Polish and English at home. Dad was the youngest of 8. I never heard Dad speak Polish with family. Dad would say most people learn improper Polish at home. My Dad would say no church or Polish 5 years at sea and during leave everyone in HI and CA spoke English. No leave in Arabia or China.
    My Mom’s family spoke German growing up 5 great aunts. My Mom did not speak German. I never heard my great aunts speak German.
    Interesting story I know a Polish fellow now 75 who connected with family in Poland. When he visited family in Poland the relatives would bow and say my lord because his Polish was from 19 century.
    Just my experience HS foreign language classes are too late in life.
    My niece in Herndon VA 15 years ago observed in HS Spanish class the newly arrived Hispanic classmates could not read or write Spanish. My niece’s husband is a Bosnian refuge arrive as a boy. He speaks English and Bosnian. He graduated VMI with track and X- county scholarship. He enlisted in US army and uses language skills. He recently completed Masters in Russian language at Columbia U all paid for by army. One month after graduation was promoted to Major and reported to West Point to teach Russian language and Balkan studies. My brother says my son in law was dodging bullets getting food for family as boy. Brother continues what is your rich kid belly aching about? Adversity makes us stronger and fast.
    Keep Smiling

  7. Haha, my birth year didn’t even make the cut for this Lunar New Year celebration. Thanks Sam!

  8. What do you call a person who speaks two languages?

    Bilingual.

    What do you call a person who speaks three languages?

    Trilingual.

    What do you call a person who speaks only one language?

    American!

  9. Well, so many Americans aren’t even that fluent in English, let alone a second language.

    I really learned grammar once I started to study Russian. While I learned grammar all through my school years, it was perfunctory at best. As I listen to people, I realize that many people must have been staring out the window for some of the lessons.

  10. Sam,

    You realize the cost of an Au Pair is $200/week (10k/yr) + room/board which should be easy for you in your new house. You could literally have someone direct from China speaking Mandarin to your kids 24/7 + house duties and still pocket 70k. At this point, the immersion school seems an exercise in self deception. If you want to do it, do it, but financially it is suboptimal.

      1. I did not have a good experience with an au pair, but several friends have enjoyed it. It’s a significant loss of privacy and can be like having another child. While it is helpful to have a native speaker around to help your kids in a dual immersion school, au pairs are generally more motivated to learn English than kids are to learn their language, so the language aspect isn’t as good as it may sound.

        I live in a school district offering dual language immersion from 1-12. It’s been a positive experience, but it also has cons. We had to supplement a lot in traditional subjects with one kid because she was falling behind in math, which was taught in the second language, and reading. It all worked out, but it required extra work at home.

        1. We’ve had a few au pairs and the loss of privacy is significant. It’s also more expensive than it seems. More importantly, an au pair might expose children to another language but it’s really just the basics of a language. It takes thousands of hours of language immersion to develop fluency.

  11. I agree that there certainly is value in learning a second language. This goes for not only Americans but also those in other countries.

    I notice that when I travel the best English speakers are always front-line workers and they get paid more. If you speak English well enough then you can be a tour guide, a front desk, a manager, etc. etc. In 3rd world countries, this means a lot to your family.

    And in business, it becomes a useful skill if in your situation you can capitalize and put yourself in a position to maximize its usefulness.

    Anyway, I don’t know if it is enough rational for me to put my kids into a private immersion school, but I can see the potential benefit. I certainly will do my best to stress the importance of learning a 2nd language, and trying tp provide an example for my kids by trying to learn Italian now (Japanese next).

  12. Like all things, language is a tool. It’s worth nothing if you don’t know how to use it. Valuing a second language at $500,000 doesn’t really make sense to me because so many people are multilingual and broke. But then there are those who are multilingual and making millions of dollars as general contractors, landscapers, etc. What’s really valuable: the language, or the grit, determination, and fusing of knowledge to run a SMB? I’d say it’s the latter. Ideas are worth little and execution is everything.

    1. So true! I speak Russian and live in a community with a large Russian speaking population, it doesn’t help me earn a higher income at all!

      1. It’s almost like you didn’t read my comment at all? Is it worth a trillion dollars? Maybe an infinite amount? Go get a billion dollar loan and learn Swahili then

  13. Language Nerd

    I actually grew up outside of U.S and started learning English at the age of 4, I locked out since I had an American teacher. I remember growing up I hated going to English class after school and would find any excuse to skip it. Learning a different language can be tiring for a young kid.
    Low and behold we moved to U.S when I was 20 y.o and from the day I arrived I was good to go. Most people are shocked when I tell them that I was not born in the U.S, I almost have no accent. I started learning Spanish later on and now I am fluent in Spanish, which comes very handy in California and while traveling in Latin America. I am now planning on learning my 4th language. For me learning a 2nd language (English) has obviously been priceless. Also being bilingual gives you confidence and patience in learning a different language. I highly recommend it for anyone, especially younger children. It’s an invaluable asset to have

  14. While there is value in learning a second language, I think your view here is pretty narrow and overlooks other aspects of education. I am a first generation Asian American and I do regret not taking language learning more seriously growing up so I can relate to your desire to want to pass down your language and culture to your children. I have also looked into the Chinese immersion school you reference and ultimately decided against it because my son is more interested in science and math and I think it would be rather limiting to have science and math classes taught in Chinese. I think it’s important to factor in interest and think broader in terms of a well rounded education; children have a lot to learn besides language.

    1. Can you share what other aspects of education I’m missing? My school teaches science and math, like most schools. And there are actually plenty of smart people who know science and math who were taught in Mandarin.

      If you are a first generation American, isn’t it almost a default you do speak another language well?

      1. There are bound to be limitations when you are taught technical subjects in a foreign language that differ from your native language, especially in elementary school. It’s not that the subjects are not taught, that’s like saying my school teaches math and science. Yes, all schools teach the subjects but that doesn’t mean all schools are the same or that all teaching approaches are the same.

        And yes I do speak a second language but the level of proficiency matters. I am limited in my reading and writing abilities.

    2. I had a co-worker who was born and educated in Hong Kong. We regularly discussed quantum mechanics and Einstein’s special relativity and he taught me plenty, in English. I don’t think the immersion school will be a problem.

  15. noprivatelangschool

    Strongly disagree.

    My siblings and I mainly speak English. We have an elementary knowledge of a 2nd language but not working proficiency. We all went to public school and got into high ranking universities which we paid for mostly on our own. We all have professional degrees and high paying jobs now.

    One set my cousins went to private high school. One of them got into a mediocre college and dropped out within the first semester. He is now working as a manager at a fast food chain and had to move back home b/c he can’t afford rent. The other got into a mediocre college and is currently getting a general business degree. We’ll see how he turns out, my guess is a middle management job at best.

    Another set my cousins went to private school WITH 2nd language immersion from K-12. They both got into mediocre colleges and both failed to graduate. One of them opened up a business (with mommy’s money) and it failed. Asked mommy for money again and is trying to open a restaurant now. The other went to a trade school, finally finished at age 30, but is struggling to make a living now. She got a job at a call center and since she knows a 2nd language, she makes $25/hr instead $22/hr.

    Summary:
    1. My parents spent next to nothing on our K-12 educations. No 2nd language. We are all successful and don’t require our parent’s financial help.
    2. My aunt/uncle spent at least $100k on my cousins’ high school educations. One is living in their basement while working fast food and the other is currently at an average college for a general degree.
    3. My aunt/uncle spent at least $400k on my cousins K-12 education with 2nd language immersion. Neither graduated college and both are struggling now. They are 34 and 36 and both have kids (neither married). Their parents continue to help them and grandkids financially while trying to stay retired.
    4. If both sets of aunts/uncles had just invested that money into index funds for 18 years, they’d all be much better off now and could retire much earlier.

    I see very little benefit in learning a 2nd language and even less benefit in going to private school.

    Excuse the typos, was typing quickly and didn’t proofread. Feel free to ask any questions if you would like more details or clarification on anything. Even though I don’t agree with you, I do think you write interesting articles! Thanks for your openness and willingness to take criticism.

    1. Not sure if attributing your cousins’ learning a second language to not doing as well as you financially or career wise is the right correlation. Could be something else. But maybe!

      Even without the income component, as I write in my article, there is value in being able to connect with other people in their language, think and dream in a different language, and immerse yourself in that language’s culture when visiting.

      I’m not sure how to explain the feeling to do it justice.

  16. My daughter is also in a Mandarin immersion program. I was second guessing this initially but I have to say it’s amazing to have someone who is fluent after three years of being in the program. Well worth the tuition!

  17. Wow! Interesting article,

    I.m glad I did study Japanese language up to low Intermediate level in the 90s.

    It increased my circle of friends and caused me to reflect on my self and culture more than any other studies. It was worth the cost in time any money for personal enrichment.

    I would beg to differ a bit on the top useful languages to learn for an American, I would agree for at home Spanish is first, but for international travel Tagalog is really useful. Why because in every country from Hong Kong to Rome to US and all points between you will find them, from the working the front desk to restaurants on the plane or about anywhere you go really.

    Japanese, Chinese not so much.

  18. I am a very studious type and was dedicated to getting an MSEE. But after entering the tech workforce I noticed that as one progressed up the management chain, there is high but intangible value placed on soft skills in business as compared to raw knowledge. The spreadsheet wizards or deal-closing geniuses were respected and valued, and they kind of knew it deep down inside. A second language slots into that category, “Let’s get X on the conference call”, it would seem to open many latent opportunities. Call it an “off-balance sheet” skillset, maybe as impressive as having Yale or Harvard on the resume!

    I learned French early in school and it has always been easier to pick up where I left off when I get the urge to practice. Brain plasticity in youth is real and taking advantage of that is important. I would have begged my parents to put me in immersion school if it were available. I have recently become serious in my 50’s with learning Spanish. I am impementing my own “immersion class” by listening to Spanish radio and podcasts while also using an intense computer program to learn. I am quite proud of my progress. There is no hack or shortcut that will help, IMO. The 10,000 hour rule applies here, and it may be why learning language in a school setting is best–the children are a captive audience.

    1. Wonderful! Yes on brain plasticity! Unfortunately, my brain seemed to stop being plastic in high school. I was still figuring out how to speak/write English well. So that’s a downside I experienced. Maybe learning Mandarin growing up crowded out my English skills.

      “off-balance sheet” skillset” love it! Let’s see… Harvard degree or fluency in Mandarin or Spanish. I think I’ll take the fluency! Enjoy your Spanish immersion journey.

  19. I speak Spanish, but not well. I also wish I kept it up. So many Spanish speakers here in California. You can develop a much better and friendlier bond if you can speak another person’s language well. It’s a sign of respect and caring because you took the time to listen and practice for a long time to get fluent.

    If someone likes you, you will feel happier. You’ll also get ripped off less when it comes to business!

    1. Totally agree on how it’s easier to build a connection because people will be impressed and respect you more since you took the time to learn their language and culture.

      So much about business, trade business requires trust. And you can often get ripped off if they feel you are clueless or distant.

  20. I loved this article because I completely agree there is both a financial and lifestyle element of value in knowing a second language even at a non-fluent level. I have loved languages since I was a kid and wish I could be pentalingual (5 languages)! Even though I am not fully fluent in a second language, I studied 4 languages for multiple years and reached conversational proficiency at some point in each (German, French, Japanese, Chinese) and dabbled in some basic Spanish as well.

    Even though my career track didn’t require a second language, it was a preferred skill at my first job and did help me get a leg up over my competition. I also strongly feel that my exposure to many languages expanded my network of friends, taught me a lot about other cultures, and really enhanced my travel experiences abroad. Even if more people don’t learn a second language, I hope that more people will take an interest in learning about other cultures, travel internationally, and be more aware, accepting and receptive of how others live and communicate.

  21. I had to laugh when Sam mentioned he got a late start on Español by taking it in High School. I recently moved from the US to México City, and I’m studying Español for the first time at 63! It has been difficult, but I still work remotely and haven’t devoted much time. Just a few one-hour lessons a week. In La Condesa, a lot of Méxicans speak at least some English. Many are fluent. There are many English-speaking people from all over the world here, too. So, speaking Español isn’t critical. I will keep studying, and I know I will improve over the next several years. I want to travel throughout Latin America and Europe when I retire. Speaking Español better and creating relationships will be an enriching experience.

      1. Thank you, Sam. While I am commenting, I do want to share that I got a very late start on investing for retirement. It wasn’t until I was 56 that I started investing outside my employer’s simple IRA. I’ll be “OK” retiring within the next year or two.

        But, over the last few months, I have been dealing with a tremendous amount of guilt, regret, and even anger over not starting earlier. I don’t know how I allowed myself to be so financially illiterate for so long. But, I am trying to reframe my past to see the positive things I did outside of finances.

        I am also seeing ways to be smart with my money, time, and life in the future. I also realize I am very privileged, and so many people worldwide are born into situations that may never allow them to have a level of financial independence.

        Thank you for letting me share.

    1. I will soon be in your boat, in a different Spanish speaking country. My wife & I are retiring to her homeland in a few years and I plan to ramp up my Spanish to where I can take on Cervantes. Like Don Quixote, this may be a lost cause, but it’s a good goal to shoot for.

      My wife learned a second language (English) and it pretty much jumped up her earning potential by over an order of magnitude, so the economic value to her was enormous.

  22. Jonathan Y.

    Given the widespread availability of translation software (which is getting better by the day), is learning a new language even necessary anymore?

    Pretty soon, there will be real-time translation tools that allow you to communicate with anyone over the phone, on video calls, and in-person.

    1. I will wager a guess that you don’t speak a second language based on your comment. Do you really think speaking through a computer has the same quality and connection as speaking to someone with your own voice? It’s not the same bro, not by far. Technology can be really useful, yes, but if we lose the human connection what a sad place our world will become.

      1. While I agree with you, I also realize that the younger generations often have much less of a human connection overall.
        I have traveled much of my life, much of it prior to the internet, and find today’s so called travelers (youtubers, van lifers, etc) pretending they are these great adventurers when in reality everything they are doing is based upon internet knowledge. They would be completely lost without their cellphones and an internet connection. Travel today requires little or no effort and much less human interaction. In my time you would find travelers with their Lonely Planets guidebooks and treated them as Bibles. I had the guide but used it to avoid the most touristy places – if it wasn’t in the guidebook, it was always nearly tourist free. Nowadays, the only way to avoid the crowds is to visit those places considered very dangerous by Western governments. This explains my trip to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the West Bank in 2022.

  23. Another value to knowing a second language is people perceive you as being more intelligent and disciplined.

  24. Seems like Mandarin may not have a strong return on investment compared to Spanish or just getting really strong at effective English communication. Since the Chinese population will plummet to 700M by 2100 and the Communist Chinese economy continues to close itself off to the world this language seems to be passed its peak value and is on the decline. It would be best to work on languages that are from high standard of living places.

    1. Been to China? It’s a pretty amazing place if not. Give it a go and broaden your views.

      Taiwan is another place that speaks Mandarin.

  25. I speak Thai fluently. I’m glad because I can communicate with my cousins and I will be able to retire in Thailand easily. However, I don’t think it added much to my experience in the U.S. There are only a few Thai people here. It doesn’t help anything. Mandarin or Spanish probably would be more valuable. I took 2 years of Spanish in high school. I probably could pick it up if I live in Spanish speaking country for a few years. Immersive is the best way to learn.

  26. Even if your baseline is different from the reader’s, it’s hard to argue that you’ve been unfair in your analysis.

    – Revealing personal experiences
    – Explained thought process behind large expenditures
    – Made the rules wealth-agnostic by approaching it as % of Net Worth

    The things you say still hold true unless one intends to spend their entire life within a bubble and drag others into it. However, the ability to exert that gravity is privilege made manifest!

    1. Thanks! It’s fun to go through a thesis and make an argument. I feel much better about spending money on a language immersion school now.

      I think we turn the take for granted, the various skills and tools that helped us go to where we are today. So writing is a great way to reflect.

  27. Victor Felszegi

    I think, I also read from a study from my alma mater, Harvard University, that the ability to to switch between or among languages in ones mind leads to better math and/or analytical skills.

    Also, if you want to improve your Spanish I can suggest a teacher in Colombia via Skype who is very good and charges only about $7/hour (PayPal) . Let me know if you are interested.

    1. I believe that study. But knowing multiple languages, you can draw from more examples, more vocabulary, and more ways of thinking. So being able to problem solve may be easier.

      I think I’m going to try Dualingo first. Thanks!

  28. I think your view is skewed by your experience. A lot of professions do not require a second language, particularly outside of NY/CA. In the center of the country, Spanish would be helpful, but not required. I voted Nothing not because I thought I was superior, but because in my profession (real estate in the midwest), it has been very rare that I encountered someone who did not speak English. Perhaps for traveling, but even recently in Paris, no problem. It’s just the way of the world. Fluency in a second language is a luxury. What if your child decides to not use their Mandarin? I would go public school and save money for college.

    1. In America, anything other than English is a luxury. But take a look at the section where I talk about the benefits of knowing a second language without a financial component to it.

      Those benefits could actually be even more valuable than money.

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