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Do Multilingual Individuals Earn More Money?

This article was written by in Career and Work. 11 comments.


A recent article in the New York Times (linked below) synthesizes several studies about people who speak several languages fluently. I am relatively confident that the ability to converse in more than one language adds to your human capital, increasing the likelihood of earning more money over time. There are some surveys that show that bilingual individuals are valued as employees more than those who speak only one languages and are compensated accordingly, but I’m not aware of any research study that proves that learning a second language leads directly to higher income.

When a child learns to speak in a bilingual household, the brain receives more exercise in resolving internal conflicts. This is a relatively new discovery, as until recently scientists believed that a second language would cause interference and would harm children’s ability to successfully master the first language.

The benefits of learning to speak more than one languages fluently are not necessarily limited to the formative years. Adults can possibly benefit from learning a new language.

Bilingualism’s effects also extend into the twilight years. In a recent study of 44 elderly Spanish-English bilinguals, scientists led by the neuropsychologist Tamar Gollan of the University of California, San Diego, found that individuals with a higher degree of bilingualism — measured through a comparative evaluation of proficiency in each language — were more resistant than others to the onset of dementia and other symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease: the higher the degree of bilingualism, the later the age of onset.

One might take from this study the idea that those who are more resistant to brain deterioration could have more income-producing years. If bilingualism helps the brain stay competent longer, the result should be an increase in lifetime income. It has yet to be determined whether bilingualism or multilingualism can increase wealth or income by itself. According to Payscale, the data are inconclusive on this matter. There are several good signs, however, that multilingualism has the ability to open opportunities for growing wealth.

  • Speaking more than one language could present more job or career opportunities.
  • The act of multilingualism inspires the brain to do better work through improved cognitive ability and to work more efficiently.
  • Scientists claim that bilinguals are better multitaskers. I think the idea of multitasking is mostly a myth, and what we call multitasking is actually quick task-switching, but whatever the cognitive process is called, bilinguals excel.

I’m not bilingual, but I’d like to be. As a child and teen, I studied a variety of languages, including Latin, German, classical Greek, and Hebrew, but I never learned enough to be considered fluent by any stretch of the imagination. If I were to study a new language now, I wouldn’t do so with the goal of earning more money; I’m more interested in the ability to converse with more people and perhaps feel comfortable traveling.

Has speaking more than one language provided you any benefits, financial or otherwise?

NY Times

Published or updated April 3, 2012. If you enjoyed this article, subscribe to the RSS feed or receive daily emails. Follow @ConsumerismComm on Twitter and visit our Facebook page for more updates.

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About the author

Luke Landes, also known as Flexo, is the founder of Consumerism Commentary. He has been blogging and writing for the internet since 1995 and has been building online communities since 1991. Find out more about him and follow Luke Landes on Twitter. View all articles by .

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Marc

Being bilingual or using second language the same way as the native one, can only be advantage.
I personally speak and write German almost as the native speaker and it brought me new business and personal contacts and broaden my horizons.
So people who speak second language can only benefit from it, if they want to.

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avatar Ceecee ♦53 (Newbie)

I have seen jobs that I wanted to apply for but they required a person to be bilingual in English and Spanish. Since I don’t speak Spanish, those opportunities are lost for me. I believe that speaking other languages will always open up more opportunities.

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avatar tigernicole86 ♦55 (Newbie)

For myself personally, it depends on the area in which you work. I worked in a call center in southern Ohio where I was the only person who spoke Spanish. When I asked for a raise due to my extra workload, I was told be thankful I had my job where I earned on 9.50 an hour. I had my degree in Spanish plus proof that I had worked and translated with some of the groups in my community. I was told I wasn’t certified. When I left to work for the company that I work with now, I was told that I could take the test to be certified and my company would pay for me to take the test, pay for the gas to get to the testing center, and would give me a raise if I wanted to take Spanish calls. Unfortunately, I turned down the opportunity but I’m already making more just taking calls in English. However, it’s been helpful to have already learned one language because now I’m attempting to tackle Arabic due to my boyfriend’s family. :)

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avatar DonnaFreedman ♦65 (Newbie)

I went back to college in my late 40s and took a couple of years of Spanish classes as part of my degree. I’d taken it in college, but that was a LONG time ago — yet I was pleasantly surprised to see how much vocabulary I remembered.
At that time I was managing the apartment building in which I lived. As more and more Spanish-speaking applicants showed up, I was happy to be able to make myself understood (sort of). It didn’t get me a raise or anything, but it made me more effective as a manager — and even though I’m no longer managing, it’s nice to be able to communicate (haltingly) with and help my neighbors.

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avatar shellye ♦107 (Cent)

Yes, they can make more money, depending on their chosen career path, but bank tellers, for example, do not make any more money, unfortunately, than their English-only-spoken colleagues. Bilingual tellers are vitally important in our area (Texas) but they don’t make any more money to start than any other teller. It’s too bad because tellers have a historically high turnover rate, and their skills are sorely needed. It costs financial institutions a good deal of money and time to train new tellers.

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avatar Darwin's Money

Without link-dropping, I wrote an article recently on why learning a foreign language is completely useless (as an American). Reasons were varied, but essentially, the globalization, virtualization of business has diminished the need for this skill set quite a bit. Plus, there are millions of multilingual ESLs coming to America from other countries, so multinationals just hire them since they tend to speak English suitably and are perfect in their language, whereas Americans might speak foreign languages “suitably”, but usually not with mastery. Finally, multinationals can pay people a heck of a lot less and just hire then locally instead of paying a US-based American US wages plus travel.

Like you said, no data proving they actually make more money. The feel-good platitudes about the benefits may push people to learn foreign languages but I haven’t seen any studies with large sample sizes showing the benefit over putting that time and effort into other skills, like an advanced degree, working more hours or whatever.

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avatar Marco Da Silva

Multilingualism is something very common here in Luxembourg.
Apart from French, German and the actual Luxembourgish language, if you are born in a Portugese family like i was, you are confronted to 4 totally different languages by the time you turn 6 or 7.
Although i am very great full for having the chance to be born in Luxembourg. I now speak and understand 7 languages. (Pt, Fr, Ger, En, Lux, Nl, Sp) I only have some issues with writing Spanish as i only took 1 year of Spanish at university before quitting.

However, i don’t believe that you make more money by being bilingual, maybe in the states, but definitely not here.

Greetings from across the pond,

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avatar CJ

I agree. I also grew up in Luxembourg, and do speak the same languages, except for portuguese.
I do not work in Luxembourg, but did never get any financial advantage for speaking 5 languages either, when I worked in Spain, France or Germany.
So I think it is all fine in theory, but in practice you will not really get any financial advantage …

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avatar CJ

Well, I am multilingual (German is my mother tongue, but I speak and write fluently english, spanish, and french as well), and I must say that I feel that speaking several languages is not always an asset. It helps getting a job, maybe. But then again, it is quite difficult to get a job where you can really apply your knowledge and speak (or write) your languages every day. And even if you do, as soon as there are several people involved, working in several countries or areas, you immediately switch to english anyway, so … what’s the point in speaking the languages if you use always only one?

Besides, I have had some bad experiences. As soon as your manager knows you speak language x or y, he/she will probably ask you to do a “little translation work”, and these little favours will be asked more and more often. Nobody cares, that these translations go off your working time, are NOT in your usual tasks and are not paid!

So … is it really an advantage to speak all these languages? Depends ….

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avatar dave

I have some real issues around this subject. I own several retail outlets in Arizona. When I first started out,Hispanics would come into my store,and ask,politely,if there was someone who could help them in Spanish, Usually because their english was poor or they had nobody with them who could translate. Accommodating them was no problem. But things have changed. Today,they not only demand service in Spanish,they expect it,and get angry when it does not happen for some reason.Frankil,I got sick of it. I have a very multi ethnic staff. Hispanics,Asians,Native people(of which I am one) Europeans etc. I even have one woman from India,I say this,to discourage anyone accusing me of bigotry,for what I am about to say. Because of the increasing hostility,and rudeness of some Hispanics,I have banned the use of any language but English during store hours. No Spanish,Korean,Mandarin,German,Navajo,or Hindi. Period. In my line of work,I travel all over the planet. I try,no matter where I am,to learn enough of the native language of the country I am visiting,as a simple courtesy to my hosts. I am fluent in,French,Itallian,Greek,German,Polish,Japanese,Danish,and yes Spanish. It is the right thing to do,and I have every right to expect others to use English when visiting the USA. As to the employment situation,I have no trouble hiring a person who speaks English only. I see no reason why any American should be FORCED to learn a foreign language in their own country,in order to get a good paying job. Some of my employees resent my ban. My response is,it is my business,and the door opens both ways.

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avatar Luke Landes ♦127,455 (Platinum)

I’m not sure what this has to do with the topic of the article. The article doesn’t say anything about whether immigrants should or shouldn’t learn the language of their new country. The topic under discussion is the benefits (if any) of being multilingual.

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