How to properly ascertain the "value" of a language

Sunday, November 29, 2009


The word value is in quotes because the real value of learning and using a language lies simply in, well, learning and using it. Since learning a language usually takes years and years, the only real criterion that should be considered before learning a language is whether you like it or not, whether this language appeals to you enough to invest years and years of your time learning it.

In spite of this, however, languages are often pitted against each other where the value of one is measured against the other in terms of number of native speakers, people studying the language, cultural value, etc. You see this in lazy appraisals of the situation by parents or others that have decided that Language X is totally the language of the past and Language Y is the new must-learn language. Here are some signs to watch out for that might indicate that you're dealing with sloppy logic when someone tells you that Language X is out and Language Y is the next big thing. Chinese and German are going to be compared a lot in this post as Chinese is an example of a language that is being a bit hyped now while German is an example of the opposite, a language just as worth learning that has been ignored recently.

Sloppy argument 1: Languages with more speakers are worth more than languages with fewer.

This is probably the sloppiest argument of them all. Don't learn German, it's only spoken in Western Europe, don't learn Korean, it's only spoken in Korea. The argument is sloppy though because a mere comparison of number of speakers doesn't indicate anything about a language's influence. Let's take a look at the top ten spoken languages in the world as an example. The last one has been removed from the list, so try to guess which one it is.

Chinese, English, Hindi/Urdu, Spanish, Arabic, French, Russian, Indonesian/Malay, Portuguese, and...?


Hm, what could the missing language be? Japanese? Nope. German? Nope. Vietnamese, Korean? No again. The next language on the list is Bengali, one of the most spoken languages in the world with a total speaker population of 230 million. And how often does one hear an exhortation to learn Bengali instead of German or Italian, because there are so many people to use it with? Clearly the sloppy argument about number of speakers is the wrong one to use.

A far better way to ascertain the "value" or influence of a language is to look at a few criteria:

1: GDP per capita
2: Status of the language in the respective countries and areas where it is used
3: Press freedom, internet freedom, economic/human development in the countries where it is used

GDP per capita: GDP per capita is much more important than total GDP or total population, because when someone tells you that Language X is worth learning because it "helps your career", what this means simply is that Language X is better than other languages at helping one earn more money in the end. Okay, so let's think about how the average person makes money. Is it through stocks, buying and selling land, creating companies...? No, usually not. The vast majority of us make money by working for a company, trading a certain number of hours a week in exchange for a certain amount of money. In other words, since most of us work in positions like these, the total number of high-paying jobs that a language has to be able to provide in order to be more worthwhile than another is: one. It doesn't matter whether the language is spoken by one million or one billion, as long as knowing it makes the difference between getting and not getting that one job that pays well and it worth doing.

Take Norway as an example. Norwegian is the easiest language for English speakers to learn, and it has the second highest GDP per capita in the world after Luxembourg. If knowing fluent Norwegian can help one get a job making twice as much money back home, then clearly the language has demonstrated its economic value in spite of being spoken by only 5 million people. On the other hand, Spanish is spoken by more than 400 million people throughout the world, but its value in the workforce (especially in the United States) is a bit iffy, since it's not all that rare a skill to have. Perhaps you are fluent in Spanish, but so are a few million immigrants who do not demand all that high a salary to work. This is not to say that Spanish is not a worthwhile language to learn, but it's not a language where simply putting it on a resume results in a higher salary.

Status of the language in the respective countries and areas where it is used: This is important because often languages have differing statuses in the countries where they are used - some will be official languages, some simply spoken by a large segment of the population, some will be seen as cultured languages by the population, etc. Spanish in the US and French in Canada provide a good example. Spanish is spoken by far more people in the US than French is in Canada (though not per capita, mind you), but French is an official language of the country and many government jobs require fluency in French. These government jobs start the employee out at a slightly lower pay scale than others, then give the employee a year of training in which he or she has to become fluent after which you have a cushy government job and are set. Fluency in French is also often seen as a sign of intelligence or status in Canada, more so than Spanish in the United States.

Afrikaans is another interesting example. It is also another easy language to learn, the cousin of Dutch, and spoken by quite a few people.(12 to 16 million, maybe more). Unfortunately in South Africa it is technically only one of 11 official languages, and so many speak English so well that Afrikaans has to work hard to stay noticed, and even that is only in the western part of the country. Afrikaans is also still (unfairly) stuck with some of the baggage that comes with the legacy of Apartheid.



Press freedom, internet freedom, etc.: Chinese is a good example here of a language that is spoken by a large population and fairly influential, but still a bit sketchy. A few months ago riots occurred in Xinjiang / East Turkestan, the western part of China with a large Uyghur population. In response to this, the internet was cut off entirely. China also often cuts off access to sites like Wikipedia and others from time to time at a whim and without warning. This is quite a big deal since the majority of Chinese found in the world is spoken in the People's Republic of China; remove that country from the equation and there is little influence left. It also remains to be seen whether China will be able to improve its overall environmental footprint in spite of a rapidly growing economy.

On the other hand, Germany and other countries where German is spoken are managing to do quite well here. Press freedom is not restricted, internet access is good, technologies such as wind technology, electric cars and passive houses are being given a lot of importance. Given all this, German is probably still a safer bet in spite of the hype Chinese has been given over the past few years.

Let's get to sloppy argument 2.

Sloppy argument 2: You don't need to learn languages spoken by people that are good at English.

This argument is another sloppy one that has no basis in reality, and is often given by those that have spent a few weeks in Europe and are amazed at how "everyone speaks English". Yes, certainly a lot of people speak English in Western Europe when approached by a tourist needing help. But no, this does not mean that learning the language spoken there suddenly becomes a waste of time and effort. We'll take Norwegian as an example again, since Norwegians are some of the best English speakers in Europe. If you happen to have a very marketable skill then certainly it is possible to work in Norway while knowing only English. Otherwise, however, knowing the language is probably one of the best ways to make inroads into the country, to impress potential employers that you are a serious and ambitious potential employee. It's true that most in the office will still be able to speak to you in English, but a monolingual English employee is still the only one that is not able to answer the phone, understand the conversation by co-workers in the background, understand a rental contract by themselves, understand the news, know what the bus driver is talking about when he says that there's been an accident up ahead and they will have to take a right turn here instead of going straight as the bus usually does, etc. In other words, monolingual employees always require a certain amount of babysitting that bilingual employees don't.

And besides, there are also jobs out there that require a knowledge of Norwegian - Microsoft hired a large number of beta testers fluent in Norwegian when creating the Norwegian translation of Windows 7.

Sloppy argument 3: forgetting to factor in difficulty and similarity to other languages.

This is another area in which Chinese is overhyped at the expense of others. Check the comments section in any Canadian article on French and one is more likely than not to find a comment along the lines of "man, nobody speaks French anymore and French bilingualism is a waste of money. We should be teaching our kids Chinese instead".

The reason why this is a sloppy argument is easy to see: Chinese takes a lot longer to learn for a unilingual speaker of English, and it helps less in learning other languages later on. The only languages that really become easier after learning Chinese are Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, and this is due to a large historical Chinese influence as opposed to any real similarity between the languages. Leave that part of the world though and Chinese doesn't help to learn any other languages. Compare this to French: French is similar to Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Romanian and Latin, and it has had a huge influence on English as well. It's even similar to German in a few respects (using the verb have to make the past tense, -ons (German uns) in 1st person plural, etc.). It also takes less time to learn. This is important because most students do not become fluent in the first language they take up in school. Many learn one language for a few years, decide they don't like it and then move on to a different one later on. If you learned French in school and want to move on to Spanish or Portuguese, you're good. Same for learning German in school and moving on to Norwegian or Swedish later. Chinese...not so much.

Sloppy argument 4: language X is spoken in more countries than language Y and has a higher total GDP so it's more worth learning.

This isn't quite as sloppy as the other arguments given above since it requires a bit of thought to come up with, but it's still not quite accurate. It's seen often when the argument is given that Spanish is more worth learning than another European language because it's spoken in so many countries, especially in Central and South America. This is naturally a good argument when your goal is to travel or live in Central or South America. It's a bad argument though when one's goal is to simply find a higher paying job, or move to a different country in order to do so. The reason for this is that the GDP numbers here are not per capita. Indeed, the highest GDP per capita one will find in Spanish-speaking South America is Chile, and even that is only $10,000 or so. Compare that to Norway, where the minimum hourly wage is about $16.50 ($34,320 per year). Yes, the country is also much more expensive but compare being able to save some 10% of one's wages in Norway compared to other countries.


Conclusion: this post is not meant in any way to sway you towards languages like Norwegian or German or anything else, but merely to attempt to make sure that you are not swayed towards a language you would not otherwise learn due to sloppy logic. It is always most important to simply learn a language that you are capable of putting in years and years of time into, and if that language is Chinese or Welsh or French or Bislama, then so be it. Just be careful that you do not find yourself a year or two later in the middle of a textbook of a language you do not particularly like, because your parents or friends or teacher or anyone else made a sloppy argument that seemed to be valid at the time but turned out to be little more than hype.

13 comments:

Matt said...

I've actually spent many, many, many hours using quantitative measures to objectively "calculate" the world's languages with the most theoretical "value" (other than English). I experimented with different factors, such as Internet presence, economic influence, geographic distribution, growth rate, life expectancy, cultural heritage, political relevance, military implications, and even Wikipedia quality. No matter what factors I used, or how I chose to weigh them, Mandarin came in at the top spot nearly every single time.

I ensured my data would be relevant for the future by factoring growth rates into current rankings. For example, my rankings for Internet presence involved a calculation more or less in which I squared current Internet populations, multiplied them by their growth rates over the last few years, and divided them by their penetration rates. In other words, having a large current Internet population, having a high growth rate, and having a low penetration rate would all work in a language's favor. Mandarin, of course, came out on top, and by a landslide. The second position, Spanish, wasn't even close. If I included English, it probably would have ranked second, behind Mandarin and ahead of Spanish.

My economic rankings were based on Goldman Sachs' predictions for—I believe—2030. Of course, Mandarin came out on top here as well. By 2040 (possibly earlier; can't remember), even if I included English, Mandarin would have still held top place.

My research revealed some very interesting things, and it also confirmed some things that one would intuitively expect.

I was surprised by how utterly little economic influence Arabic holds. Even if you add all the Arabic-speaking countries together, they have a lower GDP than Italy or Brazil alone. Obviously, one expects the Middle East to be poor; but by comparison, Spanish, cumulatively, came in third, between Japanese and German, and Latin America ain't that wealthy.

Another thing I noticed is—forgive me for my political incorrectness—how much of a hellhole Russia really is. Indeed, the entire former Soviet Union is a rather miserable place. Russia's demographics are outright depressing.

Africa is the only thing keeping French a lingua franca, which really isn't that surprising.

[continued]

Matt said...

[continued]

Italian, language of a rich country in decline, and Portuguese, language of a poor country climbing in the ranks (and a more or less irrelevant rich country in decline), hold roughly the same "value".

It is true that I did not factor in language's ease of learning and similarity to other languages. I could, if I wanted to, using this list:

http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers

...but I didn't, as I feel it would somewhat "taint" the universality of my rankings (they wouldn't apply to those whose mother tongues aren't European languages).

Anyways, if you're interested, I could send my findings to you. It's all in one Microsoft Word document. I didn't always cite how I came up with the rankings, which is a shame, but I could probably retrospectively explain most of them.

Also, I should note, I only researched thirteen different languages. In retrospect, I probably should have included Turkish and Farsi. The only "major" language I didn't include was Bengali, but because of Bangladesh's cultural and demographic similarities to Pakistan and India, and considering Hindustani tied for last place in just about every ranking, I'd say its exclusion was a reasonable choice. I also didn't include Filipino or Thai. It might have been interesting to see how Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese all compared to each other, but with the Philippines being such a "wannabe-Anglophone" country, it would have been hard to designate appropriate linguistic weight.

Vietnamese, Korean, and Indonesian were all languages not usually considered that I included out of personal interest. They ended up tying with Hindustani for the last four spots in nearly every ranking. Korean obviously has higher per-capita value than Indonesian or Hindustani. Also, Korean was hurt by North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world, which essentially renders Korean's "value" to be cut in half.

Well, let me know if you're interested in the rankings. I already brought up most of the interesting observations and conclusions, and the rankings will probably appear meaningless to you without knowing how they were calculated. Ah, well.

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

Sure, I'd be very interested in seeing the rankings. It looks like a fairly comprehensive look at the value of the languages themselves, and it would be interesting to take the data and factor in ease of learning + the ability to transfer to other languages. I had a fairly easy time learning Korean after first learning Japanese for example (Japanese took three years and Korean half that). I'm mostly concerned about the point of view of the student, because there are so many people out there that spend a few years learning something they didn't give much thought to in the beginning and later came to regret.

I think Turkish would probably rank somewhere a bit below Russian, if you include other closely related Turkic languages in Central Asia and some areas in Europe where Turkish is easy to find.

Matt said...

Well, I sent it to your email address.

Make sure you open it in Microsoft Word; previewing it in HTML in Gmail screws up the formatting...

Tom said...

I learned Indonesian for a lot of reasons, many of which are similar to your article.

First, it's the easiest non-Indo-European language for Westerners to learn - it has a sophisticated but simple and expressive grammar, it's written using a subset of the Roman alphabet, and it's (almost) completely phonetic (and the one irregularity, whether "e" is pronounced as a schwa or not, turns out never to change the meaning of a word, so people will always understand what you say...)

Second, a lot of people speak it - about a quarter billion - but very few of them in the US - so it has both practical and rarity value.

Finally, Indonesia is a fantastic place to go travelling - it's incredibly beautiful and the people there are very happy if you make the slightest attempt to speak their language and will chat to you all day (the one issue is that they won't ever correct your language unless they know you really well, no matter how much you ask, because they think it's rude).

I'm thinking my next step is to go back and put a little more work into my Spanish again (learned it two years ago, haven't had as much chance as I'd like to use it) and then use that to springboard into the rudiments of Italian and Portuguese (I find I can already understand hints of these languages...) - precisely under the "more bangs for buck" argument.

Kate said...

What about the value of language that comes from its beauty, its uniqueness? Or the culture it is connected to? If everyone chooses what language to learn based on its economic power, then what happens to powerless endangered languages?

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

That's why the word value is in parenthesis, because the real value of a language doesn't come from its economic power alone. Personal interest trumps all other reasons.

Bryan said...

These economic arguments are senseless. If you want to make more money, invest your time and energy directly into the skill that you provide. Learning a language is the most round about and inefficient way to increase your salary. Why not get good at your job? Has anyone actually gotten rich by learning foreign languages compared to investing time in their own business or becoming a qualified expert at something? Waste of time.

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

>If you want to make more money, invest your time and energy directly into the skill that you provide.

Nobody said learning a language is the key to making money. This is more for those who are learning a language anyway and for somewhat selfish reasons, and who don't want to learn one and then find out that another would have been much better for their field of work.

Language by itself is not very useful in making money; combined with another skill it is. Learning Russian and Turkmen for example won't do you much good, but if you've been working in oil for a decade or two then they're ideal for getting a good post overseeing projects in Central Asia. Translation also often requires specialized knowledge in a certain field, so simple fluency there won't do much good.

The EU also pays very well for interpreters if you are really good at your job:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YrgdukWVaGE

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

That's why the word value is in parenthesis, because the real value of a language doesn't come from its economic power alone. Personal interest trumps all other reasons.

Kate said...

What about the value of language that comes from its beauty, its uniqueness? Or the culture it is connected to? If everyone chooses what language to learn based on its economic power, then what happens to powerless endangered languages?

데이빛 / Mithridates said...

Sure, I'd be very interested in seeing the rankings. It looks like a fairly comprehensive look at the value of the languages themselves, and it would be interesting to take the data and factor in ease of learning + the ability to transfer to other languages. I had a fairly easy time learning Korean after first learning Japanese for example (Japanese took three years and Korean half that). I'm mostly concerned about the point of view of the student, because there are so many people out there that spend a few years learning something they didn't give much thought to in the beginning and later came to regret.

I think Turkish would probably rank somewhere a bit below Russian, if you include other closely related Turkic languages in Central Asia and some areas in Europe where Turkish is easy to find.

Matt said...

[continued]

Italian, language of a rich country in decline, and Portuguese, language of a poor country climbing in the ranks (and a more or less irrelevant rich country in decline), hold roughly the same "value".

It is true that I did not factor in language's ease of learning and similarity to other languages. I could, if I wanted to, using this list:

http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Language_Learning_Difficulty_for_English_Speakers

...but I didn't, as I feel it would somewhat "taint" the universality of my rankings (they wouldn't apply to those whose mother tongues aren't European languages).

Anyways, if you're interested, I could send my findings to you. It's all in one Microsoft Word document. I didn't always cite how I came up with the rankings, which is a shame, but I could probably retrospectively explain most of them.

Also, I should note, I only researched thirteen different languages. In retrospect, I probably should have included Turkish and Farsi. The only "major" language I didn't include was Bengali, but because of Bangladesh's cultural and demographic similarities to Pakistan and India, and considering Hindustani tied for last place in just about every ranking, I'd say its exclusion was a reasonable choice. I also didn't include Filipino or Thai. It might have been interesting to see how Filipino, Thai, and Vietnamese all compared to each other, but with the Philippines being such a "wannabe-Anglophone" country, it would have been hard to designate appropriate linguistic weight.

Vietnamese, Korean, and Indonesian were all languages not usually considered that I included out of personal interest. They ended up tying with Hindustani for the last four spots in nearly every ranking. Korean obviously has higher per-capita value than Indonesian or Hindustani. Also, Korean was hurt by North Korea's isolation from the rest of the world, which essentially renders Korean's "value" to be cut in half.

Well, let me know if you're interested in the rankings. I already brought up most of the interesting observations and conclusions, and the rankings will probably appear meaningless to you without knowing how they were calculated. Ah, well.

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