USD 254,000: that is the cost of raising two children bilingually in English and German in Denver, ColoradoUSD 254,000: that is the cost of raising two children bilingually in English and German in Denver, Colorado. That’s a lot of money, and inspired me to do some number-crunching of my own. To begin with, it’s a reminder that language learning doesn’t come cheap. The core English-speaking countries (Australia, UK, USA et al.) largely privatize the cost of language learning, i.e. if you want to raise your children bilingually, that’s by and large treated as parents’ own private responsibility: if they can afford it, they can choose bilingual education, or violin-playing, or ice-skating, or whatever. If they can’t afford it, ‘Well, tough!’ At least, that’s how the reasoning behind public education provision in these countries largely seems to work.

Now google ‘foreign languages crisis’ or similar search terms and you will get more newspaper articles arguing that language learning is in dire straits in Australia, UK, or the USA than you are likely to have the time to read. They all predict economic decline, an inability to compete and cultural isolation because of the fact that schools in these countries by and large fail abysmally when it comes to language learning. If that’s the case, why don’t they put their money where their mouth is? Could it be that staunch English monolingualism is actually the more economically rational strategy for these countries?

Let’s see what non-English speaking countries are doing. South Korea, for example: in 2009, roughly 40% of that country’s public education budget went towards English language education. The Hankook Ilbo article stating this figure doesn’t say what that means in absolutes and I’ve extrapolated around USD 12 billion as follows: in 2009, South Korea’s GDP was USD 834,060,000,000 and in 2002 (the most recent figure I could find on the internet), they spent 3.8% of their GDP on education. A national annual investment of around USD 12 billion for foreign language learning is HUGE! Now add to that an additional private investment of KRW 1.5 trillion (around USD 13 billion). A nation of less than 50 million inhabitants spending USD 25 billion per annum on English language learning is an average expenditure of more than USD500 per person per year on English language learning. Wow!

So, language learning costs big bucks! Add the opportunity cost of devoting a lot of time and energy to language learning (i.e. you can’t spend the money nor the time and effort on other things that might be equally or even more useful) and it’s easy to see why Australia, the UK and the USA don’t go in for language learning: it’s not in their national interest as long as they can get away with making everyone else learn English. Robert Phillipson (2008) puts it this way:

Building on research in Switzerland and worldwide, François Grin (2005) was commissioned by a French educational research institution to investigate the impact of the current dominance of English in education. He calculates quantifiable privileged market effects, communication savings effects, language learning savings effects (i.e., not needing to invest so much in foreign language learning), alternative human capital investment effects (e.g., school time being used for other purposes), and legitimacy and rhetorical effects. The research led Grin to conclude that continental countries are transferring to the United Kingdom and Ireland at least Euro 10 billion per annum, and more probably about Euro 16–17 billion a year. The amounts involved completely dwarf the British EU budget rebate of Euro 5 billion annually that has been a source of friction between the United Kingdom and its partners. The finding is likely to be politically explosive, as this covert British financial benefit is at the expense of its partners. It is also incompatible with the EU commitment to all European children acquiring competence in two foreign languages. It shows that European education is skewed in fundamentally inequitable ways. It indicates that laissez faire in the international linguistic marketplace gives unfair advantages to native speakers of English not only in cross-cultural interaction but also in the workings of the market. The commodification of English has massive implications. Grin (2004) has also calculated that the U.S. economy saves $19 billion p.a. by not needing to spend time and effort in formal schooling on learning foreign languages. (p. 28)

Basically, monolinguals get a free ride at the expense of everyone who invests in language learning!

Writing this blog post I came across a fascinating ‘visual economics’ site ‘how countries spend their money.’ Take a look! It’s illuminating to see at a glance what percentages of their GDP countries spend on military, health and education. The map made me wonder whether we can do something similar for the costs of (English) language learning here on Language-on-the-Move? Everyone could help by sending links to reports, newspaper articles etc. with figures about language costs in their country/state similar to the Hankook Ilbo one I cited above. Here’s a Language-on-the-Move challenge – get cracking! Phillipson, R. (2008). THE LINGUISTIC IMPERIALISM OF NEOLIBERAL EMPIRE. Critical Inquiry in Language Studies, 5 (1), 1-43 DOI: 10.1080/15427580701696886

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • Very interesting calculations on the cost of English in S. Korea. On a macro level, even beyond language, what we’re seeing is a top-down model of human social organization. This model places primary value on social/cultural practices of groups located at the top while comparatively devaluing the social/cultural practices of those further down the chain. Those higher up rarely learn languages of groups located below and, more broadly, see little value in acquiring knowledges possessed by social groups located below them — hence the German who learns English, but devalues Turkish, etc. In the case of English globally, this means those in the U.S., UK, Australia, etc. with English as a MT — and their countries — invest comparatively little in learning other languages while everyone else learns “up”. (There are exceptions: Among a small percentage of English MT speakers who work for extended times abroad, work with minority communities in country, etc.)

  • Agree and it’s frustrating to see that mostly TESOL and all the promoters of global English as natural, neutral and beneficial get away with pretending that this is not so …

  • khan

    Very interesting discussion. I would like to share how the macro discourse of English Only unfolds in a grade six school in Karachi where pupils attend this particular school because it claims to be an English medium school. The school is located in a shanty area of Karachi and is attended by children of low-income group. “Lisa London goes to London” is the title of their English Language. The book describes the success story of a young girl Lisa who gets a free trip to London because she excels in English. Lisa lands at Heathrow from where she is taken to Hyde Park, London eye. The teacher did her best to explain what Hyde Park, Heathrow and London eye looked like. I kept noticing pupils’ efforts to visualize them and above Lisa free trip to London because she did so well in English. It is definitely difficult to say what must be going on in the minds of these learners who probably have not seen even Karachi but one thing is sure that the school is successful.

  • Thanks, Khan. “Lisa goes to London” sounds like pure magic. And I think that’s what the function of learning English has become in many contexts: the opium of the people. The lesson also reminds me of one observed by Nikolas Passasung in his ethnography of English language learning in a remote village on Sulawesi: the children there had to learn the word “vacuum cleaner” – the meaning of which was a huge mystery in a place without electricity …

  • Michael

    Very good. Sometimes learning a foreign language hasn’t anything to do with any practical purpose. but it can create the feeling of being cosmopolitan…