Worldwide, it’s thought up to 1.5 billion people could be learning English. This means that the number of people studying English as a second language dwarfs the number of native speakers.
With under 330 million native speakers of English across countries such as the US, UK and former British colonies, far more people are learning English as a foreign language than there are mother-tongue speakers. It’s a powerhouse language whose attraction seems to outstrip all other languages – even those with a far greater base of native speakers.
The popularity of English as a foreign language far outweighs that of Spanish. Worldwide it’s thought only around 15 million people are learning Spanish as a foreign language; despite there being around 400 million native speakers of the language spread across many countries and continents.
And as for ‘Chinese’ (a term used to describe a collection of languages including Mandarin and Cantonese), despite there being over a billion speakers of growing global influence, there’s a lot less enthusiasm for learning any of the languages in this collection.
It’s easy to explain the popularity of English as a language to learn. For decades English speaking countries have been economically dominant, it’s frequently used as the dominant language of academia, it has dominated the internet until being rivalled only very recently by Chinese content creators, and then there are the additional appeals of Hollywood and much of the popular music industry: both dominated by this particular language.
English hasn’t just been a practical way to communicate with the influential, it’s also become desirable as the language of aspiration and opportunity. It’s taking the world a while to realise that other languages may also have much to offer.
Not as many people are enthusiastically learning Chinese languages as there are people learning English or French. The low numbers of learners doesn’t reflect China’s economic significance or global influence. But there’s a perception – not unfounded – that Chinese language are difficult to learn, certainly more than English or Spanish.
There’s also the fact that China speaks not one but several languages. Some of the more influential parts of China (like Shenzhen and Guangzhou) speak Cantonese, whilst Mandarin is both the official language and the dominant one across most of China.
It’s also true that outside China there aren’t huge numbers of speakers of Chinese languages, or at least to the same extent as languages such as Spanish or Arabic, both of which are spread across multiple countries. Part of the appeal of the ‘powerhouse’ languages is that they are international and offer the opportunity to communicate with multiple nationalities around the world.
Language as a share of GDP
Looking at data for the last quarter of the 20th Century, English-speaking populations have until recently been responsible for about 30% of the world’s GDP. But, this is likely to decline in the future, partly as other populous economies such as China and India grow in GDP.
If we lump all languages spoken in PRC together, then those people who speak Chinese languages (mostly Cantonese and Mandarin) are responsible for a good chunk of the world’s GDP – perhaps around 12 or 13%.
It’s debatable which direction economic influence will go in – China has its economic problems after all. But what’s clear is that the populations who speak the languages of China are behind the second biggest section of the world’s GDP, behind English. This makes a case for Chinese languages being the rising powerhouse languages of the future.
So why aren’t more language students clamouring to learn Chinese languages, apart from their intrinsic difficulty? There are several likely reasons for this reluctance. For a start, there’s less of a historic tradition of these languages being taught in schools in most parts of the world. This means that there aren’t enough teachers to impart the skills, nor are future generations of children being trained to become Chinese language teachers.
Educational policy lags behind world events such as the emergence of China as a serious power. There’s also a lack of wider infrastructure: for instance, you can buy an audio CD to teach your baby French but you’d be challenged to find one that taught it Chinese. In Britain, many schools, towns and villages have longstanding partnerships with French and German schools, towns and villages, which act as the first port of call when it comes to exchange visits for language students.
Certainly in the West it may also be the case that many people have seen China as a threat rather than as an economic partner. China certainly lacks the romance of Italian or French and for Westerners it’s a less obvious holiday destination, removing another incentive to learn the language.
The individual and national benefits of language learning
There are benefits associated with language learning both at individual and national level. A piece in the Harvard Business Review suggested that there was a correlation between English-speaking ability in a population and GDP.
This could indicate that as a population improves its English, the more their GDP grows. Or it could mean the reverse – that as a country improves economically it invests in English language learning. But as the study looked at 60 countries it seems hard to believe that so many countries would simultaneously spend GDP gains on improving their English.
Is there anything intrinsic to English that might have this effect on GDP? Perhaps a country that’s open to learning languages is making itself more open to economic development because it’s thinking about reaching out to other markets in order to grow exports or to import the goods and services it needs to grow.
The world’s richest countries tend to be export-led and trade-driven. Trilingual countries such as Singapore and Switzerland are at the top of the list of the world’s richest nations, alongside Scandinavian ones where English is spoken to a high level. By contrast monolingual countries, or ones that are closed to the outside world, don’t tend to thrive as well if they aren’t fortunate enough to be oil rich.
This lack of language skills lowers growth. By exactly how much is difficult to say, but one estimate, by James Foreman-Peck of Cardiff University, places the “gross language effect” (the income foregone because language barriers) in 2012 as high as £59 billion ($90 billion), or 3.5% of GDP.
It seems that individuals that learn another language earn more over their lifetime compared to those who someone who only speaks their native tongue. Research from Wharton and LECG Europe found that learning a second language added around 2% to your salary, which would accrue over a lifetime of earning to around $65,000.
But the value of learning a second language seems to depend on which language you choose. There are many US citizens with Spanish as a first language, so the value to other Americans of learning it as a second language is less significant. For a start, a Spanish speaker would be in competition with native speakers in the job market. Spanish language skills aren’t rare in the US, which drives down the value of this skill in the job market.
But if an American learns German, this could add more than double the amount to their lifetime earnings compared to if they learn Spanish. It seems that in recent years there’s been a decline in the numbers of people learning German, so these skills are increasingly rare.
Of course, it’s only because Germany is a powerful trading partner that German language skills are in demand. It’s hard to see quite the same job market advantage associated with having language skills in obscure, economically disadvantaged languages. In this particular market, German a powerhouse language for boosting individual earnings.