Language Skills Won't Necessarily Get You a Job

When Ivone Garcia-Franco decided two years ago to enroll her daughter Olivia, 5, in Mandarin classes, she thought that, among other benefits, it would give Olivia an advantage when looking for jobs in the future.

“She would have the opportunity to be able to work in those communities or with people who are only Chinese speaking,” said Garcia-Franco, who used to work in a school in Chinatown and regrets not being able to speak the language.

Foreign languages centers for children as young as six months have spread across the city in recent years. While there are cultural and even personal reasons for enrolling children in a language class, teaching centers have also touted the benefits of mastering a foreign language in the job market.

But even as America’s melting pot incorporates more immigrants and languages, even as the business world becomes more global, some say the dominance of English as the language of business and commerce has only become more pronounced. Though second language skills are still an asset in some fields, experts say their value in the job market is not universal.

“Years ago, I remember bilingual Spanish was very important,” said John Warren, a job recruiter from A-List Associates, a New York based employment agency, who mostly place people in financial services firms and hedge funds.  “We needed French speakers, Castilian.  But in the last two years, it hasn’t been true.”

In Asia, for example, the lingua franca is English, Warren said.

“We’re doing a lot more business in Asia, in the Asian markets,” he said. “But there’s been no need for Asian language.”

A 2009 study found no evidence that U.S.-born Asian and Hispanic bilingual workers have higher wages than monolinguals.

“We could find no evidence of an economic incentive for bilingualism among male workers, neither the highly educated nor those in public employment,” wrote Richard Alba, a professor of sociology at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and Hyoung-jin Shin, a sociologist at Brown University, in their research paper, “The Economic Value of Bilingualism for Asians and Hispanics.”

The study, published in the academic journal Sociological Forum, used data from the 2000 U.S. Census and studied Hispanic and Asian workers 25 to 64 who were either born in the U.S. or came here as children.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a professor in the Department of Political Science at Columbia University, goes a step further in the research he did for the 2007 paper “No entiendo: The effects of bilingualism on Hispanic earnings.” Speaking a second language can actually be a disadvantage for Hispanics, he found.

“If you are bilingual in the service industries you make less money,” said de la Garza, mentioning as examples people who wait tables or work as hospital aides. “The irony is that at higher levels you are not paid for knowing Spanish. You may get a job, but increasingly the people you work with internationally know English, so they don’t need you to know Spanish.”

Still, a foreign language could help one find a better job in certain fields, other experts say.

“Sales or management positions in companies with significant overseas operations would place a premium on bilingual skills, as would firms serving tourists,” wrote James Brown, a labor market analyst for the New York State Department of Labor, in an emailed statement. “These firms would generally expect an applicant to be able to read, write and speak… both English and the second language at a high-school equivalent level.”

Public offices are among the industries where people who speak foreign languages have access to better salaries. At least that’s what April Linton, a professor at the Department of Sociology at University of California, San Diego found in her research paper, “Context for Bilingualism Among U.S.-Born Latinos,” published in 2008.

“Forty percent of the city government offices were paying more for Spanish English bilingualism,” especially in cities where there are less Spanish speakers, said Linton.

Different reasons, different people

Many parents say they don’t care about whether or not there are job advantages for those that acquire a second language. Language learning’s popularity has increased during recent years and parents think that is a way to expose their children to different cultures.

Francois Thibaut, founder of the Language Workshop for Children, a center that teaches Spanish, Italian, French and Chinese to kids in New York and four other states said he doesn’t market languages classes as a tool for helping children find jobs when the grow up. Even so, Thibaut said he believes that being bilingual is an asset in the job market.

“In all honestly, it’s extremely likely that somebody who speaks Spanish in addition to English is going to have more doors open,” said Thibaut.

He also encourages parents to enroll their children in Chinese.

“Today, matters involving Chinese trade, manufacturing and diplomacy are front-page news, and will continue to be important in the future,” said Thibaut.

Sharon Ng, director of Lango, a program that offers language classes in Brooklyn and Manhattan, said the children’s ability to land a job in the future is not parents’ main motivation for sending them to language classes. For her, the reasons to enroll children in languages classes are more related with culture.

“The new Brooklyn family is very multiculturally focused,” Ng said.

Different parents have different reasons to teach their children second languages. Tatyana Gershkovich, originally from Russia, enrolled her four-year-old son Aaron, in French, because she thought that at such a young age it could help him intellectually.

“I’ve always thought that learning a language at a young age actually helps you develop sort of abstract thinking,” Gershkovich said. “I know it helped me. I studied English when I was five and then took French and a little bit of Spanish,” she said.

For Bryan Russell, who enrolled his two-year old daughter Vivian in Musica Para Mi Spanish classes four months ago, it was more about the possibility of communicating with people.

“There are so many Spanish speakers in New York,” he said. “She understands everything our babysitter says.”

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