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Language As An Investment

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Language And Society
This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Language As An Investment

This is the second post in a multi-part series on Language and Society. Here is the first post.

Long ago, Sir Isaac Newton gave us three laws of motion… But Sir Isaac’s talents didn’t extend to investing: He lost a bundle in the South Sea Bubble, explaining later, ‘I can calculate the movement of the stars, but not the madness of men.’ If he had not been traumatized by this loss, Sir Isaac might well have gone on to discover the Fourth Law of Motion: For investors as a whole, returns decrease as motion increases. [Emphasis added]

Warren of Buffett
Berkshire Hathaway 2005 Chairman’s Letter

OK, I’m again going beyond the depth of my experience here, but…what the heck. In for a 錢 in for a 圓…

Um…so, as we talked about in the previous post, a lot of people seem to want to learn languages for economic reasons.

And this makes perfect sense. There’s a strong correlation between language knowledge and economic power. Think: Johnson O’Connor’s research minus the “aptitude-testing” silliness.

The problem is that these same people go about their language “investment” activities in completely the wrong way. They’re the kind of people who were frantically learning Japanese in the 1980s, Pashto and Dari immediately after those rather inconveniently scheduled building demolitions in the fall of 2001, Arabic in 2002~2005, and Mandarin today. Scurrying like lemmings over whatever new cliff is presented them, never mind the fact that they weren’t done falling over the previous cliffs.

These are the same people who buy stocks when everyone else is buying them, and sell them when everyone else is selling them. Buy high, sell low. And whenever this plan fails, as it so often does, it becomes a perfect time to blame George Soros/the Jews/the Chinese/the Japanese/the Mexicans. It’s times like this that make things hard for people like George Soros’ close friend, Rabbi Alberto Matsuyama-Wang.

That joke failed. Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is this:

Learning a language is a good investment. But not in the way that most people think. And certainly not on the timescales most people are thinking on.

To put it simply, learning a language is an investment requiring so much personal attention (you have to be there the whole time), money (your brain needs books and videos to feed on), and time (despite Pimsleur’s promises, with our current knowledge and technology, the process takes longer than ten days), that it is best looked upon not as an investment, nor even a clear-cut intellectual endeavour, but as a lifestyle. A way of living. Because:

1. If we don’t know the current “hot language” already, right when it is hot, then in order to meaningfully take advantage of its hotness – which will eventually cool down, as these things do – we are going to need the ability to travel back in time. Because, starting now, by the time we get to a good level, we’ll be just in time to miss the party.

2. If fast money is the objective, then there are faster, easier, more straightforward ways of doing it than by acquiring a language. Every time we try to get people worked up into some throbbing sense of obligation to learn more languages, based on vague notions of “increasing globalization”, we are doing them a disservice.

As I’ve said before, the real reason to learn a language is because it’s there. This is how native speakers learn their language. And, ultimately, in most cases, it is native/native-level speakers that count the most as communication partners. There are exceptions to this, but none of them as useful or meaningful as we want. If one wants to get out of the “good enough for a gaijin” ghetto, then one needs to take on the native speaker’s level of commitment: all Japanese/whatever language, all the time, because this is simply who I am; it is a part of my personal identity.

Learning a language pays. But not so much in the myopic, injecting-cows-with-steroids (“they’re ready for slaughter in two weeks!”), resume-padding fashion that is, well, fashionable right now.

Knowledge of a language provides the fundamental tools and infrastructure for an endless variety of relationships, activities and interactions. Knowing the language of a country to a high level is akin to being able to breathe its air without a respirator; it’s that fundamental.

But this knowledge comes at a price (time, attention, cash), and it is a price so obvious and so high that most people cannot pay it. I know I can’t. Thus, we must figure out a way to make the language pay us. In principle, the only thing that can make a language worth learning is joy in the process itself. Unless one has incredible coercive powers over oneself (again, I certainly don’t), one is only going to go through with the language if one gets lost in the language.

Just as acting native-like is both the cause and effect of…becoming native-like, so learning a language must become an end in itself. The actual state of being in the process of acquiring a language must be its own reward. The reward must be the road itself.

So have fun, and know that it – this learning-a-language-to-pwnage-level-thing – does pay, literally. In ways that you can barely even imagine right now, it pays. But keep your head cool and level, because the world can seem to be full of hot-headed, day-trader-type language learners eager to tell you what you “should” be learning (“Japanese? That’s SO 20 years ago!”), eager to get you on their little dot lang bandwagon, so we can all head for the cliffs together.

Play for the long haul. I know that sounds negative (“hauling” things for a “long” time…there’s nothing nice-sounding about that 🙂 ). But, when you think about it, this is great news. Knowledge of Japanese/whatever language, is an investment so powerful, so valuable, that if you keep it in your portfolio (i.e. keep pwning at it), it will still be paying you back 10, 20, 30, 40 and 50 years from now. Indeed, for the rest of your life. This is wonderful, wonderful news. It means you don’t have to flit about like a Ritalin-deprived butterfly every time a new fad comes in. It’s carte blanche to enjoy yourself right where you are right now, because the sky is not falling down, the bottom is not falling out, and no one but you is deciding on bedtime.

Just enjoy yourself. You have to; yes “have” to – this is your one and only “obligation” – to have a laugh and then have another and another. Play. It’s the only thing that will get you “through” this. Plus it’s tons of fun. So. Much. Fun. 😉

The end. For now. Stay tuned for part three, coming two days from now.

P.S. Short-term, low-end, quick-and-dirty, let’s-learn-some-phrases-to-help-us-on-our-journey style learning has its place and has value. It’s just not what we’re talking about today.

P.P.S. You AJATTeers are the very best-looking, smartest commenters in the world. You always bring up insightful points that I never even considered. So, as always, I look forward to hearing from you!

P.P.P.S.: “Which Language Should You Learn to Break Into Investment Banking?: Learn English or improve your English skills – even if you’re a native speaker.” [Languages in Investment Banking]

Series Navigation<< How Do I Learn 500 Languages At Once?!Managing Greed: How To Deal With Your Language Lust >>
Series NavigationHow to Stop Worrying and Accept that Learning a Language is Unfair — Going Beyond Day Trader Style Language Learning >>

  20 comments for “Language As An Investment

  1. October 16, 2009 at 12:48

    I feel compelled to remark on here that language knowledge is absolutely not valued financially as much as it should be in western society. Perhaps this is because some are fortunate enough to grow up surrounded by multiple languages, or in a country where English is a foreign language so learn both their own mother tongue and English from a young age.

    But whatever it is, the next time I see some industry leader or head of the CBI caterwauling that our school leavers do not have adequate language skills I sill be screaming at the TV that they probably would if they saw that language ability actually paid in any quantifiable terms.

    Yes, learn languages because you love them, because you love the process, or because you are some kind of masochist! But for goodness sake never forget the hard work you’ve invested in them when someone offers you a job that relies upon them for minimum wage + £1 an hour.

    /rant over.

  2. October 16, 2009 at 12:48

    Er, why is masochist starred out?

  3. Ken
    October 16, 2009 at 14:37

    “Just as acting native-like is both the cause and effect of…becoming native-like, so learning a language must become an end in itself.”

    This is, I feel, the key point of the article, and one that it’s taken me years (decades?) to learn. You could print this in 2-inch-high letters and it would still be too small.

    For years, I’ve had jobs for which shipping the final product — the last 2% — was the satisfying part. (For some reason I thought that was the right idea.) Then I discovered something completely different for which the hard work that takes the first 98% of the time is the really satisfying part.

    You might suspect the difference is only one of degree, but it’s such a huge difference that it leaks over from a quantitative difference into a qualitative difference. If I’m practicing *all the time*, I get better much faster, which makes it even more fun, which means I want to practice more, which …

    You have to love the “putting hard work in” part of what you’re doing, not just the “getting results out”. Nobody loves anything enough to put in work they hate doing for a long time, just to get some results out years in the future. You will never stay motivated that long. You can bet Michael Jordan practices 27 hours a day because he loves shooting hoops, not because he wanted to wear a championship ring. That’s why I think AJATT might actually work: the Prime Directive seems to be something like “do whatever it takes to keep it fun”.

    (And no, my activity B isn’t “speaking Japanese”, but it’s related, so that helps.)

  4. Migi
    October 16, 2009 at 15:50

    I feel perhaps you are assuming too much Khatz. For instance I am learning Mandarin, it is an investment in my eyes. But not solely from some financial point of view, from the point of view that I get to experience China from an inside perspective as it develops further. I am very curious what kind of changes will take place Politically, Economically, and Scientifically within China(after all they’re going to beat the American back to the moon). Perhaps we are both more on the same page since perhaps I am quite enjoying Chinese as something I do, but my initial decision on Chinese was that there might be some sort of economic benefit **ON TOP OF THE BENEFIT OF JUST LEARNING ANOTHER LANGUAGE”. I don’t think most of these people solely chose their languages on the basis of economic investment, they’re human beings the same as both of us and anyone who seriously studies a language day in and day out in my opinion has to have some passion for it at that moment, and I suspect those people do. Perhaps you are referring to 3 day monks? or rather, relatively speaking, they won’t stick out long. In that case… why bother on an article to them. Why not rather an article to encourage those who are in for the long haul.

    To me this series feels misplaced and lacks your usual polish. After all you’re more guilty of 500 languages at once than most people here.(I(In reference to previous language studies prior to AJATT.)

  5. linus
    October 16, 2009 at 16:17

    I am French, and I do business studies, so I am used to hearing that kind of things about “learning languages for business reasons”. Yes, speaking a language like Mandarin or Japanese is an asset in your career. But learning a language for business reasons only is impossible. The only thing that make you hold on is the culture. Looking to all these new episodes of How I Met Your Mother I’m gonna watch, and how I will progress thanks to them in learning English. Learning Japanese by watching 茶の味 in Japanese, understanding one or two words a sentence. Thinking that I just know the most famous aspects of Japanese Culture, and that a whole world is waiting for me to be discovered if I keep on.

    I started Japanese for business reasons. I hold on for mangas-video games-Murakami books-Kitano films reasons.

  6. Matt
    October 16, 2009 at 16:44

    I’m dealing with my fare share of day-trader pressure right now; when I explain that I am learning Japanese the typical first response is that I should be learning Chinese- “where the money is!” It’s nothing new though; I studied Latin in college and received an equal amount of criticism for studying a “dead language” (I hate that term). But what keeps me motivated is not thinking of languages as means to an end, but as ends in themselves. A more geographic metaphor: I don’t think of language learning as a hike towards some sort of destination beyond the horizon; rather, I’m already at the destination, and it’s a freakin playground! My only job is to explore and play in the environment in which I find myself. The naysayers can go suck eggs while I build sand castles.

  7. October 16, 2009 at 16:57

    Khatz isn’t assuming too much things, he’s just speaking the truth about this subject. My major is Spanish and luckily my class is filled with passionate people rather than some persons that learn Spanish because it’s good for their wallet. Heck, in The Netherlands learning Spanish is not good for your wallet because there’re few opportunities to use it in an economical way. I don’t care, Spanish is my passion.

    In the U.S. on the other hand there’s some craze going on to learn Spanish. Sure, there are quite some latin people in the U.S., but is that your main reason to learn Spanish? To fill your wallet? Same goes for Mainland Chinese learning Japanese or Cantonese people learning Mandarin; just to secure a bright future.

    But most fail because their motivation is based on something they don’t fully support. We all want to have a bright future, but learning a language to achieve that is a bad beginning. Like Khatz says; you need to input such a ridiculous amount of time that if you’re not really motived you’re just aiming to fail.

    Language learning should be a selfish thing, yes, but not to get rich. You only have to learn it because you really want to do it yourself. Other than that there’re no real reason.

  8. Nii
    October 16, 2009 at 17:04

    Learning it due to interest in the country itself could be a reason. Economically its pointless. Japan’s economy/population has been in a decline for ages now. In 50 years everyone will be impressed we know the dead language!

  9. Daniel
    October 16, 2009 at 22:54

    keep on keeping it real!

  10. Amelia
    October 17, 2009 at 00:23

    Despite my incoherent, rambling comment yesterday, I’m going to risk making a fool of myself again. I have always learned languages because I LOVE them, and at the end of the day you can only learn if you fall in love. With the language, though a person who speaks it will also do if you can manage it. 😉 I’m a language butterfly, but it’s only because its my favorite pastime. I ditched my near-native French for Mandarin fifteen years ago after I lived in France and found it wasn’t for me. But now Chinese is hot…you know, which is nice. But the Russian linguists are out of a job now. So who’s to say I won’t be out of a job in ten years when Tagalog is the next big thing? I love Mandarin, so I’ll always do that. But I’m also a language whore, and nothing will stop me from learning more.

    Because with each language, I learn something new about humanity and about myself. I learned to be polite and clever in French, and how to be frank but not rude in German, and how to be empathetic and pleasant in Mandarin. The values of these cultures rubbed off onto me, and I absorbed the best of them. It’s a beautiful thing, and a lot of this cultural understanding can only come through how the language conceptualizes the world. So being a polyglot is a philosophical journey as well as a selfish one.

    But I really really want to thank Khaz for demistifying language learning, so that being bilingual isn’t seen as an elite activity. We’re just people who spend our resources differently. And like Khaz says, at the end of the day it’s the person with real world skills who’s going to succeed, not the language monkeys who don’t anything except small talk. You need something to talk *about* in the language, too.

    Just–right on, Khaz!

  11. NDN
    October 17, 2009 at 02:19

    I hate economy (ever heard of The Venus Project?) so I’m going to comment on the “fun” part. I was (probably???) a fool some weeks ago when I started beating myself with the “Why am I not having progress?” thing. The strange thing is that I APPEARED to be having fun so I had no reason think like that. HOWEVER, reality showed itself when I got some REAL FUN STUFF. What Khatz said is surprisingly effective: “one is only going to go through with the language if one gets lost in the language.” So it’s not just apparent fun, it means to REEEAAAALLLLLYYYYY GET LOOOOOOOOOOST! 😀

  12. October 17, 2009 at 14:35

    I hope you all realize how absurdly WRONG your comments about learning a language ONLY for economic purposes are — that is, unless you specifically limit the statement to Westerners of a certain mindset. 1/6th of the world population — Mainland China — learns English ONLY for economic reasons (well maybe for face too)(okay there is of course the odd exception here and there, but their lack of interest in anything but parts of the language that will get them more money — e.g. not slang, movies, entertaining things, casual speech forms, betrays what is going on and makes it obvious to anyone who has worked in a Chinese office more than a few years (ME)).

    Symptoms of people who learned a language for the money, and why I hate talking to them:
    (1) Zero interest in the culture. They expect to address me in MY language and for ME to adapt to the offensive things that end up coming out of their mouths due to their lack of knowledge
    (2) Disgusting accents — with the response to any critique “if you can understand me, it’s enough”, nevermind the strain and mind-numbing request for repeats required for me to get that “understanding”, these wankers give all the burden of the work in understanding to the listener
    (3) (Some people…) Speaking so fast that they trip constantly over their own words and such that I have to strain really hard to understand — they are trying to show-off to their peers and “gain face”

  13. Fdsfdaafsd
    October 17, 2009 at 16:07

    I never really thought about learning Japanese for economically reasons at all. Now that I think about it’s kind of interesting that people do it for that. It’s fun and I will continue to do it because it’s fun. Also here’s a tip for people who on those days that feel like your not learning anything go back to Japanese videos that made you made want to learn Japanese. That passion it gave you no matter what it is. If you’ve been doing this immersion thing long enough you’ll be impress by what you learn. Yes by giving up English I’ve given up on my identity now. I also miss those English things I did. I still have to keep going though. I believe I will eventually make my own identity piece by piece as I go on. I really don’t think that people that learn it for economic reasons are going to be doing this immersion thingy for 2 years straight. You need to have that strong passion even if you do have your dreams. Money as your passion is very bad for learning a language. It should be to have fun and as Khatz said do it because it’s there. English used to be my only passion back then. I just replaced it with Japanese just this month.

    So all in all learn a language because it’s fun. Who knows you’ll have so much fun that you’ll eventually forget about becoming fluent and just enjoy the path. Or at least that’s my story. I’ve forgot about doing Japanese hardcore a year ago when I first stumbled a cross this site. English was my passion, my life, and my desire. Now I started my Japanese project meaning that any desired English I would block from my head.

    So make more posts Khatz and keep spreading that knowlege through people’s head.

  14. adshap8
    October 18, 2009 at 07:22

    Saw this video and it reminded me of Khatz’s you have to have fun theory, otherwise you aren’t going to do it.

  15. Daniel
    October 18, 2009 at 09:08

    Decent article Khatz.

    I was hoping you would touch on some of the types of work available to bilinguals. That’s of course assuming that you have experience with these kinds of jobs.

    Also, it would be great if you went into detail about all of the types of benefits that one could gain AFTER one has become natively bilingual. I would say that your style of writing would make such an article very interesting to read.

    On what you have written here already, I think you are trying to say that “there are great financial benefits waiting once you get there, but you have to motivate yourself through all of the tough work by making it fun / convincing yourself that it is fun.” Correct me if I’m wrong.


  16. malezz
    October 18, 2009 at 09:43

    Hey Khatz, did you catch this? Charlie Brooker (British media commentator) was giving an interview to a games magazine and he made an absolutely superb analogy despite the unlikelihood of him being inducted into the Motokhatzu Method:

    CB: Do you find you sort of have an attitude where you say “stick with it, it’s good for you”?

    MCV: It’s all you can do.

    CB: You’ll pass through that wall of understanding, honest! It’s like learning a language. We’ve done it. We’ve played games for years. We know the shorthand.


    MCV: I’m guessing by the fact that you chose to dedicate so much of Gameswipe to help people understand that means that this lack of understanding and these barriers is something that frustrates you?

    CB: Yes. I don’t know the way round it, exactly. It’s a quandary and one for games developers as a whole. The closest analogy really is that it’s like we’ve learnt a language. Gamers are people who’ve learnt Esperanto. There are these brilliant films being released in Esperanto and to try and introduce a non-Esperanto speaker to them is frustrating because they’re going to give up. They don’t understand it. It doesn’t mean they’re stupid and it doesn’t mean they’re bad at games. They just haven’t put in the ground work.

  17. mark viana
    June 9, 2010 at 13:27

    i love you khatz!!!!!

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