Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby rdearman » Mon Feb 15, 2021 11:48 pm

nooj wrote:But for those people who choose to learn a language, does the socio-economic status of the speakers of a language have an impact on your choice to invest money and time into it, and if so, how important is it? Is it number 1 on the list of factors, or alternatively is it a factor to keep in mind but not too important?

It had zero influence on my choices. I don't think it is all that important to most people who aren't planning to move or have a monetary reason for learning. If you are choosing to learn, it is probably something else which has attracted you to the language.
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby devilyoudont » Tue Feb 16, 2021 12:19 am

For me personally, as I add languages, I am only interested in adding languages which are spoken in my city. This means there is a mix of high prestige and low prestige languages on my bucket list.

In terms of the original question: I think the answer is no. I think this is ultimately about power and empire. When people learn English, it's not because of the SES level of Americans. It's because of the power (both hard and soft) of the American Empire. A huge portion of Americans live in very bad financial situations, I believe it's estimated that about 60% don't have resources to deal with an emergency such as the refrigerator breaking down. Saudi Arabia ranks as one of the countries with the most billionaires. We think about wealthy Americans and we don't think about wealthy Arabs as a result of global power relations. Sometimes SES is coupled together with power. Sometimes it's not. For Americans, these things started to decouple about 40 years ago. This hasn't changed the appeal of English for learners.
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Lisa » Tue Feb 16, 2021 1:14 am

French and Italian (also Latin and Greek) are very much prestige languages; I rather think this is historical, outside of any economic power of the speakers or the number of speakers. There's a cultural history/mythos going on. Certainly it's a pull in me although mostly I'm too practical.

"Yeah, but you could speak to exponentially more people leaning Punjabi, Hindi or Arabic, but they don't. "

Certainly; I would have learned Chinese for the headcount; but relative difficulty to learn very much makes a difference! I admit I have no idea how hard it is to learn Hindi, presumably being Indo-euopean it's easier than Chinese. Traveling in India there was such widespead English (even in the 90s) that I didn't make any effort. And the writing system for Arabic was so daunting, that I didn't learn much more than the 10 words you need to travel.

"I do think people here (USA) DON'T learn Spanish because of the SES of the speakers. "

I hardly think 'murcans are an example! Few learn any foreign language, and pretty much everyone I know (outside my german group) that doesn't actually come from another country only has Spanish as a foreign language, either since they vacation in Mexico or have hispanic employees.

"why people relatively close to both Germany and Poland do almost never choose Polish. And why Germans near the borders, even those
going often to the Czech Republic, almost never learn Czech. It has no prestige, because they perceive Czechs as poor. ... "

What are they choosing instead? I'm not quite sure I understand the specific people making these choices, and what options they are choosing between. If you are learning purely for fun, I personally would choose Italian over German (and I'm half German). If Czech is difficult to learn (no idea) and courses are hard to find since the schools traditionally offer English, French, Italian and Spanish and have added Japanese lately...
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby sherbert » Tue Feb 16, 2021 2:20 am

Only thing I can add here is that about 2 years ago I had a conversation with someone who worked in a language academy in the United States and I asked about what was the most popular language there. According this employee, without question, it was French, because this language academy was in a very affluent community, and the students had the luxury of studying a language they had no practical use for.

French is perceived by many as a very elegant and high status language, spoken in a wealthy country, and Spanish, though much more useful, was perceived as less desirable probably because of its real or perceived association with poverty. So, yes, sometimes learners often do factor in other things, other than practicality.

The funny thing is that French is the official language of some of the world's most impoverished countries, such as Togo and Rwanda, but from the point of view of wealthy Americans, it is still a prestige language because it is stereotyped as the native language of cultured, sophisticated Western Europeans.

The wealthy are image-conscious if nothing else, and obviously they envision themselves using French to order truffles at an exclusive restaurant, not haggling with natives in Madagascar.
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Lemus » Tue Feb 16, 2021 2:47 am

I think perhaps an interesting example of this phenomenon is the changing fortunes of Chinese and Japanese in the US. Perhaps this phenomenon is more global but I will restrict my thoughts to just the American example.

Japanese remains a language of interest to many people but the people learning it now are generally doing it for cultural reasons (anime fans, for example). For a while though in the 1980s Japanese was the "it" language to study in a business context, as Japan was the rising economy power and more than a few Americans thought speaking Japanese was their ticket to guaranteed business success.

You don't really see much of that anymore. Those sort of go-getters now study Chinese for the same reasons. There remains a perception in some quarters of American society that being fluent in Mandarin is now that same sort of golden ticket to success in the business world. Growth in Mandarin programs certainly took off around the time China moved ahead of Japan as the world's second-largest economy.

The fact that very few American business students became fluent in Japanese in the 1980s or in Chinese right now is beside the point of course. What matters is what language gets the perception as being the one that promises future success in the business world. Economic fortunes of countries change; East Asian languages being incredibly difficult for English speakers remains constant.

Anecdotally, I have heard enthusiasm for Chinese is starting to dim in the US, in large part due to the growing realization that two years of high school Chinese does not, in fact, enable you to conduct high-pressure businesses negotiations.
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Ug_Caveman » Tue Feb 16, 2021 11:08 am

Lemus wrote:Anecdotally, I have heard enthusiasm for Chinese is starting to dim in the US, in large part due to the growing realization that two years of high school Chinese does not, in fact, enable you to conduct high-pressure businesses negotiations.


As someone from the UK I can confirm it's the same here. Tons of people say "I'm going to learn Mandarin/Japanese because it's amazing for business!" before realising the level of language skills you'd need to conduct such business is vastly beyond those you're likely to pick up from a few evening classes. (See also: Arabic, in some cases Russian.)

I have family members who work in international business, and (as I understand it) they're not allowed to try and conduct business in languages besides English. The prospect of a mistranslation or an accidentally offensive statement isn't worth the risk of trying out your new foreign language skills to impress clients...
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Iversen » Tue Feb 16, 2021 4:29 pm

I have learnt the main European languages long ago, and now I just study languages for fun - and then it doesn't matter how much the average native speaker of each language earns. It does however matter whether I can get good dictionaries and grammars and whether the native speakers publish books and popular sci mags and keep adding stuff to their version of Wikipedia, and for most of the languages and dialects in this world that isn't the case. There are some big ones out there which in principle might be worth learning, but I simply can't find time right now to learn for instance Hindi or Arabic or Chinese or Japanese so I have chosen to focus on the European languages. And OK, Albania may not be a rich country, but I have got a grammar and two dictionaries and a couple of books so I have a solid material basis for studying its language.
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Ug_Caveman » Tue Feb 16, 2021 7:36 pm

nooj wrote:But for those people who choose to learn a language, does the socio-economic status of the speakers of a language have an impact on your choice to invest money and time into it, and if so, how important is it? Is it number 1 on the list of factors, or alternatively is it a factor to keep in mind but not too important?


I chose to learn Dutch. Why? Because I like the country and the culture. I'm not expecting to move to or work in the Netherlands any time soon.

I know some people who chose to begin studying languages for purported business benefits. Most of those people never reached standards in their target language comparable to those of potential business partner English skills.
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Lycopersicon » Wed Feb 17, 2021 10:14 am

Here the most popular third language is Spanish, by far. German used to be the preferred choice up to the 1990s, but it's showing a steep decline now. All the good students used to take German as their first or second foreign language, however this is not the case anymore.

The demand for German in the business world is very high, though. I think most parents are aware of this fact but they still let their children pick Spanish. Looking back now, my classmates who took German in middle school all had engineer parents, which is quite interesting... I suppose Spanish has the reputation of being a very cool language and its appeal overshadows the prospects that German supposedly offers. Or perhaps it's because most people don't think that knowing German is that beneficial altogether, which would imply that Germany and Germans are not perceived as being better off socially. I can't really say, the answer could very well lie somewhere in the middle and we also have to take into account the undisputed predominance of English, both in France and in Germany.

Then, there's also a sort of vicious circle at play. The fact is that we have a lot more employable Spanish teachers while qualified German language educators are a dying breed nowadays. To give you an example, there were 245 vacant German teacher positions last year in France. However, only 136 test takers among the 233 persons that sat the exam actually met the standards. This means that 44% of the positions remained vacant! And the same scenario repeats itself year after year. German is literally the only subject (along with Classics) where we can't find enough candidates to fill up the ranks (even mediocre but, you know, okayish candidates).

So for the Ministry of National Education it is more practical to streamline language education by focusing on English and Spanish. This makes the management much simpler and economical (and the top schools can still offer German classes, anyway :twisted: ).

To conclude, I suspect that most people don't really pay attention to the social standing of the third language they choose to study. This could be due to the fact that all languages besides English are deemed to be secondary. After all, if you have to learn a third language for fun, why not take Spanish? Some status conscious, well-informed and / or ambitious parents might still make sure their kids pick German (and Latin, and further Maths), though.

We could still dig deeper into the subject, because I believe there are languages which people tend to shun actively (or maybe it would be more correct to say that those are not thought of as languages that one would actually learn and become proficient in or which you might learn for adventure but cannot expect to benefit from socially).
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Re: Is the socio-economic status of a language's speakers an important factor when choosing a language to learn?

Postby Cavesa » Wed Feb 17, 2021 12:07 pm

Lycopersicon wrote:I suppose Spanish has the reputation of being a very cool language and its appeal overshadows the prospects that German supposedly offers. Or perhaps it's because most people don't think that knowing German is that beneficial altogether, which would imply that Germany and Germans are not perceived as being better off socially. I can't really say, the answer could very well lie somewhere in the middle and we also have to take into account the undisputed predominance of English, both in France and in Germany.


France is a huge country, bound to have regional differences. German is still regarded high in the Grand Est, especially very close to the borders. And yes, when you are in one of the many small useless towns with high unemployment not that far from Germany, the Germans are perceived as better off socially. Surely not much in Strasbourg, probably not by someone in Nancy, But the small towns are different.

Yes, the predominance of English is a huge problem.

So for the Ministry of National Education it is more practical to streamline language education by focusing on English and Spanish. This makes the management much simpler and economical (and the top schools can still offer German classes, anyway :twisted: ).


Yes, it si practical. If you don't teach people German (especially those without access to the top schools or means for learning out of school), people won't move out to Germany, the Switzerland, or perhaps not even the Luxembourg (all common choices that many people in Lorraine seem to at least consider). It is a practical way that both makes the education system save some money, and it also keeps the poorer or lower middle class within the country, doing the needed but not too well paid jobs. The Czechs are doing the same thing on the other side from Germany. Just in case of the Czechs, it is really too much focus on English, and all the second foreign languages are being more and more neglected (which is dumb. Unlike the French, we don't have a valuable native language. And French, or even a few other languages would improve the future of many people just like German. English no longer has the same power.). The governments know that the anglophone countries don't want us anymore and are too far away for most people. So, enforcing English and limiting German means limiting mobility.

To conclude, I suspect that most people don't really pay attention to the social standing of the third language they choose to study. This could be due to the fact that all languages besides English are deemed to be secondary. After all, if you have to learn a third language for fun, why not take Spanish? Some status conscious, well-informed and / or ambitious parents might still make sure their kids pick German (and Latin, and further Maths), though.

We could still dig deeper into the subject, because I believe there are languages which people tend to shun actively (or maybe it would be more correct to say that those are not thought of as languages that one would actually learn and become proficient in or which you might learn for adventure but cannot expect to benefit from socially).


Yes, the English obsession is a huge problem. And it is actually marvellous that Spanish manages to do so well, exactly due to the "I might as well learn just for fun". However, it is curious that the languages of people in general viewed as poor are not considered fun too often. Romanian, Polish, or Arabic would all be both practical and surely fun choices too. But they are not.
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