Angela Merkel was just chosen as Time’s Person of the Year for 2015. In their headline, Time described her as the “Chancellor of the Free World.” Which means it is timely to look at how German is playing an increasing role in international politics, business, and culture.
Many people know speaking a second language is valuable to your career. But how much is it worth? Back in 2002, Albert Saiz and Elena Zoido of Harvard University produced a working paper, Returns to Speaking a Second Language. In this paper, they were able to show the annual return for speaking a second language was about 2% of your overall salary. While that may not seem like a lot, compounded over a lifetime it makes quite a difference.
Plus, while speaking “any” second language was worth on average of a 2% premium, the specific language made quite a difference. Returns were only 1.5% for Spanish and French was worth 2.3% annually. Learning German, though, meant a difference of 3.8% — nearly twice as much annually as the average foreign language. For a lifetime earning, compounded, it meant learning German was worth over $128,000 for a career.
The disparity stems from the laws of supply and demand. There are nearly 400 million people worldwide who speak Spanish natively, and 89.5 million Spanish L2 users (speak Spanish as a second language). Whereas with German, there are 90-95 million native speakers, and only 10-15 million German L2 users.
This rarity of second-language German speakers, combined with the power of the German economy in modern Europe, means there is a premium to learning this language when entering international business. There is also an inherent advantage for German speakers who are fluent in other international languages.
For the EU, which has a total population of about 503 million inhabitants, Germany’s 81 million represents about a sixth of the overall union. Its economy is even stronger, representing about 20% of the total GDP of the EU.
By comparison, California has a population of about 39 million out of 319 million total U.S. population, representing about 12% of America’s population and 13% of U.S. GDP.
If you are interested in learning more about the German economy, its best to learn the native German term for “economy:” Wirtschaft. This word derives from two roots: Wirt (“host” or “caretaker”) + shaft (“-ship,” as in a state of being). This connotes the state of being a mindful manager of funds, such as a steward or trustee. It is the functional equivalent of the English word economy, which stems from the Greek origin oikonomos: oikos (“house”) + nomos (“managing”) , or “steward”).
In French, the equivalent word is économie. In Spanish, economía. Even Dutch uses economie. You can see the German root-words of Wirtschaft are quite different from modern English and other languages that derive from the original Greek. This difference in Germanic roots is what often trips up people used to speaking other Romance languages.
One last note: the original Greek is also borrowed directly into modern German, but is used to name the study of economy; e.g.,”economics:” Ökonomie.
Now that you know all of this, you are now ready to make German your “language of the year” for localization!