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Language Learning as Investment: Five Starting Points

Stock options. Gold. Real Estate. These are the things people usually associate with investing. In reality, you can invest in almost anything (there’s apparently a fortune to be made in cigar and wine investments!). Today, I’ll look at learning a foreign language from an investor’s perspective – and give you five questions worth asking if you’re planning to start a new language course (or re-examine your involvement in the current one).

1. It’s (not) all about the money

If you haven’t got the message yet, there are smarter ways to learn a foreign language than splashing out tons of money and expecting miracles. This may be baffling when thinking about investing, but there are at least two more things going into every language course: time and effort.
This matters for those who are planning to learn a new language: how much time, money and effort is in my budget for this? And if I’m planning to rethink the way I learn – how has my budget changed, and what am I willing to put in now?

2. Investor profile: know yourself first!

If you’re a cautious person, it’s hard to convince you to invest in the stock market. And if you’re a risk-taker, any careful and safe investments seem too dull to you. In investing, the process of finding out more about yourself (usually before you invest) is crucial – and the effect of the process is an investor profile.
For language learning, a needs analysis performs a similar effect – but if we think about investing in learning languages, we need more than that. The question “what kind of a learner are you?” takes into account the duration, motivation and many other factors. It’s worth spending more time on this question than most people consider necessary: the answers may lead to surprising decisions about the way you want to learn!

3. Risk in Language Learning

When you put your money on the table, you risk just that: the money. It’s simple. You get more or you lose some.
When you learn languages, though – what do you risk? You lose money and time on badly chosen courses and materials. You may also find that there are ways of learning something faster and better – saving effort (or that you were wasting a lot of effort on techniques which just don’t work for you). Apart from time, money and effort, there’s also the social factor.
Fail a test and your group may laugh at you. Pronounce something in a funny way and you end up being embarrassed. Go to a foreign country – and the fear factor kicks in.
This is the hidden risk in language learning, and it’s good to be aware of it. Are you going to go the cautious way – learn safely until you’re ready, which may be never – or are you going to go the crazy way and just throw yourself out there, risking mistakes and embarrassment?

4. ROI – Three magic letters in investment

The next time someone gives you investment tips based on what they themselves invest in, ask them about their anticipated ROI. If they can’t give you the answer, never listen to their advice again.
ROI – Return on Investment – is a figure which determines how profitable your investment is likely to be. Again, figures work well if money is all you put in – which is not the case on a language course.
What am I getting for my time, work and cash? What am I expecting to get?
Be as specific as you can, and it’s OK to list unconventional things: “get a Spanish certificate in 5 years’ time” is just as motivating as “get the kicks out of haggling in Swahili.” If you’re not getting anything on your language ROI list, though, it’s time for the final question.

5. The cut-off point

Let’s say you invest in one company’s shares. Every month, you throw 10 dollars in. Every month, the investment is a loss.
How soon would you give it up?
How much sooner if it was a hundred dollars a month?
It’s hard enough to cut your losses and give up on an investment with just the money at stake: now imagine the time, sweat and emotional attachment that comes with a foreign language course!
Smart investors know their budget, their risk tolerance and keep their eyes on the ROI. If any of the parameters is getting out of whack – the cash runs low, the risk’s too high, the profit too low – they would have one more thing to help them decide: the cut-off point, set in advance. Go past that point – invest that much, reach that low level of ROI – and they’re out, simple as that.
Now, language learner…
“How much longer can I put up with that lousy teacher?”
“The price keeps going up, and I want to know if it is worth it.”
“I’ve tried this exam three times and failed. How many more tries am I ready for?”
There are several areas where you can look for your cut-off points. Know them well coming in – and formulate them in a “if this, then that” manner: if the price goes above X dollars per lesson, I’m asking for a discount. If I end up spending more than Y hours on the irregular verbs, I’m getting that flashcard software. Keep track of them – and execute when you get to them. It’s ambitious, but a lot better than going into the whole affair blindly.

Have you ever thought of language learning as an investment? If so, what are your top tips in this area?


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