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How to budget for a polyglot lifestyle – the cost of language learning

Piggy bank full of dirty  coins This is a quick note inspired by an exercise I did for myself the other day. It is connected with long-term thinking, but also with the prices and money matters connected with learning foreign languages. I’m going to give you a few ideas about how to budget for your bilingual education – but I’m happy to hear yours!

1. Shopping lists and budgets

Recently, organising and designing stuff has become my new hobby. This involves money as well – I live in a horrendously expensive town! So a quick thought experiment helped me to make sense of my finances just in one day.
I took a list of everything I would like to own. It’s not a big list as I’m not a huge hoarder, but there were a few items that I couldn’t live without. Then I calculated how often I’m likely to pay for these – a new laptop every 6 years, a new pair of sneakers each year, and so on. The result is an amount I’m likely to spend on “stuff” each year.
Read more about this on Leo’s blog, if you’re keen.

2. Language learning – an investment, an expense, a sinkhole?

Here’s what you need to understand first: learning other languages is expensive. How expensive is it? That depends on your methods – but one thing is likely to remain constant: this will cost you, and it will take time.
If you’re investing in this – if you believe that becoming bilingual will be worth it in the long run – then you should probably consider whether there is a return on investment involved. And whether it’s real (as the Freakonomics guys have apparently set out to measure) or just imaginary.
If you treat it as something that just “would be nice” then foreign languages are likely to be an expense, and possibly an irregular one at that. You’d pay for a course every now and then – or buy a dictionary if you needed it.
And – if things go really badly  – you could fall into a sinkhole with your language learning. This would mean that you’re not really benefiting from this at all – but you just keep paying for something that stopped being fun / useful / attractive some time ago. This is the so-called “sunken costs” phenomenon.
(Read more about these with Freakonomics, or consult Tim Ferriss on the sunken costs in lifestyle design).

3. Budgeting for bilingualism – three main principles

There aren’t many differences between spending your money on language learning and spending it on anything else. If you just stick to reasonable consumer tactics, you should be fine. The things that are likely to be different, though, can be summed up as such:
Take advantage of foreign markets. This is almost self-explanatory: bringing a native speaker over to your country is going to be more expensive than you going out to look for them in their native country! Combine this with currency differences – and you may be getting yourself a good deal. Example: I’d have to pay 20 pounds for an hour of Polish classes with a native speaker here in London – this, with some searching and shopping around, could give me 3 hours of classes via Skype with someone in Poland. With some preparation, this extends to learning resources, authentic reading/listening texts and language learning holidays as well.
Know when more is needed. For many languages and many keen polyglots, different resources are needed at different stages. Absolute beginners can stick with their teacher and a basic coursebook. As you go on, you’ll need more stimuli and resources – pricey ones at that, because grading them to your intermediate levels would take effort. And on the other side of this cost-intensive stage is mastery – where you can fish for resources, texts and foreign language entertainment yourself (without spending a penny, if you so wish).
Do this for your future self. Watch Dan Gilbert’s brilliant TED talk and think: is your future self going to be happy to have spent all that time with this cool, geeky but useless teacher? Are you really convinced you’re going to need Spanish translations of Japanese manga when you’re 40? What if ten years from now, another language would be really useful in connection with the one you really love and enjoy now? Languages are long-term relationships, and as such, they will evolve and change with you – but only if you allow them space to grow. Budget for this now – so you can afford to be awesomely multilingual later.

4. Share your money tricks, polyglots!

How do you make ends meet and spend time learning languages? What would you never pay for? What’s worth every cent? Let us know in the comments if you please (this one costs nothing).

(Photo credit: J J via Compfight)

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