I’ve taken a lot of foreign language classes in my life. At different times, I’ve studied German, French, Russian, Spanish, and Japanese. The teachers that I encountered in these classes, not to mention many of my colleagues now, frequently talk about the value of language learning and multilingualism. Among the many reasons we provide for why people should study languages is an economic advantage. Specifically, additional languages are supposed to serve as assets on the job market.
For the past week or so, I’ve been working with a large collection of job ads I collected from careerbuilder.com, trying to understand the discourse of these advertisements and what it might tell us about the way inequality is reproduced in the United States. One thing I was interested in exploring with this set of data was whether bi- or multilingualism really was the boon to people’s incomes that it is often presented as by language teachers.
Unfortunately, my research tells a much grimmer tale. On the careerbuilder.com job market, Spanish is not really treated as a marketable skill. Indeed, it is far more likely to appear as a requirement or a preferred qualification (“a plus”) in jobs offering wages in the bottom half of all incomes in the United States than for those offering wages in the top ten percent (according to the US Census). I estimate that Spanish is mentioned in listings advertising jobs that pay less than $35,000 per year ten times more frequently than in listings for jobs that pay over $95,000.
Amado Alarcón and Josiah Heyman recently published a paper in the journal Language in Society (version of record here), in which they examined the use of bilingual call centers along the border between the United States and Mexico. Interestingly, many of the jobs that mention Spanish in my data pertain to call centers. Alarcón and Heyman claim that the call centers that they studied view Spanish-English bilingualism among their workers as “not worthy of special compensation or development” (p. 18). This is the picture I see in my data as well. At best, Spanish may offer a competitive edge in securing a low wage job, but it seems to offer its speakers very little in terms of increased compensation.
It may seem as though I am suggesting that Spanish and Spanish-English bilingualism among US Latin@s (or others in the US for that matter) is not worthwhile. This is not my position, although I sense that the devaluing of Spanish (and other languages besides English) on the US labor market contributes to the tendency for immigrant groups to lose their heritage languages over time. Rather, I believe that there is a case to be made for Spanish-English bilinguals to have their linguistic abilities valued by companies and treated as important skills. Certainly, companies are increasingly paying attention to Latin@s as a consumer group. Knowledge of Spanish is clearly a relevant asset to understanding that group, and I hope Spanish speakers will continue to make the case for the valuing of their abilities, and I hope companies will listen.
Some notes on my methods
I collected the data using a web-scraper built in R. The program cycled through the 58 categories of jobs listed on careerbuilder.com. It downloaded about 2500 job listings from each of the categories.
To perform my analysis above, I took only the advertisements that included a base salary in the General Information. This left me with around 32,000 ads. I turned each salary range into an estimated yearly salary. To do this, I took the highest number in the range. If it was an hourly rate, I multiplied it by 40 hours and then 52 weeks to simulate full time employment in order to make each wage comparable (although of course many of the jobs are actually part time only).
I searched for spanish in the entire corpus of job ads and separated the corpus into those ads containing spanish and those not containing the term. 916 of the ads contained the word spanish. I examined many of the instances of spanish to ensure that they were discussing the language as a possible qualification for the job. This was true for all of the cases that I observed.
I then computed the median base salary for each of these sets of job ads and performed a statistical test (Wilcoxon rank sum test) to determine if they were significantly different. They were. (See the graphic above.)
I also looked at the frequency with which spanish showed up in three categories of jobs: those with low, mid, and high wages. These wage categories correspond to the following income classifications based on the 2013 US Census’s Annual Social and Economic Supplement:
Low wages = bottom 50% of incomes in the US
Mid wages = everything in between
High wages = top 10% of incomes in the US
I examined the frequency with which the job listings containing the word spanish fell into each of these three categories and compared it with the distribution of these categories in the corpus more generally. The distributions were significantly different. (See graphic above.)