Linguistic inequality: Spanish on the job market


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, 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 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 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.)

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Posted in Language and social class
15 comments on “Linguistic inequality: Spanish on the job market
  1. Debra says:

    I found this so interesting, Nic. Thanks for sharing your research.

  2. eflnotes says:

    very neat, any chance you could do a post detailing how you built the web scraper?


  3. Do you think the story may be different for other languages? I’m thinking mostly of languages that I associate more with global commerce, like Japanese or German. When I was growing up, we were told that learning one of those languages could be very beneficial because the auto companies at the time were often Japanese or German. As anecdotal evidence, I worked for a company for a while that specializes in teaching foreign languages to businessmen and providing other expat services, largely to people working for auto companies. I’m not sure if this is a fiction like what you outline above, or a function of geography (the Detroit area) or time (the 90s).

  4. Hey Mura, Thanks as always for your support! I can definitely send you the code if you’re interested in web-scraping (though I’m no expert coder). I’ll think about the web-scraping post; right now, I’m just a little worried that it’s outside of my mission with this blog.

  5. Hey Jane,

    That’s a great question. I did look at a range of other languages. What I saw was that Spanish was the only one with any sizable presence in my corpus. After Spanish with 916 listings, the next highest was French with 90 (and Japanese was close behind at 87). As you suggest, the situation does seem to be a bit different, with these languages being associated with higher paying jobs. I would add though that often Spanish was listed right along with these jobs in such postings. Thus, in terms of raw numbers there didn’t seem to be more high wage jobs for French, German, or Japanese than for Spanish. What was making the biggest difference between these languages and Spanish was the absence of the low wage positions.

  6. Thanks for your kind words Debra!

  7. eflnotes says:

    hi Nic that would be cool getting your code 🙂 thx

  8. Mai Kuha says:

    Very interesting!

    I’m reminded of this: “As those with least power came to speak the most languages in colonial contexts, bilingualism and multilingualism became associated with those of least status.” ~Charlotte Burck (2005)

    Also, wondering whether language skills might be desirable for (some) higher-status as well, but showing up in ads in terms such as “bilingual” or “diversity” or expressions involving “cultural” or some such.

  9. Amy says:

    Nice post as usual, Nic. One thing … I am not 100% convinced that it suggests Spanish is devalued. If someone went for a job that did not necessarily require Spanish linguistic skills on a day-to-day basis, the additional ability for a Spanish speaker to bring something to the table in the ways you mention might still be seen as a bonus on an application in the same way that living abroad for intercultural experience might.

  10. Mai, thanks for sharing the great quote. I did actually look at “bilingual”, and like Spanish it is associated with low wage jobs. Of course, it’s also often attached to the phrase Spanish-English bilingual. I’m not sure about the other terms though.

  11. Amy,

    Thanks for your comment. I think the data clearly suggests that Spanish-speaking is seen as a desirable ability among companies potentially in a way similar to what you point out.

    The issue for me is not that it doesn’t offer a potential competitive edge in hiring, but that it seems to do so mainly for low wage jobs. The fact Spanish seems to be valued primarily at the low wage end of the market is, to me, problematic and which leads me to the claim that it is “devalued”, or perhaps better yet, undervalued.

  12. Mai Kuha says:

    I can serve as a data point here: in my undergraduate days in the late 80s, I had a job doing marketing research phone surveys in English and Spanish. Speaking Spanish was not just a valued skill – it was indispensable. If I remember correctly, we were paid a few cents more per hour than monolingual English-speaking employees were, but none of us were a great distance from minimum wage.

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  15. […] only this, but Spanish is viewed in such a poor light, that it hardly counts as a positive in the job market due to its association with undocumented immigrants portrayed and framed by the […]

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