We already know that teaching a child a second language has lots of long-term benefits (there are short-term benefits too, like an increased ability to multitask — but studies have also shown that bilinguals stave off the effects of dementia for four years). I am working on raising my kids as bilingual and when we started I picked languages like one would pick hypothetical extra curricular activities… what was going to be the most useful, where is the language trending, how can I best prepare my kids for the future? I started this process about three years ago and at that time the choice was: Spanish (because it’s so common), Mandarin (for the future business world) and Arabic (to encourage us to learn more about a region that’s wildly misunderstood).

Now, Germany has announced that all of its universities are officially free. Not just for Germans but for foreign students as well. For Europeans this probably won’t make much of a difference… Germany is part of the EU and students could study there anyway. There are lots of free or very affordable universities across Europe so if cost is an issue, there are plenty of places you can study for free or very little. But for Americans? The average cost for a private university in the United States is over $30,000 a year. That doesn’t include room and board (but neither would Germany’s free tuition) but that’s a $120,000 gift you could give your child. For public in-state tuition it’s approaching $9,000 — so even on the low-end it’s $36,000 in savings.

It’s part of why we’re moving to Spain. As self-employed freelancers, we don’t have a company sponsored 401K. Living in Spain, legally, as permanent residents, means that after ten years we can apply for naturalization and acquire Spanish citizenship for our kids. It’s one financial benefit of being long-term travelers, while we’re not paying down a mortgage or sticking our savings in a matched retirement account, we can choose where to live and potentially give our kids access to Europe’s education system (we will also be paying taxes into the system, so it doesn’t come entirely free).

However that might not even be necessary anymore. With Germany’s new free tuition plan, American kids could potentially attend a fantastic university at no cost.

So do you need children fluent in German? Not necessarily, but it certainly would help. When I was in high school, the language options were always: French, Spanish and a small class for German. Of course, high school German isn’t going to be enough to study in the language, to be “proficient” a student would need to be at a B2 level (the European Framework for Languages level for “intermediate”), which is where you’d be after two years of college German (maybe you could get there with four years of high school German — but my public high school only offered two years — plus a summer spent in Germany to pick up the speaking skills the classroom can’t provide).

There’s a lot of things you can choose to do with your kids: sports, music lessons, languages — and they all have benefits. I don’t think raising bilingual kids is the only (or maybe even the best) option you can choose (and there’s always the option of not doing anything extra, giving your kids lots of unstructured time, that has its own benefits as well). But as the cost of education in the US keeps climbing and especially for families who are somewhere between “qualifying for financial aid” and “being able to afford college out-of-pocket” there’s a huge group of us in the middle who are looking at saddling our children with massive debt for a piece of paper that while is absolutely necessary, can also have dubious career prospects, even for those who go on to get advanced degrees.

So what do we do?

Learn German, I guess.

Is that funny? I don’t know, there are so many parents teaching their children Mandarin, with no connection to China, merely on the expectation that it will be someday useful. With this announcement, we know German will be quite useful, getting your university degree and walking out with zero debt is a huge head start in life. It means getting to intern or take jobs based on where the experience will take you, rather than how much money you make. It gives you the freedom to go back to school and get that graduate degree — again free — all because you speak German. It means having the financial flexibility to start a business and fail (and learn so much along the way) without any more damage than your bruised ego. Being debt free means freedom.

Post WWI propaganda poster, at that time German was discouraged and even legislated against, closing down foreign language programs around the country.
Post WWI propaganda poster, at that time German was discouraged and even legislated against, closing down foreign language programs around the country.

I guess I could launch into a little tirade over the fact that the US education system is so broken that it actually would make sense to learn a second language and jump ship, but it’s complicated. Who knows what this will do to the German economy, as “Dauerstudenten” (the German equivalent to the fifth year senior, here’s an interview with the record holder with 57 semesters) have no financial incentive, like paying fees, to hurry up and finish their degree and graduate already. Will they have a huge influx of foreign students who leave every year, merely in Germany to get their piece of paper and then return home? It will be interesting.

Well, if you were thinking of raising bilingual kids, and weren’t sure which language to pick, I think German should definitely be on the short list. It’s quite useful in Europe, it’s a lot easier than Mandarin, and now, you can save up to $120,000 per child on education. Not bad.

Are you teaching your kids German? What do you think about sending your children off to Europe for college? Will this become a trend as US prices continue to rise?