What Language to Learn?

I’m going to repost as an independent post what I wrote as a comment on one of Chirol’s posts almost four years ago regarding languages, and what languages to learn. I was reminded of this topic because of Younghusband’s post on preparing your child for the ComingAnarchy, as I wrote my comment based on what languages I wanted my kids to study.

With regards to prioritizing language education, I consider five languages to be in the “first tier.” To rank them in general order of importance:
# English (North America, Britain, Australia, Singapore, New Zealand, India, Hong Kong, most international cities: The international language, hands down.
# Spanish (Spain, Latin America, large US cities): A language used broadly in the Western Hemisphere and increasingly in the United States.
# Chinese (China, Singapore, elsewhere): Not yet used much outside China, but a language spoken by a billion people with real potential to become an international language in the 21st century.
# French (France, much of Africa, Quebec, Iran): It’s international prestige is shrinking, but it remains popular in many former French colonies, and a vital language if you are working with any business that has any connection to France, due to the preference of the French to speak their own language.
# Russian (Russia, former USSR, former satellites): The Russian language will shrink in importance as former satellites move to other, more international languages — Mongolia being one example. But for now, it remains the language of intercultural communication in places such as Kazakhstan and more useful than Turkish, which may well replace it in the coming decades.
These languages have intercontinental importance. All but Russian will stay in the top tier for the rest of our lifetime.

The second tier covers languages that have broad regional and economic importance:
# Arabic (Middle East, North Africa): Arabic is the only language that is a language of the United Nations that is not in my first tier because it’s relatively provincial. Despite its geographic reach from Morocco to Iraq, it is not used outside that region, and is almost irrelevant in business except in the provincial Arab sense. You can get away speaking French or English in much of the Arabic world.
# Portugese (Portugal, Brazil, Angola, Numibia, Macau, East Timor, other nations in Africa): Portugese is a major language because of Brazil — otherwise it would be ranked in a nebulous 4th tier together with Dutch.
# Japanese (Japan; other metropolitan areas of Asia): Japanese is, believe it or not, widely used in cosmopolitan, connected cities in Asia, and I’ve used it to speak with people in Thailand, Singapore, Korea, and China. In my own personal experience, I have spoken more Japanese than English in the shopping malls and tourist areas of Seoul. Add to that fact that Japan is the world’s number 2 economy and the Japanese have poor English language skills.

Then we have languages in the Third Tier that are used broadly in certain cross-border regions
# Turkish (Turkey, adaptable to Central Asian languages)
# Farsi (Iran, Tajikistan, Los Angeles)
# Punjabi or Hindi (Much of South Asia)

But all of this is opinion. Does anyone else want to weigh in with additional comments?

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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42 Responses to What Language to Learn?

  1. Pingback: Mutantfrog Travelogue » Blog Archive » What language to learn?

  2. Flash says:

    Mandarin, I assume…? Rather than simply Chinese?

  3. Jade Oc says:

    Swap Chinese and Spanish for anyone not in the Western Hemisphere, and possibly even for those in it. May be more useful than you indicate due to the huge Chinese diaspora.

    I agree with you about using Japanese in Seoul. Definitely. Also found it useful in Europe at times.

    Russian is only intercontinental if you assume Europe is a continent, which I personally find dodgy….

    It’s ==> Its, please.

  4. I am surprised German is not on your list. It is spoken in several European countries and also understood and used somewhat in other parts of Europe. It is an important language for commerce and science too. I think it belongs in the second tier.

    I would promote Arabic to the first tier. For the third tier I would add Swahili and Indonesian/Malay.

  5. Michael B says:

    French is of enormous importance to Europeans as it is probably the primary internal language of the EU since both of its headquarters are located in French speaking countries. Little chance of working in or around (lobby groups etc.) the EU without some level of fluency.

  6. Roy Berman says:

    I agree that the relative place of Spanish and Chinese is very dependent on where you live/plan to live. If you live in North America, absolutely take Spanish first (since as a native English speaker you’ll also master Spanish in a fraction of the time you would need for Chinese) but anywhere else in the world, aside from Spain of course, you’ll find Chinese far more useful.

    And yes, of course you mean Mandarin for the variety of spoken Chinese to study. As for the Chinese diaspora, yes there are populations in most major cities in the Western world and Australia, but SE Asia is where the Chinese minorities are most prevalent and integrated into the local cultures. However, the majority of diasporic Chinese who left China before the second half of the 20th century are speakers of southern dialects, rather than Mandarin. While you can certainly find Mandarin speakers in any Chinatown, varieties of Cantonese of Hoklo may actually be far more common. But at least the written language is basically standard modern Chinese no matter where you go.

    Do you think Swahili justifies making it to third tier as a regional African language, or will French and English cover you well enough in the region?

    I would also think about including Bahasa Indonesia/Malaysia in the third tier. The national language of the two countries is pretty much the same, and between them you actually have a far larger population than that of Portuguese areas, although less Indonesians are native speakers of the national language.

  7. wufiavelli says:

    Never tested this but also wondered how useful Arabic is throughout the Non Arab Muslim world since all of Islams teachings are in it. Many mosques also give Arabic Lessons and also people who have been on hadj. But you also hear a lot of stories of Afghans memorizing the entire koran in arabic and not knowing what any of it means.

    Also Egyptian Arabic would be a good one to learn. It is easier then Fusa and is understood most everywhere in the Arab world since they make most of the movies.

  8. bristlecone says:

    1). How many languages is it practical to learn?

    2). Is it better to be fluent in two, conversant in 4, or have a working knowledge of 6?

    3). Does it make more sense to learn a language ‘family,” (IE, French and Spanish) or two disparate languages?

    Generally, my takeaway is that the language to learn is tied to what you want to do and where you want to be. If you live in the Southwest, Spanish is a great one to learn. Western Canada or Norcal = Chinese. Oil and gas, perhaps French, but as O&G people move around so much, it probably does not make sense unless you specialize in an area. Spanish is a waste in O&G because the only Latin country without serious resource nationalism issues speaks Portugese.

  9. Pingback: ComingAnarchy.com » What Language to Learn? | arablives

  10. TS says:

    I’ve gotten around all of Eastern Europe and Turkey just fine with German + English. (Except Romania, where French + English worked well.) I’m not saying German is a top-tier language after the 20th century, but it’s still widely learned throughout Europe and is useful as a common language outside of Germany.

    Something to note re Chinese: One of the reasons English is such a lingua franca, esp. among the young, is that it’s relatively easy to learn to speak it poorly, yet functionally. It’s very difficult to speak English very well, but basic conversational skills aren’t so hard. The same is not true of Chinese (nor French nor Arabic nor Japanese). English is such a bastard mutt of a language, it’s chock full of grammatical exceptions and is a spelling nightmare, but certain core grammatical structures are pretty easy, relatively speaking.

    Something to note re Spanish in the USA: Non-Latino kids who learn Spanish as a second language will be competing with millions of kids who are native speakers of both Spanish and English. Not that Americans shouldn’t learn Spanish, but if it’s just about job skills, native fluency learned from infancy trumps whatever is learned in school alone.

  11. kurt9 says:

    Second to English, I would rate them:

    1) Mandarin Chinese
    2) Japanese
    3) Spanish

    The rest are in the mud, sort of speak.

    As someone pointed out, Japanese is often used in other parts of Asia. I’ve used it in both Korea and Taiwan. Also, the Chinese (both Greater China and overseas Chinese) have the view of Japan being “high culture” in the same manner that certain Americans have of French language and culture. Both Japanese and Mandarin Chinese language are paramount because China will have the world’s largest economy in the coming decades and Japan will remain number 3, behind China and the U.S. Japan will continue to be a leading developer of advanced technology (nanotech, biotech, robotics, etc.)

    Many Brazilians understand Spanish. Spanish, of course, being used throughout all of Spanish Latin America. Brazil and Spanish Latin America will come into its own economically even though they will always lag East Asia.

    I consider the European languages (as well as Europe itself) to be rather passe. With regards to Arabic, consider that more books and papers are translated into Japanese EACH YEAR than have been translated into Arabic over the past 500 years and that the region does not produce a single manufactured product to international standards. Enough said about Arabic.

    I judge the economic prospects of a region by the number of bookstores and, especially, the availability of technical and business books. The East Asian countries, as anyone who has visited them can tell you, are full of bookstores, often selling technical and business books. Many other regions of the world, in contrast, have no bookstore at all.

    People who read and think create technology and civilizations. Those that don’t don’t.

  12. spandrell says:

    I’ve used Japanese in Korea and Taiwan too, but it’s far from being widely spoken. I love it as anyone here, but it’s not a useful language outside Japan.

    Being Spanish myself it hurts to say so, but is Spanish important at all?Latin America is big but I don’t see it developing anytime soon. Just sayin’.

    Arabic, Russian are spoken over a wide area where few people speak English. People wanting to do business there MUST learn it. Besides that its not useful at all.

    “2). Is it better to be fluent in two, conversant in 4, or have a working knowledge of 6″
    I guess it all depends on what your plans are. If you want to live as an expat in that country you’d better be fluent. To do business by email a basic working skill and a thick dictionary may suffice.

  13. Charles says:

    You should probably rank Russian higher. A friend of mine studied Russian in college, he was in the Army so he then went to the Defense Language Institute and took their “Turbo Serbo” class. He told me the theory at DLI is that if you know Russian, with a little training in Serbo-Croatian languages, you can understand any Slavic language, and speak well enough to fake your way through a conversation in dialects you don’t understand well.

  14. Joseph Dart says:

    I’ll teach my kids Yakut and Gujarati. They’ll be assured of a future in the diamond industry, and diamonds are forever. To hedge my bets, Hausa too. It’s tonal (makes learning Chinese easier), it’s distantly related to Semitic (makes Hebrew/Arabic/Amharic easier), and they can go be Nollywood stars if all else fails.

    Seriously folks, in the coming anarchy, it may pay to be idiosyncratic. The best you can do is try to land your kids in the ballpark of whatever languages they’ll ACTUALLY need — by giving them a headstart in widespread language families with morphology, syntax, and phonology extremely different from their own. A Turkic language plus an Afro-Asiatic one seems a reasonable prescription for an Indoeuropeo-phone.

  15. s says:

    there is a trade-off for learning a ‘non-intersecting’ language — i.e. one that shares ‘nothing in common’ linguistically. more difficult to learn, while also letting you the ability to skim a wider range of languages

    e.g. chinese for an english native speaker offer the ability to read kanji in japanese (and even some korean terms) and vice versa — english for chinese native to guess many indo-european language terms.
    in a sub-family level, it changes the priority of learning romantic languages — i.e if you got one out of spanish/french/italian/portuguese, what is the priority of mastering the others?

    p.s. while mandarin is definitely the spoken chinese to learn, since all other han chinese dialects share 95%+ in writing, there is no need to learn the other dialects.

    p.s.2. i think the rationale of not prioritizing german is not because it is less important than, eg. french. it is because most german speaks english quite fluently.

  16. Joe Jones says:

    Many NGO/IGO jobs require both English and French ability — peruse the job ads in The Economist and you’ll see what I mean. It is far from dead as an international diplomatic language, although English has eclipsed it.

    Malay should be on the list in the same tier as Farsi and Turkish. I suggest adding Italian to that tier as well. Granted, it isn’t widely spoken outside Italy (except among certain African communities and expatriate groups), but Italy is a huge economy with global impact, and Italians have no consistent second language (unlike, say, Germans or Dutch). Plus it’s really, really fun to speak.

  17. T. Greer says:

    If it is your kids we are talking about then you are going about thngs in the wrong way.

    Your question should not be “what languages are most important now?”, but “what languages will be most important in 20 years?”

    This changes things a bit. I doubt that Japan will be the second largest economy in 20 years, nor as large an influence on the world stage as it is now. (And it will be short a good 20 million speakers as well, if you consider demographic projections.)

    In contrast, languages like Swahili are of little importance now, but will likely be of much more importance later on. That there will be more people living in Tanzania in 2050 than there are living in Germany at the present is part of this judgment; the acceptance and growth of Swahili in states like the DRC and organizations like the AU also leads me to make this judgment. (For much the same reason I would place some importance on Bahasa Indonesia circa 2035.)

    The most surprising omission from your list is Hindi. Your arguments for Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese can be made just the same for Hindi. And again, thinking on the long term, India will undoubtedly be a mover on the world stage larger than Japan, or perhaps even Russia, over the next few decades.

    The best argument I can find against Hindi is that English is so widely used across India. While true it does not mean much — one no more needs to learn Chinese to get across Shangai than one needs to learn Hindi to get across New Dehli.

    I am also confused as to why you place Punjabi on tier-3. Wouldn’t a language spoken by more people – say, Bengali – be of more use?

  18. T. Greer says:

    A final note- Ultimately, I believe that you should leave the choice of language study up to your child. Learning a new tongue is quite difficult. If the motivation to learn the language is weak, mastery will never be attained.

    And that, in itself, is much sadder a fact than the acquisition of a language that does not quite fit the parent’s idea of top-tier.

  19. Joe Jones says:

    Your arguments for Chinese, Japanese, and Portuguese can be made just the same for Hindi.

    …Except that English is an official language in India (the official language in some states) and has the status of a political and commercial lingua franca because it doesn’t offend speakers of minority languages. The legal system operates in English. Granted, you would need to know some Hindi to, say, navigate a slum, but unless you are dealing with the unwashed masses there is little need to use the language. On the other hand, Chinese, Japanese and Portuguese are all found in large countries where there is no other official language, and where you would be completely lost in just about any business or personal affairs without some knowledge of the official language.

  20. Jade Oc says:

    “whatever languages they’ll ACTUALLY need”

    Houw about C++?

  21. Curzon says:

    “Is it better to be fluent in two, conversant in 4, or have a working knowledge of 6″

    If the standard is your native language + fluent in 1 language, or native language + conversant in 3 languages, I’d verge on saying the later. However, if it’s native language + fluent in 2 languages, or native language + conversant in 5 languages, etc., I’d definitely say fluent in 2 languages.

  22. T. Greer says:


    Your point is fair, but it raises another question: what is it we are preparing your children for? You can travel across India with nothing but English. So too can you go to court, listen to parliament’s most recent pronouncements, write a contract, and communicate with business contacts without learning Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, or Kannada. Much harder it is to read a newspaper, watch a movie, order from a street vendor, attend religious ceremonies, explain why you are in the hospital, or form lasting business partnerships.

    I had assumed that learning the language would entail living in the region. Certainly if I were to live in India, I would want to have a working knowledge of the vernacular- at least. Am I assuming too much?

  23. Peter says:

    Hmm. I wouldn’t want my kids to study any language they couldn’t actually learn.

    Since I don’t know where I’m going to be in five, 10, or twenty years time, it hard to say what language I would want them to learn other than Japanese and English. My son will need those languages to talk with his relatives. He’s only 10 months old, so they are still foreign languages in the sense that he hasn’t acquired them.

    Next on the list is Latin. (cue the chorus of boos and shouts of “dead language!” in 3…2…1…)

    And after that, he can speak whatever language sounds the prettiest when sung.

  24. Joe Jones says:

    @T. Greer: I agree that Hindi is probably extremely useful if you live in India. (I should note that I haven’t been to India yet, so my opinion is based on second-hand knowledge.) If you don’t live in India, I think it is next to useless, unless you have some academic interest in Hinduism or something.

    I think I mentioned this in the last thread on learning languages, but I happen to love this amateur essay on language acquisition: When do people learn languages?

  25. Nobody says:

    Interesting topic.

    I’m currently studying International Relations and Security and am undecided between learning Chinese (Mandarin) and Arabic. Given the security side, I can see Arabic being very useful but at the same time, Mandarin could offer better long term prospects.

    Any thoughts or recommendations?

  26. Bill Chapman says:

    Surprisingly there has been no mention of Esperanto so far. Esperanto has been of great help to me on my travels, and I recommend it. A good starting point is http://www.lernu.net

  27. Brighbilly says:

    You have not mentioned South Africa, We the “educated few” speak English! With a neutral accent “received pronunciation” if you have traveled abroad, you will take notice when sitting around a table with other tourists that speak different languages, all use English as there language of choice.

  28. McKellar says:

    How about Beijing-hua or any one of the other dialects that actual Chinese people on the street speak, instead of the pristine Mandarin you hear on TV? Might come in useful when your kid’s out on patrol during the Sino-American War of 2026…

  29. kurt9 says:

    Being Spanish myself it hurts to say so, but is Spanish important at all?Latin America is big but I don’t see it developing anytime soon. Just sayin’.

    Although Latin America will never rival Asia, I wouldn’t write it off. Both Brazil and Mexico do quite a lot of manufacturing. Also, Brazil makes airliners. Embriar is a very successful manufacturer of regional jets and recently has launched a full-size airliner that is somewhat smaller (but much more comfortable) than the 737 or A320. Brazil has a huge agriculture industry as well. What many people do not know (because it is so new) is that Brazil has a 100 billion barrel oil field sitting off its coast. Indeed, this oil field is likely to be larger than this. So, Brazil could be a leading oil exporter in about 10 years.

    If Brazil and Mexico can continue their economic development, perhaps they can pull up much of the surrounding region in similar manner to China’s development pulling up places like Thailand and Vietnam.

    The reason why English is the official language of India is because India is composed of 147 separate ethnic groups with their own languages. These groups hated each other so much that they refused to allow any one of their own languages, including Hindi, to become the official national language when India became independent from the brits. They could only agree on the language of the colonialists; English. Hence, English became the official national language of India.

    With regards to the languages of the future, those of us from the transhumanist community sometimes talk about the “language of space”. That is, when we finally starting doing the O’neill scenario, which language is most likely to be spoken on the space frontier. We consider only two contenders: English and Mandarin Chinese.

  30. Kamaangir says:

    1. Arabic. As a speaker of Arabic, I can tell you that it is not that important. Most importantly, whatever Arabic you are taught in a school will not be practical on “the street” due to Arabic’s diglossia between Modern Standard Arabic (al-Fusha) and the many subnational dialects (Egyptian, Moroccan, Syrian, Iraqi, Bahraini, Nejdi, Hijazi, etc.) The educated will speak English. You may hedge bets by learning Egyptian, but that doesn’t mean you’ll understand what is spoken to you.

    2. Persian-Farsi. While Persian is not widely spoken today, it was 1000 years ago. From Turkey to China, you will hear hand-me-down Arabic words pronounced in a Persian accent. E.g. “tashakkor,” an Arabic-derived Persian word never used in Arabic itself, can be used for thank you throughout non-Sinitic Asia. If you can read Farsi, you can pretty much read Urdu. Know enough Farsi vocabulary, and you can springboard into just about any Muslim Asian language.

    3. Turkic and Urdu. These will be the languages of a resurgent Islam. Turkic languages are spoken from Urumqi to Istanbul, and in urban centers throughout Europe. Modern Turkish is the farthest from the rest, due to Attaturk’s reforms. Nevertheless, the basic grammars and vocabularies are very similar. Over one billion people understand Hindi/Urdu. ‘Nuff said.

  31. Master Cook says:

    I’m going to make an argument for being monolingual in English, if you are raised as an English speaker.

    Its pretty clear from the comments that there are lots of languages other than English that are important in particular regions or important countries, but by the same token pretty useless once you leave the region. Eg:

    Chinese China
    Japanese Japan/ East Asia
    Spanish Latin America (plus Spain!)
    Portuguese Brazil
    German Germany/ Eastern Europe
    Russian Russia and neighboring countries
    Arabic Middle East

    However, if you learn Chinese, and wind up doing most of your business in Brazil, you will have just put in many years of studying Chinese and would have to learn Portuguese anyway. Whereas the monolingual English speaker will be able to find some businessmen who can understand him or her in just about any major city.

    What I’m really recommending is to learn English, if you are a non-English speaker, and then if you wind up doing alot of business in a country learn that country’s language as needed. There is no way to predict what language you will need 20 or 30 years from now. I happen to think the US and UK are in long term decline, but that doesn’t change that analysis, Latin was still the lingua franca of the Mediterranean world long past the time Rome was sacked.

    One caveat is that French has an international reach only second to English, so if you are a native English speaker and want to learn a second language, it probably should be French (this of course applies more if you are Canadian or English, less if you are Australian or South African). And Latin is still a very useful language for English speakers to learn, it has had enough of an influence on English that learning it will improve your English, plus make it easier to learn half a dozen derivative languagues, some quite important, later on.

  32. Master Cook says:

    Portuguese outside Brazil is not on the same plane as Dutch. Dutch is of questionable use even inside the Netherlands, since English proficiency there is so widespread. And its not spoken outside the Netherlands at all. Even the Dutch did not use Dutch to administer Indonesia when they were running the country.

    Compare that to the continued use of Portuguese in parts of Africa, plus East Timor and Portugal itself. The economy of the Netherlands is probably greater than of all these places combined, but remember an English speaker has no need to speak Dutch in the Netherlands.

    The one advantage of Dutch over Portuguese is that it is really easy for a native English speaker to learn, since the two languages are so closely related, which is probably why all the Dutch are so fluent in English.

    Portuguese without Brazil is probably on par with Thai or Swahili in importance.

  33. Peter says:

    “The one advantage of Dutch over Portuguese is that it is really easy for a native English speaker to learn.”

    I don’t know if that’s the right way to put it. Dutch is not as hard as it sounds, while Portuguese is perhaps harder than it sounds (especially if one naively thinks that Luso Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese are just different accents…)

    Dutch is more in the throat, while Portuguese is in the nose, from what I know.

    But, returning to my original comment, if I had to pick the language that sounds better when sung, it would be Portuguese by mile (not a nose).

  34. Radujohn says:

    You should include in first tier Rommales , a gypsy language. They are bound to take over Europe and US

  35. Aceface says:

    There’s just way too many Chinese on this planet who can speak Chinese very fluently.There’s very little opportunity that foreigners can exploit.
    Arabic,most of the intellectual and business person of the region can speak English.Not much prospect but oil and military,both requires more than linguistic ability.

    You can get laid a lot easier,if you are capable of speaking French and Japanese.
    But I would learn Spanish.Spoken widely and probably start to develop by the time you become more fluent.

  36. lirelou says:

    My thoughts. First, master your profession. If you are totally up to date in your profession, you will find that many overseas customers in that same profession are quite knowledgeable in the latest trends and concepts. To quote a military engineer I knew who had repeated tours in Indocnesia and the Middle East. All Engineers speak pi-R-squared. Second, master English! This is so you don’t find yourself lost in a professional conversation with a non-native speaker who has mastered English better than you have. Finally, study the language that most fits your career plans, particularly if you intend to travel in and out of the region with any frequency. You don’t have to be totally bilingual, but enough to carry on a basic conversation, and express the social amenities, will carry you a long way. Likewise, study the history of the region and nation. No Paraguayan expects a non-native to speak Guarani, but a little knowledge of the War of the Triple Alliance will convince them that you are someone who is truly interested in their country.

  37. CityDweller says:

    I’ve lived and worked in India – and the most useful language to have is English. Educated Indians speak their mother tongue and English and possibly another Indian language depending on where they live/work. Hindi – though the most widely spoken Indian language (and it too can be subdivided into dialects) is not universal (roughly two thirds of the population speak it). Many indian languages are similar enough that they can understand partly what is being said (not unlike Spanish/Italian/Portugese).

    Language is an emotive issue for Indians. For example I lived in Mumbai – the home of Bollywood – the hindi language movie factory. Mumbai, however, is in the state of Maharashtra – where the language is Marathi – and there would be semi-regular uproars over the user of hindi in what should be a marathi speaking state. English was considered relatively neutral. There are english language newspapers in India and with my colleagues the language of business was english, as many of them didn’t speak hindi, but bengali or telgu, tamil and so forth.

    With regards to what language to teach children – after english – the most important thing is to learn another language. The act of learning a language makes learning other languages easier. This has had a large amount of research done on it (do a google on linguistics) – that irrespective of the second language learned, the act of learning prepped the person to pick up other languages much more quicly then those who were learning a new language for the first time.

    Which second language to pick – ideally one where you can get good instruction and a chance to use it quickly to prevent them from thinking of learning a language as a chore. I have a preference for chinese, because for european language speakers – getting to grips with the concept of tones takes quite a long time – and learning languages is usually easier when young. (This is my own bias – I have no proof behind this). Getting rid of certain linguistic habits that interfere with tones is difficult. A latin based language would also be good – as the switch between spanish/french/italian/portuguese isn’t as drastic as the changes between other languages.

    To speak another language doesn’t mean you have to have translator level skills (unless that’s your career path). You should have enough to be able to function in without being grossly dependent on translators (who sometimes have their own agendas as well). Other societies appreciate that you are making the effort to integrate and are not being arrogant.

  38. Kirk Sowell says:

    A note about Arabic (from an Arabist) -

    Several here have commented that you don’t need Arabic to communicate in the Arab world because (a) if you are doing business, educated Arabs speak English, and (b) the dialects differ so much from the standard and each other that it only makes sense to learn a dialect if you are planning to live in a specific area. Both of these points are true, but no one seems to have noted that there is another key use for language: READING.

    If you are planning to do any professional work which requires understanding the Arab world, you should learn Arabic. When I read something written in English about the Arab world, I can usually tell from the content whether the person reads Arabic, because reading the language changes your information environment completely. This is less true for business than politics, as there is quite a bit available on the Persian Gulf in English, but anyone who claims to understand the political or cultural environment of an Arab country without knowing the language is deceiving himself. This doesn’t keep monolingual people from trying to write authoritatively on Arab politics, unfortunately, but being able to read the language makes all the difference in the world in terms of what you know.

    I presume the same is true for most other second-tier languages, like Chinese. You can get by in business with just English, but that doesn’t mean you should want to have to.

  39. Min Min says:

    Besides English, I would say Chinese language. I created a learning Mandarin Chinese for people who are keen to learn Mandarin Chinese. I hope more people will get to know more about Chinese.

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  41. Dave Schuler says:

    Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic are all actually language groups that include mutualy incomprehensible dialects, different from each other as Swedish is from German. They’re thought of as languages for historic and political but, most of all, for orthographical reasons.

    I’m a language junkie;I like languages. But Chinese and Arabic are both self-limiting as useful international languages because of the difficulties of being literate in them.

  42. lirelou says:

    Spanish includes mutually incomprehensible dialects? I heartily disagree. Not if by Spanish, you mean Castillian, which is the national language of Spain (ergo la lengua espanola). I have never experienced any problems in understanding, or being understood, from Buenos Aires to Boston, and I have visited or lived in, or worked in, all Spanish speaking countries in between. Nor did I experience any problems from Rota through Madrid, Zaragosa, and Barcelona, up through Burgos to San Sebastian. Granted, in some areas of Spain, a bit of Gallego, Catala, or Euskera would have been helpful, but these are languages in their own right, and not dialects of Castillian.