Comments on: What Language to Learn? Speak Victorian, Think Pagan Wed, 21 Nov 2012 23:12:46 +0000 hourly 1 By: lirelou Mon, 21 Sep 2009 13:17:39 +0000 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.

By: Dave Schuler Wed, 09 Sep 2009 20:18:09 +0000 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.

By: Language Learning Links! | Tue, 08 Sep 2009 15:38:26 +0000 [...] in line is a post that tries to prioritize language education by separating languages into three tiers. It’s an [...]

By: Min Min Mon, 07 Sep 2009 13:23:28 +0000 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.

By: Kirk Sowell Mon, 07 Sep 2009 04:37:23 +0000 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.

By: CityDweller Mon, 07 Sep 2009 00:52:21 +0000 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.

By: lirelou Fri, 04 Sep 2009 19:08:00 +0000 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.

By: Aceface Fri, 04 Sep 2009 13:58:21 +0000 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.

By: Radujohn Fri, 04 Sep 2009 05:59:02 +0000 You should include in first tier Rommales , a gypsy language. They are bound to take over Europe and US

By: Peter Thu, 03 Sep 2009 04:52:28 +0000 “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).

By: Master Cook Wed, 02 Sep 2009 20:24:02 +0000 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.

By: Master Cook Wed, 02 Sep 2009 20:16:07 +0000 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.

By: Kamaangir Wed, 02 Sep 2009 19:51:57 +0000 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.

By: kurt9 Wed, 02 Sep 2009 17:27:06 +0000 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.

By: McKellar Wed, 02 Sep 2009 17:10:11 +0000 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…

By: Brighbilly Wed, 02 Sep 2009 11:32:40 +0000 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.

By: Bill Chapman Wed, 02 Sep 2009 09:26:32 +0000 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

By: Nobody Wed, 02 Sep 2009 08:42:43 +0000 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?

By: Joe Jones Wed, 02 Sep 2009 07:14:18 +0000 @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?

By: Peter Wed, 02 Sep 2009 07:07:38 +0000 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.

By: T. Greer Wed, 02 Sep 2009 05:18:53 +0000 @J.Jones:

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?

By: Curzon Wed, 02 Sep 2009 04:18:27 +0000 “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.

By: Jade Oc Wed, 02 Sep 2009 03:21:20 +0000 “whatever languages they’ll ACTUALLY need”

Houw about C++?

By: Joe Jones Wed, 02 Sep 2009 03:19:46 +0000 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.

By: T. Greer Wed, 02 Sep 2009 02:49:51 +0000 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.