“What language should I learn?”
Sitting down for a dish of mee goreng mamak the other day (I’m in Malaysia) I was looking through Quora questions about languages. A variation on a theme that revolved around “What language should I learn?” kept popping up. I found this a really strange question because I learn a language I want to learn. Usually, it has to do with where I’m going.
Maybe it’s because I like to learn languages so I don’t see language learning as a burden but as fun. Like the person who only eats for health and not for enjoyment and wants’s to know “What food should I eat?” I eat what I’m in the mood for because I like to eat.
This put my mind in motion, which is also a variation on a theme. This theme is procrastination. I abandon my work for the day, cleared my calendar, and got work on what are the most ‘important’ or ‘best’ languages to learn.
Learning a language for business or pleasure
After a lot of thought, which included a nap to sharpen my mental edge, I came to the conclusion that his murky question depends on if you are leaning languages for pleasure or business. Are you out in the world as a tourist or a businessperson? But the answer is, maybe, the same.
If you are out and about rounding the globe for business then Chinese is an obvious choice. China is the current economic leader in the world and continues to become stronger. China is the world’s largest economy, by PPP. Chinese is becoming more important in business over time. This is especially true in Asia where China is aggressively expanding its economic and diplomatic presence as well as along the Belt and Road initiative routes which extend into Europe and Africa.
A recent article in the BBC titled, Is English or Mandarin the language of the future? states, “Some businesses are already desperate for Chinese speakers. . . . English is becoming less important . . . ‘So obviously you need to learn English but you also need to know Chinese.” “As China’s economic power grows . . . Mandarin will overtake English.”
China is the largest or second-largest trading partner in Central and South America. As the U.S. reduces its international presences China is taking its place. In addition, China is expanding in areas not historically important to the U.S. market.
As far as being a pleasure traveler, I’ve found numerous Chinese speakers in every part of the world I’ve traveled to except in some Balkan countries.
My personal feeling is that Chinese is becoming the most important language because of China’s global economic reach which is expanding rapidly but maybe more importantly because of the large and increasing number of Chinese tourists who are traveling internationally. I see a lot of hotels, restaurants, and tourist attractions in a lot of countries with signs in 3 languages, the local language, English, and Chinese.
Spanish is another important business and tourist language because it is the second most widely spoken language after English. Obviously, Spanish is particularly important if you are doing business or traveling in South or Central America and many parts of the United States.
Actually, with the exceptions of Brazil, French Guiana, Greenland, and some Caribbean Islands, Spanish and English are spoken in all of the North, Central, and South American countries.
Depending on the source, Spanish is either the third or fourth most spoken language in the world after English and Chinese. Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu) is the other language in question but this is confined to a limited, but large, geographic area.
I have also encountered Spanish speakers in every country I have visited and worked in. Strangely, I studied Spanish while living in Thailand. My tutor was from Taiwan.
Additionally, Spanish is one of the 5 commonly spoken Romance languages which include
This makes it possible for Spanish speakers to have basic communication with other Romance language speakers and much easier to learn other romance languages. A Spanish speaker may not be able to negotiate a contract in another Romance language but the casual traveler who speaks Spanish will have a fighting chance with all of these languages.
The top 3 languages to learn
With English as your first language adding either Spanish or Chinese will give you the ability to speak with the largest number of people possible and in economically important areas. With the ability to speak English, Chinese, and Spanish you will be able to communicate with over 3 billion people, about 40% of the world’s population.
So my picks for the three ‘top’ languages to learn are
- Chinese (Mandarin)
But, I’m going to guess that the majority of readers reading this blog are native English speakers. So, does English count for you? That’s up to you to decide, of course.
Arabic and Russian
If you don’t want to count English as a new language if you are a native speaker then take a look, especially for business, at Russian and Arabic. Both are more limited (but not small) in geographic area but the areas where they are spoken are important for business. Learning one of these languages can really open up new markets for you.
If you are the causal learner, the traveler, the just for fun language speaker, I would consider Arabic. Arabic is the official language in 24 countries throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Arabic Speaking Countries in Africa
Arabic Speaking Countries in Asia
- Saudi Arabia
- United Arab Emirates
Really you need to dive into what part of the world will spend the most time in. Where will or do you want to be?
For example, if you are eyeing North Africa then Berber is your go-to. It’s spoken in
- Burkina Faso
In East Africa, Swahili is a good choice. It is widely spoken in
- Democratic Republic of Congo
- Comoros Islands
It is also spoken to a lesser extent in
- Northern Zambia
There are over 7,000 languages currently spoken throughout the world. Which are the top to learn? I say it all depends on what you want to do with the language. Good luck deciding!