I’ve posted this page mainly as a response to popular demand.  In hearing of my own linguistic journeys over the years, people often ask me which languages they should devote themselves to learning in the modern day and age, in the midst of their busy schedules.  This is naturally a subjective thing; there’s no a priori right or wrong answer, and different people will choose their foreign tongues for various reasons both personal and professional.  A good thing too, since we need fluent speakers of many different tongues in this globalized world of ours.  However, there is a subset of languages that belong in a special category.  The “standard trio” of Spanish, French, and German customarily taught in American schools is still of value, and Spanish in a class unto itself in terms of its value.  For native English-speaking Americans at least, Spanish is pretty much a “must-learn” these days for careers in everything from medicine to law to marketing.  Beyond Spanish, there are other languages, some probably less familiar than others, that should receive some consideration. 

            Again, take this list with a grain of salt and don’t allow it to limit your options.  We need people who want to study Italian, Polish, and Norwegian in addition to the suggestions below, and you can gain something by standing out from the crowd.  Nevertheless, if you want the short list and the reasons why I make the recommendations, read on.  Please note that I’m not making any sort of political argument or polemic of any kind with the list below.  I’m not commenting on how things should be, however that may be defined; I’m commenting on how they are, and the recommendations below are based on practical considerations.  Whether it’s fair or not, you simply must know Spanish for a large swath of jobs in substantial regions of the country, and so this is where I’ll start.

 

(1) Spanish

This probably requires little introduction.  Spanish is fast becoming an essential language of the US, not as much a foreign tongue as an integral medium for communication within the 50 states, especially in large cities and to an overwhelming extent in Florida and states of the American Southwest—not coincidentally, regions once under the direct control of Spain and/or Mexico.  Regard Spanish as you would master any other essential skill in school.  Some jurisdictions are making it a subject taught from the 2nd grade onward (with another foreign tongue, like French or German, made available in the 8th grade, as is currently the case).  But no matter how it is imparted, Spanish is just too essential these days to neglect.  Even in locales like Minnesota and Michigan, quite a hike from the Rio Grande and Gulf of Mexico, many of the best jobs place a high premium on Spanish proficiency. 

            In metropolises like New York and Chicago, you are at a severe disadvantage in a broad array of jobs if you’re not conversant in Spanish.  Whether you aspire to become a doctor, lawyer, business manager, salesperson, politician, computer programmer, construction worker, police officer, or many other professions, it is a tremendous asset to know Spanish.  For many jobs, employers so vigorously seek out those with Spanish proficiency that your resumé may be tossed straight into the wastebasket without it, in favor of someone else who is Spanish fluent.  Alternatively, career advancement may be hindered; knowledge of Spanish can tack on hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra incomes over the span of a decade.  For many professional schools, applicants with Spanish fluency receive a boost in the application pool.

            In big cities, immigrants from Puerto Rico, Mexico, Honduras, Venezuela, Argentina, and many other locales are of course the initial drivers of the Spanish linguistic dissemination, but Spanish fluency and retention are being maintained indefinitely within the Hispanic population, across three, four, and more generations.  The emotional ties to the language are so significant that many 4th and 5th-generation Latinos—whose parents refused to teach them Spanish, out of concern over stigmatization in a bygone era—are now themselves spending months and years in Latin America to master the language of their ancestral homelands.  Even in US locales far away from large Spanish-speaking immigrant populations, the demand for Spanish fluency is high, since businesses urgently seek salespeople and planners who can communicate with Spanish-speaking callers, and provide Spanish labels for products destined for Puerto Rican New York City or Latin America. 

            If you’re settling down in Florida, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, or Colorado, Spanish is pretty much indispensable.  These states are either de facto or (in the case of New Mexico) de jure bilingual.  Historically speaking, the last 5 of these states were ceded to the US from Mexico following the Mexican War of 1846-8 and the resultant Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, along with an indemnity paid to Mexico by the US.  Florida was yielded by Spain in the 1820s—after having been within the Latin American sphere for three centuries.  The first permanent European settlements in what is now the United States were, in fact, in St. Augustine, Florida, and in Santa Fe, Mexico, in the 1500s—decades before the Jamestown settlement of 1607.  This is relevant today because these regions, to varying degrees, boast a Hispanophone community stretching back many centuries through the present, having begun prior to English settlement and US expansion, and now their Spanish-speaking character is being reinforced even further.  For emotional as much as practical economic reasons, the Latino communities in these places maintain the Spanish language among other cultural hallmarks, and partly because of the region’s historical ties to Spain and Mexico, Spanish language and culture are being maintained indefinitely; the very meaning of assimilation is profoundly distinct in the US Southwest and Florida.  From a practical standpoint, you simply have to be proficient in Spanish for most good jobs in these places, especially if they involve a high degree of interaction with local communities.

            In addition to its value in the USA, Spanish is one of the world’s “great languages” with close to a half billion native speakers, more even than English, and along with Portuguese it is the lingua franca of Latin America.  Because of trade arrangements and the region’s steadily increasing prosperity, Spanish fluency is also valuable for its facilitation of commercial and diplomatic contacts with Latin America.  Spanish, to repeat, is thus a must-know language particularly in certain regions, and opportunities like English-Spanish dual immersion schools and early education should be considered.

 

(2) Mandarin Chinese

 

            This one may seem initially surprising since Chinese is probably regarded as an “exotic language” to most Americans at first glance.  Yet Chinese, in this author’s opinion, is perhaps the easiest language to acquire conversational mastery of (though the script is admittedly more difficult).  There are some challenging quirks, like the use of measure words, extended adjectives, and those infamous tones.  Yet these are not too difficult to master, and their difficulty is more than atoned for by virtue of Chinese’s elegantly simple grammar:  Verbs are entirely uninflected and do not change for person, case, gender, or even tense—this, of course, also means that there are none of those lengthy and painful conjugation tables or scores of irregular verbs to memorize.  Variations like tense and case are indicated by a handful of generally used auxiliaries, which means there are far fewer details for you to have to imbibe. 

            Nouns and pronouns also do not modify themselves as in English or other European languages, and complex and technical vocabulary generally consists of easily discernible and logical combinations of simple words:  molecule for example is fen-zi\/ which literally means “little part”; animal is dong\wu\ “move-thing”; telephone is dian\hua\ “electric speak”; adult is da\ren/ “big person”; rich is you\/qian/; and so on.  The reasons for this simplicity are extensive and I delve into them in other essays, but essentially you can think of modern Chinese as though it were classical Latin, brought into modern times.  That is, the Chinese language was the linguistic vehicle of an advanced ancient civilization which retained political unification as Rome faltered.  Chinese was thus a “prestige language” which was simultaneously a vernacular for the masses, and thus as society became more advanced, the Chinese language tended to coin in new words by compounding from simpler ones within the language, rather than borrowing from a separate “prestige language” as, for example, European tongues like English, German, and Russian have done.  (All have borrowed heavily from French, Latin, and Greek, the historical prestige languages of European civilization.)  Chinese retains this tendency even in today’s globalized, technological world.  Indeed Chinese, in stark contrast with Japanese, almost vigorously avoids borrowing foreign loanwords.  In practice, this means that once you learn the language’s core vocabulary of a few hundred words, it’s fairly straightforward to add the more complicated ones on top of the base. 

            I’ve detailed why Chinese is relatively “user-friendly”; why is it important?  Simply because China, along with India, is the world’s budding economic powerhouse.  Although China is today referred to as a “developing country,” historically it was a global bellwether, with the world’s wealthiest economy for much of the 1st and 2nd millennia A.D. well into the 1800s, up to the point of the Opium Wars.  It’s now retaking that mantle.  With a solid manufacturing base; a well-educated population; and a progressively liberalizing (if gradually and at times sporadically) economy and banking sector, China is poised to become an economic superpower in its own right within two decades.  The future is impossible to predict in detail, but China is already significant enough that it, along with countries containing high Chinese diaspora populations (Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia for example), will be commanding a substantial share of the world’s economy in the near future.  With its own Hollywood in Hong Kong and cultural centers sprouting up in Shanghai and Guangdong provinces, along with the cultural output of Mandarin-speaking Taiwan island, China’s economic growth will in turn fuel the dissemination of its language.  If Mandarin Chinese truly “goes global,” I suspect that the pinyin Romanized alphabetical representation of its written form—currently used mainly for teaching students—will probably become more accepted worldwide.  So focus on mastering the language conversationally and learning to read and write in pinyin at first, then branch out to the learn the Chinese characters as you can.

 

(3) HindiIndia’s lingua franca

 

            “But doesn’t everybody in India speak English?”  Oh, I can’t count how many times I’ve heard even educated people clumsily falling for this misconception.  Maybe it’s the Indian call centers and all the talk about outsourcing US jobs there.  Or maybe it’s all those Kipling poems and novels and the continuing romanticization of the British Raj in films and literature.  Britain was a power in India for about two centuries (though it was only for about one of those centuries, from the mid-1800s to 1947, that British power truly extended over the subcontinent in general).  However, this does not mean that everybody in India started speaking English.  Unlike what tragically occurred in the Western Hemisphere, India never experienced the sorts of debilitating pandemics that would have given the British a demographic advantage in the subcontinent, and Britain never settled India heavily; even at the height of British power, there were perhaps 10,000-20,000 Britons in all of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, surrounded by a native population hundreds of millions of people strong.  Moreover, India never was a military colony of Britain to begin with; it was more of a trading outpost in which local rulers held sway in practice, rendering fealty to the British Crown in return for trade benefits accrued within the British commercial sphere.  Although there were some efforts to introduce English language education by Sir Thomas Babington MacAulay and others, for the most part India’s administrative languages were Persian (dating from the Mughal, or Mogul, empire) and various dialects of Hindustani, which in turn evolved from ancient Sanskrit. 

            Thus today, in a population of nearly a billion, India has maybe 30-40 million genuinely fluent English speakers, significant but far fewer than what is commonly supposed.  English is an important language for law, government, commerce, and education but it is far eclipsed by Hindi, which has nearly 600 million native speakers and hundreds of millions more who are familiar with the language.  Although many Indians do learn English for economic advancement, it is a foreign tongue associated with a foreign ruler about which Indians still nurse bitter memories and grievances.  India has ancient languages and a rich ancient culture of which its people are justifiably proud, and in the Subcontinent’s long history, the British Raj was merely a brief aberration.  English is dwarfed in numbers not only by Hindi, but also by Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Gujarati, and the country’s other national languages.  Although every so often a discussion board visitor will blunder into an assumption that India is an Anglophone nation, in fact it is anything but, and Hindi is the predominant language of the nation.  It is the language not only of Bollywood and the country’s rich cultural sphere, but also of administration, most governmental functions, and daily commerce.  And as India, like China, begins to blossom economically, Hindi will simultaneously ascend in importance. 

            Hindi resembles English in some respects; it is, like English, an Indo-European (IE) language (the most widely spoken in the IE family, even more than Spanish) with some resemblances in basic grammar and vocabulary.  Its grammar is not too difficult overall, with far fewer inflections and irregularities than most European languages; its simple past, pluperfect, and present progressive tenses for example make use of simple auxiliaries.  Like Japanese and German however, it utilizes a subject-object-verb SOV order (rather than the subject-verb-object, SVO, order of Chinese, English, Spanish, and French for example).  Nevertheless, it is a satisfying language to learn and you will no doubt have ample opportunities for conversation practice in the US or UK, so Hindi is another which you should consider.  It should also be noted that Hindi very closely resembles Urdu, the official language of Pakistan and another national language of India.  (The two are nearly identical in casual discourse.)  Thus in mastering Hindi, you’ll have a springboard toward quickly learning another important world language.

 

(4) German

 

            Still important, and if anything gaining in value.  German is the most widely spoken language in Continental Europe (not including Eurasian Russia) and, as the EU expands and consolidates, German will (along with French) probably increase in popularity as a continental standard.  It’s the official language not only of Germany but also Austria and Liechtenstein.  It’s the main official tongue of Switzerland, and it’s a lingua franca of Russia and Eastern Europe; many of the region’s films and business transactions, for example, are conducted in German.  If you’re striving for graduate-level studies in physics or chemistry, German can help you get the thesis, since much of the literature in these fields is written in German and some schools require proficiency in it.  German is also a valuable business language, and of course German is the most commonly claimed ethnicity in the US Census, with many Americans learning the language for emotional reasons alone.  It’s a valuable addition in any case.

 

(5) French

 

            Despite all the de rigueur French-bashing that fills the airwaves and issues from the mouths of talk radio tycoons, France and its language are still world-class and important.  French historically was the prestige language of Europe, and French has contributed more loanwords to Europe’s tongues than any other language.  French remains a bedrock for diplomacy and international courts.  It has a global distribution of speakers not only in France, Belgium, and Switzerland, but also in Quebec, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, and Africa.  Indeed, French is maturing into the lingua franca among European languages in the African continent.  French is also popular as a second language in many European countries, such as Italy and Romania.  Still a good one to know.

 

(6) Arabic

 

            A useful one for many careers today for geopolitical reasons, Arabic is also a widely-spoken and ancient, poetic language.  It has a multinational presence, spoken in Western Europe and much of North and East Africa but also, increasingly, in Europe as Arab immigrants flood into France and the UK.  A difficult language with an initially unfamiliar script, but the cursive Arabic writing system isn’t too difficult to master.  If you already know a language like Spanish or Farsi Persian, you’ll be immediately familiar with  many Arabic words, which were absorbed into the other languages during the Moorish period in Spain and the period of Umayyad and Abbasid rule in Persia.

 

(7) Japanese

 

            In spite of Japan’s rather languid economic performance in the 1990s, it is the world’s 2nd largest economy and one of the most kinetic, culturally vibrant countries on the globe.  It’s a big business partner with the USA and likely to be a major player in coordinating the rise of the Asian tiger economies of South Korea and Taiwan, as well as the continuing maturation of the region’s giant, China.  Japanese can be especially difficult for native English-speakers but has patterns which you’ll catch onto with effort, and by mastering the language you’ll open yourself up to an innovative and vigorous culture.

 

            There are many other languages one could add to this list.  Portuguese will become important if Brazil becomes a 21st-century economic power, which it very well may, and Russian continues to be a lingua franca for much of the former Soviet Union not only in Russia but Central Asia as well.  Furthermore, as I mentioned in the introduction, you should not confine yourself only to this short list.  Becoming conversant in a “less major” language like Swedish or Finnish, an African Bantu language like Hausa, Wolof, or Fulani, a Baltic language like Lithuanian language, or an American Indian language can carry unique rewards and open you up to a culture with which very few will be familiar.  In general, though, you should avoid and surmount the stereotype of the monolingual American who thinks the rest of the world speaks English.  It doesn’t and, increasingly, it won’t.  English will likely remain an important world language into the foreseeable future, and English of course will be a dominant tongue in North America, but it will increasingly have to share space on the pedestal with other major languages as nations and trade pacts elsewhere in the world attain economic parity with the United States.

 

n      Wes Ulm

 

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