What language should you take – my two cents

About once a week, someone asks what language they should take. Here’s my two cents.

First, if you have a reason to learn a specific language, then that’s the language you should learn. If you have family that speaks a different language, learn it. If you don’t speak the majority language in your locale, learn it. If you’re planning on moving to a country where you don’t speak the majority language, learn it. If another language is important where you are, even if it’s not the majority language, learn it. (If you want to date a supermodel that speaks a different language, learn it.) Etc.

RS Supermodel

I’m writing about the rest of us. You want to learn a language, but you don’t know which one and you don’t have anything specifically driving you in a certain direction.

I’m going to base this on some work done by Kai L. Chan, writing about the Power Language Index. In other comments, I’ve posted links to a short article about it from the World Economic Forum. Here’s a link to the longer (33 page) paper: http://www.kailchan.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/Kai-Chan_Power-Language-Index-full-report_2016_v2.pdf

First, if you are younger and have a reasonable working future ahead of you, I’d recommend just going down the Power Language Index, until you find a language you don’t know. (The earlier you start, the more you will know.) After you’ve learned everything you can here on Duolingo, find additional material to work with until you’ve made it to at least the B2 level (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages). Then take a formal certification test to be able to demonstrate to your potential employers what skills you have. The world is getting smaller, but Google Translate and other such technologies won’t replace actual human interaction. This will open up a lot of doors for your future. Whether you go through those doors is up to you.

Here’s the top ten languages, ranked by overall power:

  • English
  • Mandarin
  • French
  • Spanish
  • Arabic (in the Incubator)
  • Russian
  • German
  • Japanese
  • Portuguese
  • Hindi

One thing to note is that several of them are considered super-hard for English speakers by the FSI. (https://www.state.gov/m/fsi/sls/c78549.htm) This means that you’ll need a significant amount of motivation and dedication to bring them to a usable level. It also means that you will have less competitors with the same skills if you do pursue one of those languages.

Recently I’ve been getting ads on my FB feed about a language summer program for high school kids. Among the languages taught is Mandarin. I went to their web site, and they also offer online learning in Mandarin and other languages, aimed at different ages (through high school). When my daughters have children of their own, I’ll be attempting to talk them into letting me pay for Mandarin for their kids. (I like Duolingo, but I’m not sure that it’s a good choice for Kindergartners.)

But what about those of us who are too far along in our careers? If I sat down and devoted myself to learning Mandarin, I might gain a useful level of language skills about the time I retire. Instead, my language learning should be aimed at what I want to do after I’m done working.

Part of the Power Language Index is the geographic spread for each language. If you’re interested in travel, being able to speak to the locals is not a bad thing. The paper doesn’t specifically list the ranking of languages by geography, but it does show what the ranking is for each of the languages. Pulling out that number, and listing them separately, these are the top ten languages by geography:

  • English
  • French
  • Spanish
  • Arabic (in the Incubator)
  • Russian
  • Mandarin
  • Portuguese
  • German
  • Malay (see note below)
  • Italian

If neither of these approaches drives you, check out the paper anyway. It also ranks languages by number of native speakers, economy, communications, knowledge and media, and diplomacy. Something there may help you make a decision.

All of the languages listed above are currently available on Duolingo except the following:

This was originally posted on the Duolingo forums on January 25, 2018.

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