Updated: Apr 30
By Chelsea La Near
A New Decade
Learning a language is a popular new year’s resolution, yet we know that language mastery typically takes longer than just one year. A new decade, on the other hand, is rife with opportunities to acquire language fluency.
Which language should you learn?
There are many different reasons why people choose certain languages over others - some are fascinated by a particular culture, they want to communicate better while traveling, or they simply want to keep their minds sharp. Some take a more pragmatic approach - they learn new languages to make themselves more valuable in the job market. As economies continue towards globalization, foreign language skills can be a huge asset, if not a requirement, for improved opportunities.
The Economist calculated that speakers of foreign languages earn an average of 2% more than their monolingual counterparts, but all languages are not weighted the same. If you’re looking for a language to maximize your marketability, we’ve compiled a list of the most useful languages for the new decade.
Which languages matter now?
German - Germany is the largest economy in the EU, and some of the world’s most valuable companies have invested heavily in the European powerhouse. Google operates three headquarters there - more than any other EU country - and second only to India. Germany is also the second largest market for retail behemoth, Amazon. German speakers might be better at learning English than speakers of other languages on this list, but with so much business coming in and out of this country, being fluent in German can only help you. Studies show that knowing German carries a 3.8% salary boost, compared to 2.3% for French and 1.5% for Spanish. We expect this trend to continue with French falling slightly and Spanish rising.
Mandarin - The official language of the most populous country in the world usually takes the top spot as the most useful language, but with increasing turmoil in the region - the Hong Kong protests, the repression of the Uigher people in Western China, and not to mention ongoing trade wars with the West - we do think the value of learning Mandarin has fallen compared to the 2010’s. With that said, it remains true that Mandarin is spoken by over 1 billion people worldwide - more than any other language. And while the Chinese economy has slowed down in recent years, it’s still poised to remain the second most valuable economy for the next decade, and that’s if it doesn’t overtake the US for the number one spot.
Arabic - Around 420 million people speak this common language of the Middle East and Africa, including in many already valuable or rapidly growing economies. The language is of special importance to Islam, with Muslims spread all over the world. Though there are more than 30 modern Arabic dialects, the written language is largely the same across different regions. Learning to speak the standard version will pave the way for you to acquire local varieties. They do say Arabic is the most difficult for English speakers to learn, but don’t let that deter you! Arabic expertise will greatly benefit careers in business, government, journalism and many other industries.
Spanish - Spanish is the fourth choice on our list, though it could easily be the most useful if you live in the United States. About 13 percent (and growing!) of people in the US speak Spanish as their first language, making it often a necessity for American businesses to have employees on hand who can communicate fluently in the language. Additionally, the new North American Trade Deal that is likely to be ratified this year will make Mexico a preferred trading partner with the US, meaning employees with Spanish skills will become even more valuable than they already are. Spanish has the second largest number of native speakers only after Mandarin, and is a common second language, so only good things can happen with Spanish fluency this decade.
French - French is the fifth most spoken language in the world, the official language of 28 countries, and the second most widely learned language after English. So while French may not be the first choice for a speaker to communicate in, it is likely to be a tool that they can use. It’s also an official language for many international organizations including the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, and UNESCO to name a few.
Finally, French is widely spoken in many of the worlds fastest growing economies such as the Côte d'Ivoire, Senegal, Djibouti, and Ethiopia. And let’s be honest, French is definitively the sexiest language, so there’s that.
Portuguese - When we think of Portuguese, we often only think of where this language got its name - Portugal shares the Iberian peninsula with Spain and has just over 10 million people. But if we remember that Portugal was the first colonial empire, and often the most wide-reaching, it makes sense that countries around the world from South America to Africa have Portuguese as their official language. Of particular importance for the coming decade will be Brazil - the country with the fastest growing economy in South America, and by far the largest population. In fact, about half of South America’s total population is Brazilian. The best part is that Portuguese vocabulary and grammar will be easier to master if you already have experience learning Spanish.
Malay - Malay is the official language of Asian economic superstars such as Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. It’s the common tongue for an area with thousands of local languages - Indonesia alone has over 700! Though there are different Malay dialects, most of them are mutually intelligible, so learning one should enable communication across the region. It’s worth noting that Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world and a new member of the trillion dollar economy club, a distinction only 17 other countries have.
Hindi - India is a diverse country of over a billion people, and while there are hundreds of languages, Hindi reigns supreme with over 500 million speakers. It’s also one of two of the country’s official languages - the other being English. India is consistently ranked in the top five fastest growing economies, if not the fastest, and is projected to overtake China as the most populous country within the decade according to some analysts. The country has a huge presence in the tech industry which is only going to grow exponentially in the coming years. The only reason Hindi is last on this list is because so many Hindi speakers already speak English very well.
Chelsea La Near, M. Ed., is a writer, wanderluster, and language education professional from Missouri who spent the past 9 years teaching abroad in East Asia and is currently based in Seattle. Follow her on Twitter @chelsealanear and Instagram @thenearsea for more.
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