Best Languages to Learn
There are 7,000 languages in the world. 23 of these are spoken by 50% of the global population. Learning a language is one of the “new things to do”, with the emergence of apps like Babbel and Duolingo. Globalisation means that people must communicate with other nationalities and cultures somehow, particularly in the business world.
Why should I learn a new language?
Being bilingual is really valued by employers. Also, there is an incredible amount of diversity in the workplace nowadays. This means that you could heighten your understanding of your clients, colleagues and other markets to make yourself a more valuable asset to you company.
More than just a career perk, scientists have shown that learning a second language has a positive impact on the brain, particularly if learned from a young age. Research has shown that the brains of bilingual speakers have more enhanced and engaged neural connections than those who only speak one language.
If you’re looking to develop your own skills, it’s also been shown through research that by learning another language, decision-making and multitasking skills improve. Language-learning is also seen as a way to delay dementia onset.
It might seem overwhelming to decide which language or languages would be most useful to learn. You first need to think about why you want to learn a foreign language. Is it to help you communicate with colleagues and customers? Do you want to learn a language of an emerging market, which might not be that popular at the moment, but could become very valuable at some point over the next five to ten years? Or do you want to learn a language just for the sake of it, because it’s an interest to you, and any other benefits would be a plus?
Given we are one of the UK’s translation agencies, we thought we would give you some advice on the most useful languages to learn to get ahead of the game:
As one of China’s official languages, Mandarin is spoken by nearly 15% of the global population- almost 1 billion people. The demand for Mandarin speakers has risen over the years, particularly as China has continued to grow and become of importance to international trade. Three quarters of UK business leavers think that being able to speak Mandarin gives people a career advantage.
Learning Mandarin is challenging. Its writing system is completely different from the Latin alphabet used by languages in the West. Its thousands of Chinese writing characters add complexity to learning to write. In addition, its tonal nature means that the same word can be pronounced several ways, with each way having a different meaning.
Arabic is proving to be more and more useful to business, with many growing economies being located in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. The World Economic Forum ranked Arabic as the 5th most powerful language in the world. It’s likely to become more popular with growing trade from the Gulf peninsula. Arabic is still rare to find as a second language, so learning it will make you stand out from the crowd, and open up pretty much a whole continent of opportunities.
Arabic is classed as a “Southern-Central Seimitic” language. It is spoken across the Middle East and North Africa. It has around 30 dialects. Learning Arabic will also make it easier to understand other languages in the region, such as Persian, Turkish or Hindu. The vocabulary from these languages have many similarities with Arabic, or are derived from Arabic words, making it easier for Arabic learners to grasp their grammar and syntax. By learning Arabic, this opens you up to an appreciation of Arabic culture and way of life.
Much like Mandarin, Arabic is also another language without a Latin alphabet. Its writing system includes 28 script letters, which include very few vowels. Writing left to right can prove challenging for beginners, as well as grasping the new written alphabet. English speakers also find the sounds difficult to replicate with some of them not existing in other languages.
Spanish has over 400 million speakers across the world. Learning Spanish makes travel much easier, with the language being found across many major continents, being the official language of nearly 40 countries.
Spanish has the same alphabet as English, making it much easier than the likes of Arabic and Mandarin. Pronunciation is also much simpler- with many words pronounced as they’re spelt. However, there are nuances as in every language- learning when to use the two different “to be” verbs, as well as learning the different verb tenses, with certain moods not used in English.
By speaking Spanish, this could ease learning other languages, such as Portuguese and Italian, also Latin-based languages with many similarities.
Check out Global LTS’ page on Spanish translation here, to find out more about the nuances and challenges that can arise from Spanish.
Germany is an economically important country. It dominates EU trade, and 45% of companies asked by the British Council said that learning German is “useful” for employees. Germany is a big player in the fields of automotive and chemicals, and is already a popular second language in the EU. If you’re looking to get into tech, Germany is the place to go. A new start-up is created in Berlin every 20 minutes, with the city’s low cost of living and high quality of life being attractive to many entrepreneurs.
German is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn. Both languages come from the same family, with many words being similar in both languages. Moreover, many people in the emerging Eastern European market speak German as their second language, such as in the former Eastern bloc country of Poland.
With Brazil being a key developing country for businesses, Portuguese is seen as a valuable language to learn. It is a huge market, with few companies having fluent English speakers.
Learning Portuguese isn’t as challenging for English speakers as some other languages- it’s around the same difficulty level as Spanish and French, and if you know Portuguese, it will undoubtedly help you learn the other two (or vice versa). Portuguese has masculine and feminine nouns, and pronunciation is not as straightforward as Spanish, with there being particular differences, for example, the “R” at the beginning of the word is pronounced like an “H”.
It’s important to not get confused with Portuguese. Like with Spanish, there are variations- European Portuguese and Brazilian Portuguese. They are the same language, but with several differences that have evolved from different influencing factors. These differences range from pronunciation, grammar rules, and like the differences in British or American English, vocabulary. As an example, Brazilians sound longer and wider vowels, which isn’t done in European Portuguese. South American Portuguese and South American Spanish have similarities in the spoken word, with both languages evolving from their European versions over the years.
Russian is a widely spoken language, with over 250 million people speaking it. It is the official language of Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, and is widely spoken across Eastern Europe. Russia is a key geopolitical player, making Russian language experts valuable for companies. Russia’s rate of English proficiency is growing, but still only around 5% of Russians have any command of English. It also doesn’t cater for English-speaking tourists as much as other European countries, so learning some of the alphabet could prove helpful for business or pleasure!
Russian uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so some letters are familiar but may not sound like they do in English. Confusing! However, unlike Arabic or Mandarin, many of the 33 letters in the Cyrillic alphabet are similar to the English alphabet. You need to re-train your brain to re-associate certain letters with certain sounds (for instance, the Russian letter -p is actually pronounced as an -r, making the name “Maria”, “MaPia”!). There are six verb cases, and Russian doesn’t have the verb “to be”- causing issues for English speakers
If you learn Russian fluency, you will quickly be able to grasp other, similar Slavic languages which use the Cyrillic alphabet. These are:
Eastern Slavic Languages- these all fully use the Cyrcillic alphabet- examples include Russian, Belarusian, Ukrainian
Southern Slavic Languages- these use either the Cyrillic alphabet (for example Macedonian and Bulgarian) or the Latin alphabet (for example Slovenian and Croatian)
Western Slavic Languages- these use the Latin alphabet, but in a modified form, with influence from the Slavic languages- examples of these include Czech, Slovak and Polish
French will always be an important language for English speakers, particularly those in the UK, given France’s close proximity. Over 200 million people speak French, with it being a key language for international communication. French is also spoken in many countries across Africa, with many investors looking to establish trading relationships in the continent.
It is also useful for diplomatic reasons. French is one of the official languages of the United Nations, as well as the language of the International Olympic Committee, NATO and one of the languages of the European Union.
Moreover, learning French opens up a new educational and cultural world. There are many opportunities for studying at high-quality universities in France, and learning French can open up new learnings in fashion, food and art. If history and literature are of interest, learning French will be a treat to studythe works of Victor Hugo or Marcel Proust in the original language.
French is a relatively easy language to learn for English speakers. Much of the grammar is similar to that in English, but learning to pronounce words is vital. It is also easy to get up to a good level of communication in French, and provides a good basis for learning other Romance languages such as Spanish and Italian.
Japan boasts the third biggest economy in the world, and is likely to be an important trading partner to the UK going forward. It presents many opportunities for businesses, particularly with regards to technology. The Asian economy is rising, and having Japanese as a language skill can open you up to more jobs and study placements. There will be less competition and more opportunities in different fields, as international businesses value those who have Japanese as a second language.
The writing system, known as Kanji, is very difficult to learn. There is no alphabet like there is in English, with Kanji using different character sets and strokes to show meaning. There are three writing scripts: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are slightly easier to learn, but Kanji comprises thousands of characters. There are also no plurals, and extensive grammatical differences.
Japan has many specific cultural exports such as technology, pop and anime. If you’re a fan of manga, video games, anime, then you’ll know that a lot of these are not translated into English, or if they are, it can sometimes take years for an official translation. It also allows you to understand more Japanese films and animations, where some of the themes will be lost in the English translation.
Moreover, by learning Japanese, this can be your gateway to other Asian cultures and languages. Asian cultures are different, but do share some similarities which are recognised when studying multiple Asian languages. You can see shared values, and Japanese and Korean grammar do have some similarities.
Hindi is spoken by about 260 million people as their native language, with an additional 120 million who use Hindi as a second language. It’s the fourth most spoken language in the world, and is the most widely spoken language in India. It is also very similar to Urdu, the language of Pakistan, meaning speakers of both have a good understanding of one another. Given India’s important place in the global economy, it’s very useful for doing business.
The written alphabet is different from English, with characters being used as in Arabic. Sentence structure also differs from English, as well as the presence of genders for nouns, as in Spanish and French.
Turkey is an important country culturally- split between Europe and Asia. Again, its importance is growing given Turkey is being seen as a key economic player. Its consumer base is also increasing, and learning Turkish opens up possibilities to learn other similar languages, such as Kazakh and Uzbek.
Turkish is an agglutinative language- this means that to form new words, particles are added to the base word. It is also a phonetic language, so after learning the alphabet, pronunciation becomes more straightforward. Its words also don’t have a gender, but its structure is like Japanese and German.
When thinking about learning another language, particularly an Asian language, most people think about Chinese or Japanese, with Korean being a third option. However, this should not be the case, as Korean is an incredibly useful language for business relationships.
Seoul, South Korea’s capital, is a hub for technology and manufacturing. The likes of Hyundai, LG and Samsung are Korean, with South Korea being the 13th largest economy in the world. Learning to speak Korean will help strengthen relationships in the country, and having some knowledge of the language can put you ahead, particularly in a market where there aren’t as many native English speakers with Korean language skills.
Like Chinese and Japanese, Korean has its own alphabet. The word order in a sentence can throw beginners. In English, sentence structure is subject-verb-object. However, in Korean it goes subject-object-verb. For example, in English we would say “I visited my parents”, but in Korean the sentence would read “I my parents visited”. This may seem like a simple rule, but longer, compound sentences can prove to be more challenging for learners.
Pronunciation is also not straightforward. Reading and writing can be perfected over time, but pronouncing a sentence is another issue. Korean has a large number of vowels with complex sounds, and Korean does not use these sounds over again as often as in English. This makes mistakes abundant in Korean, and learners should take note, as Koreans use an honorific system for addressing people. If this system is not used correctly, and words are pronounced improperly, this could result in disrespect.
With new languages come new opportunities. Every language will have different challenges, and certain languages will suit some better than others. Whether you’re new to learning languages or want to challenge yourself further, embrace other languages as a ticket to opening up new interests and cultures.
Each one of these would be beneficial for personal development and your career, so challenge yourself by learning a new language today!