The best languages to learn in college and beyond

11

One of the biggest pieces of advice that I dispense to the rising Harvard freshmen is to take language classes.  Harvard does a fantastic job of teaching them, they’re a super-useful lifelong skill, and they’re generally an easy ‘A’.  You just can’t go wrong.

The big question is, which languages should you take?  Here’s my take on which to take, with a rough rating for each.  I’ve taken French, Italian, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Arabic and Chinese lessons, so those are based on firsthand experience:

Chinese. Everyone’s talking about how China is going to take over the world.  Whether or not that is true is irrelevant to the fact that if you become any kind of entrepreneur or businessperson, you’re certain to deal with China.  Printing, manufacturing, outsourcing, construction, finance — it’s all there.

Chinese business runs on the principle of guanxi — loosely translated as ‘relationships.’  Basically, it means that in a 2hr business meeting, you will spend the first 1:50 talking about your families, and the last 10min negotiating the deal.  Knowing Chinese in this situation will hold you in good stead.

Also, there’s a hierarchy of how good a deal you can get from a Chinese merchant: the gringo rate for those who don’t speak Chinese; the rate for the foreigners who can hack a few sentences; and the rate for natives.  The better your Chinese, the better the deal you’ll get.

Knowing Chinese will also give you access to a millennia-old body of literature, poetry and philosophy, if you’re into that Eastern wisdom thing.  On the downside, the effort required to speak, read and write Chinese will be about 3x that of picking up an Indo-European language with a Roman alphabet, so you need to be pretty determined.  And because of the sheer volume of work required for a Chinese course, you want to make sure your courseload is pretty light for that semester.  Like a jumbo box of Corn Flakes, it’s easy to digest, but a lot to get through.

The big argument for learning it in college is that you’ll never have the luxury of time and the facilities to do it again, so you might as well do it now.  Also, if you speak Chinese fluently, it is very likely that you will never be unemployed.  There’s some company somewhere who will find your Chinese expertise indispensable and be happy to make you their envoy to the Middle Kingdom.

Ease of learning: 1 Employability enhancement: 10 Cool factor: 10 Overall: 21/30

Japanese. Back in the ’80s and ’90s, Japanese was the go-to language for the budding careerist, because then the Land of the Rising Sun was the one poised for world conquest.  Some decades and a few financial meltdowns later, the bloom may be off the cherry blossom, but Japanese is still hella cool.  With three writing systems, it’s a bit of a bear to get good at reading and writing, but the richness of the literature is well worth it. It can enhance your employability but not by much, so it’s more of a recherché scholarly thing to do for the coolness factor.

Ease of learning: 2 Employability enhancement: 7 Cool factor: 10 Overall: 19/30

French. Hate to say it, but French is pretty useless except for speaking, well, French.  If you speak French to Parisians, they will love you and treat you like a king, which is the diametric opposite of the treatment most Americans receive.  The literature is astonishingly rich, and it’s a treat to read Montaigne, Molière, Balzac, Rimbaud, Éluard and other greats in the original.  French pop is pretty awesome, too, and knowing French makes listening to Aznavour, Jacques Brel and MC Solaar that much more fun.  Although the employability boost is minimal at best, of all the languages you could learn, this one probably makes you look the most sophisticated.

Ease of learning: 6 Employability enhancement: 1 Cool factor: 10 Overall: 18/30

Italian. I freakin’ love Italian.  The pronunciation and grammar are super-straightforward, so you’ll learn it faster than almost any other language.  It’s super-useful for music (allegretto ma non troppo), food (how delightful it is to know that spaghetti alla puttanesca means spaghetti in the style of a whore?) and figuring out the gazillion Latinate words in English. Also, Italians are super-friendly, and if you speak Italian to them, they will freakin’ love you.

Also, Italian was almost solely responsible for making me appreciate opera.  Once you understand what ma in Ispagna son già mille tre is talking about, Don Giovanni becomes a lot more fun to watch.  By far the biggest bang-for-buck factor of any language I can think of.

Ease of learning: 10 Employability enhancement: 1 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 20/30

German. Tougher than Romance languages and not nearly as mellifluous to the ear, learning German is a labor of love for most people.  I happen to love German culture, delight in the way the language sounds, and find the prospect of understanding Schiller and Rilke in the original very appealing.  I also like that it informs me of the Germanic roots of English.  Can’t say it does anything for your employability, since all Germans speak English better than we do.

Ease of learning: 5 Employability enhancement: 2 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 16/30

Spanish. Easily the most useful language you can learn on the planet.  There are 400 million native speakers and 500 million total speakers of Spanish in the world, second only to Chinese.  By speaking Spanish, you can own Central and South America as well as Spain (aka the world’s biggest non-stop party).

If you have any intention of pursuing medicine, learning Spanish is de rigueur in the US.  You will have patients who simply don’t speak English, and asking them “Where does it hurt?” slower and louder ain’t gonna get you nowhere.  It’s also super-easy, especially if you already know another Romance language.  So learn freakin’ Spanish. I picked it up in med school, and it has been indispensable — especially since people in hispanohablante countries tend not to speak any English.  Order dinner in Costa Rica?  Check.  Direct the cab in Barcelona?  Check.  Bonus: you can listen to the Spanish-language soccer commentators on TV, which are approximately 5.8 quadrillion times better than their English-language counterparts.

Ease of learning: 10 Employability enhancement: 8 Cool factor: 6 Overall: 24/30

Russian. No personal experience with this one, but I’m guessing its employability enhancement factor is on the rise.  Billionaire oligarchs have business to do and money to burn, so there’s an opening there for the enterprising linguist.  There’s also a serious boy shortage in countries like Russia and Ukraine, so if you’re a dude, speaking a little Russki may give your love life a boost if that’s your dish.  Russian’s a great entrée into the world of Slavic languages (Czech, Polish and Ukrainian are not far off), it’s a new alphabet with a whole different grammar, and — Pushkin!  That’s all you need to know, really.

Ease of learning: 4 Employability enhancement: 8 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 21/30

Portuguese. A few years ago, Portuguese would not have even been on the list.  But now, with the rise of Brazil as an economic power and the fact that four (four!) of my close buddies have married Brazilian women, Portuguese is a contender indeed.

First of all, the language is cake, especially if you already know another Romance language.  Second, it’s super-useful — entrepreneurial opportunities abound in Brazil now in the same way they did in the US in the 1860s.  And Brazilians just don’t speak a whole lot of English.  Third, if the fit hits the shan here in the US, where ya gonna go?  Canada is too darn cold and Australia is running out of water, so you may want to consider Brazil.

Portuguese is also fun to speak.  All the hard consonants are softened, and the vowels undulate like the strains of a Carlos Jobim song — speaking it is like giving your mouth a mellow massage.  Also, Brazil is insanely fun.  Scientists have shown that a Brazilian’s DNA, instead of the usual A-T-G-C, is made of the nucleotides P-A-R-T-Y.  Add to that the friendliness (and pulchritude) of Brasileiras, especially towards American men (sorry ladies — but hey, I hear China has a serious boy surplus), and you’ve got yourself an excellent case for falar português.

Ease of learning: 9 Employability enhancement: 8 Cool factor: 9 Overall: 26/30

Arabic.  There’s an old joke that says war is how Americans learn about geography.  If that’s the case, then events of the past 20 years have put the Arab world on the American mental map.  Kuwait and Iraq come to the fore through the 1991 Gulf War.  September 2001 was another reminder of things Arab.  And more recently, the Arab Spring uprisings highlighted Egypt, Syria, Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya.

Of course, for most people, the reason to learn Arabic isn’t the places in turmoil, although you’re sure to land a State Department job if you’re an American fluent in the language.  It’s the Gulf states, awash in oil wealth, that make learning Arabic a viable economic proposition.  From the reports of my ex-patriate friends in places like Dubai, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, there is serious demand for Westerners who are willing to work over yonder.  And if you can speak their language, you’re in business.

There’s one big issue with Arabic: schools teach modern standard Arabic.  This is the Arabic spoken in newscasts, and everyone understands it — but nobody speaks it.  The problem is that there are 22 Arab countries, and they all have their own dialects which are not necessarily mutually intelligible.  So they’ll understand you when you speak your perfect textbook Arabic, but you may not understand them when they respond.  There are whole chunks of vocabulary that you won’t find in any dictionary — e.g. shwei shwei is colloquial Lebanese for ghalilan in modern standard Arabic, which is what you tell people when they ask how much you understand: a little bit.  You basically have to make your peace with learning one dialect (e.g. Egyptian) which won’t be fully usable 80% of the time.

Ease of learning: 5 Employability enhancement: 10 Cool factor: 6 Overall: 21/30

‘Roots’ languages. As Americans, the rest of the world has often accused us of having no roots.  And it’s sadly true that many immigrants come here from countries of rich cultural heritage — Korea, Iran, India, Vietnam, China — only to lose the native tongue within a generation.

Letting a colorful and rich native culture get homogenized into the bland consumerism that passes for American culture is a crime to you — and your children.  McDonald’s and Spider-Man ain’t culture, yo.  Knowing stories from the Mahabharata, Shahnameh, King Dongmyeong — now that’s something solid you can hold on to.  And essential: trees reach for the sky only if they have strong roots.  If you’re not fluent in the language of your ethnic roots, chances of your kids picking it up are nil, so now’s an excellent time to get on that case.

So don’t be ashamed of taking Persian if your name’s Amir, Hindi if your name’s Sunil, or Korean if your name’s Grace.  I guarantee it’s a decision you’ll never regret.

What other languages have you found useful to learn?  Chime in below in the comments.

11 Comments »

  1. John

    December 12, 2011 @ 5:50 pm

    1

    Korean

  2. Chris

    December 13, 2011 @ 8:59 am

    2

    Where is Swedish? :)

  3. Ali B

    December 15, 2011 @ 4:53 pm

    3

    Swedish is indeed very useful — if you want to learn Swedish. That’s why I did it!

  4. Roma

    December 17, 2011 @ 2:43 pm

    4

    I had a wild thought, as I often do, so when I searched with this sentence: does one’s DNA affect the ease of learning another language, your blog came up. Soooooo, after reading, I assume not, unless you are one heck-of a human being!

  5. Ali B

    December 18, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

    5

    Just like mathematical or musical ability, linguistic ability is some mixture of innate capability and environment. Studies show that kids who grow up bilingual have an easier time acquiring new languages and I was certainly one of those kids. It also helps if you enjoy the learning process for its own sake.

  6. meow

    December 26, 2011 @ 6:36 pm

    6

    how many languages do you know?!?!

  7. Ali B

    December 27, 2011 @ 6:45 pm

    7

    Not nearly enough!

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    February 1, 2012 @ 6:21 pm

    8

    [...] all for preservation of cultural and linguistic heritage (and have written about it before).  But if you’re just going to eat the food from the old country, listen to the music from [...]

  9. Jake Meldrum-Stewart

    February 12, 2012 @ 6:10 am

    9

    Norwegian would be a good choice if you are an anglophone. The grammar is very simple and you can converse with: Norwegians, Danes, Swedes, Faroese, Icelanders. You may not understand them but they will understand you !

  10. Rosalyn Chen

    August 15, 2012 @ 1:55 am

    10

    You mention picking up Spanish in med-school: you can continue taking foreign languages while trying to get a graduate degree? If so, my life would be complete!

  11. Ali B

    August 29, 2012 @ 7:57 am

    11

    Rosalyn — Most medical schools are attached to actual universities, and you can cross-register there. Heck, that’s what I did.

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