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Which Foreign Language Should You Learn?

There might be a thousand reasons why you decide to study a foreign language. You may be moving to another country, you may be doing it for love or to have a leg up on the job market. If you fell in love with a 1.9m tall Norwegian, you don’t have much choice. Pick up those runes and buy a winter coat. But if you want to learn a foreign idiom to get a better job, you have to think it carefully. What’s the language offering the best career opportunities in the years to come?

In this article we’ll help you figure it out taking into account what’s your desired occupation and how much time you plan to dedicate to it.

The Top 10 Most Spoken Languages in the World

You’re probably grumbling: “If I was confused before reading this tab, now I am sailing in a sea of chaos.” We know, it’s pretty baffling when the numbers don’t add up. Why aren’t the most spoken languages also the most studied ones? Why do people study French if it’s only spoken in France and in a few ex-colonies scattered across the globe? Or Italian? Or German?

There are two reasons behind this apparently incomprehensible phenomenon: the prestige of a language and its business relevance.

Language Prestige and Cultural Relevance

The language prestige is something deeply rooted in our culture and is determined by historical reasons. For example, why is English the most studied idiom in the world? Colonialism. This language was brought to all corners of the globe by the British Empire. At a certain point of the XX century, it expanded across a quarter of the world’s surface. Then, after the Second World War, the USA boomed and English became the lingua franca for diplomatic relations and international trade.

In a similar way, French prestige is the result of France colonial expansion to North America, Africa and Asia as well as its reputation as the idiom of European diplomacy and politics dating back to the age of Enlightenment. Italian’s illustriousness derives from Italy being the cradle of European civilisation and culture. Think about the golden age of the Roman Empire or the glorious period of Renaissance.

“So,” you might be wondering now, “should I study French or Italian?” It depends. It depends on how relevant is this language to your prospective career.

The Business Relevance Of a Language

What do we mean by business relevance? In simple words, it signifies how helpful a language is going to be to your intended profession. For example, if you want to work as a diplomatic representative at the Irish embassy of Moscow, Russian is a mandatory choice. But if your dream is working in one of the European Union’s institutions, French or German are definitely a better option as they’re EU’s official languages.

Art, in all its forms, is an Italian thing. Whether you’re planning to be the new Michelangelo or the next Renzo Piano, you should be able to consult Italian critiques and reviews. On the other hand, if determining the limits and scope of metaphysics is your favourite hobby, you should go for German. A good philosopher is always required to read texts in their original language.

What about business? In case you want to attend a business school, whether it’s management, international trade or finance, it would be wise to pick a language spoken in one of the world’s leading exporting or importing countries.

As we suppose that your English is sufficiently good, you’re left with Chinese, German and Japanese. None of them is a piece of cake, but if you manage to learn one of these languages, you’ll have a clear advantage over a good percentage of job seekers when the time comes.

In the tourism and customer service industry, you have to go for the big numbers. Where is the majority of tourists coming from? Well, here is an overview of the visitors to Ireland from January to May 2018.

Of course, these are general suggestions and not rules. Studying philosophy doesn’t necessarily mean reading Kant in German, nor attending a Business School implies that you’ll work in the Chinese market. We are talking probabilities and it happens that the most famous philosophers were German and the new emerging power is China. However, you could end up specializing in Foucault or dealing mainly with the Brazilian market, so don’t take this advices too strictly!

How Much Time Do You Have?

Another important factor to consider when selecting a language to learn is how much time you can dedicate to it. Learning a foreign idiom is one of the most difficult tasks to attain for our brain. The neural area that processes the sounds (auditory cortex) 'rusts' soon making it more difficult to recognize, understand and reproduce absent sounds in the mother tongue.

It is difficult from a quantitative point of view: to speak fluently means to learn thousands of words, sounds, idioms and expressions. And it is also difficult from a qualitative one: to memorize elements of foreign languages is one of the most complicated things ever; this depends on the fact that our memory is associative (we do not "insert" new information, but rather create new connections with our previous knowledge), and, therefore, information completely unrelated to what we already know is the hardest thing to remember.

Moreover, you can’t really speed up the process. In order to learn a language, you need time and constancy. It is necessary to respect the mental processes that are at the basis of language learning (psycholinguistics), which need to be stimulated often but in little doses. This means practising a little bit every day, slowly absorbing it like the roots of a tree absorb the nutrients from the earth.

If you don’t have the time and determination to learn 10,000 Chinese characters, maybe you could opt for an easier language. You are probably aware that learning Spanish or Dutch is not as difficult as learning Chinese. Mastering some languages is a lifetime endeavour, half an hour a day wouldn’t be enough. We don’t mean to discourage you, but we do prompt you to be realistic and honest with yourself so that you won’t feel overwhelmed by the unattainability of your goal. Always ask yourself: how much time am I really going to invest to learn it?

What are the Most Demanded Languages?

After all these tabs, here is another one. Maybe, the most important one. It should give you an idea of what languages are in the highest demand by employers and recruitment agencies.

However, our final tip is to make your choice according to your passions. Don’t choose a language because it looks good on your CV or because it has the highest number of speakers. Think about why you want to study that language, what attracts you about the people who speak it and how does speaking it actually help you. As mastering a new idiom is such a great effort, you’ll probably give up if you’re not motivated by a real interest.

To conclude, being pragmatic is not always the best way to go. In the end, we are not made of numbers and tabs, let yourself be driven by passion and enthusiasm!

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Vivek Pathak
Vivek Pathak
Jul 19, 2023

At Spoken English Institute, a variety of courses in the English language are offered which can be fine-tuned to suit the student's needs. Special emphasis is laid on providing expert English knowledge which is required these days in different professions.

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