Best foreign languages to learn
Learning a foreign language has become more important than ever in the global business space. Becoming fluent in one or more languages a company does business in can help you better understand their target market, and keep you in touch with the needs of their local consumer base. But which languages have the most value in the business world? Simply put, the best languages to learn for business are those which are spoken by many people worldwide (like English and Chinese) and/or are spoken in countries which are home to major players in different industries (like Germany and Japan for automobiles). In this article, we’ll lay out the 9 best languages to learn for doing business globally, and explain why knowing these languages can give you a leg up in your career. Ready to get to work? Let’s go!
English is often considered to be “the language of international business” because it is used by millions of companies around the globe. There are more than 1 billion speakers of English in the world, and it is one of the most taught languages. In fact, most speakers of English in the world are not native speakers! The global reach of American culture means that English language learners can easily access authentic media and learning materials anywhere they are. And because English will likely remain on the international business stage for the conceivable future, it remains the choice for opening up new opportunities and accessing a higher standard of living.
Mandarin Chinese is one of the best languages for business because it is spoken by more than 1 billion people worldwide. Besides that, China is a global manufacturing powerhouse (think of all the “made in China” products) and is home to large international corporations like Alibaba, Tencent, and Tiktok. Unsurprisingly, there is strong demand in the business world for Mandarin-speaking employees. Now, although Mandarin is a good choice for people in the business world, it is one of the hardest languages to learn for English speakers. This is mostly because Mandarin has a very different grammar, writing system, and vocabulary compared to English. It takes roughly 2200 hours to reach professional working proficiency in Mandarin. That means studying 5 hours a day for 1.5 years (88 weeks). But don’t be dissuaded – the career opportunities you’ll be able to gain will be well worth the effort.
Spanish is another good choice to learn for business because it’s one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, with more than 500 million speakers. Spanish is the official language of Spain as well as of many countries in South and Central America, and is spoken by a sizable portion of people in the United States. These countries are home to leaders in many industries, from oil and gas (Mexico, Venezuela) to agriculture (Spain) to technology (United States). This means that knowing Spanish will be an advantage in both international and domestic markets! Luckily, Spanish is one of the easiest languages for English speakers to learn, requiring only about 600-750 class hours to reach professional working competency. And if you’re from the United States, where Spanish is the most commonly taught foreign language in schools, you probably already have some “experiencia” under your belt. So get out there and start learning!
Arabic is one of the best languages to learn for business because of the lucrative oil and gas industries in the Middle East. Arabic is spoken primarily in the Middle East and northern Africa by more than 400 million people. However, many dialects of Arabic are so different from one another that they are not mutually understandable. A good place to start is Modern Standard Arabic, which is the variety taught in most schools across the Arabic-speaking world. It is also the variety that is likely to be spoken in most business situations.
Learning Arabic is not an easy task, however. Like Mandarin Chinese, it takes around 2200 hours to reach working proficiency in Arabic. However, the effort will most definitely pay off. Arabic can not only help you do business in the oil & gas industry, it can also help you break into the booming tourism and fashion industries in Middle-Eastern countries!
Portuguese is a good language to learn because it is an official language in several international organizations (such as the EU and the African Union) and is used in many humanitarian spheres. There are 250 million speakers of Portuguese across Portugal, Africa, and South America. Brazilian Portuguese is particularly lucrative to learn because Brazil is home to many prominent companies in the banking and tourism industries. Portuguese is also not a very commonly studied second language (compared to some of the other languages on this list), so being a bilingual Portuguese speaker can give you a competitive advantage on the global marketplace. English speakers who are interested in learning Portuguese can expect to spend 24 weeks or 600 class hours of intensive language study to reach working proficiency.
Anyone interested in doing business in Europe should consider learning German. About 134 million people speak German throughout the world, although most of them are concentrated in central European countries such as Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Germany is a notable world-banking center, housing the head office of the European Central Bank. Germany is also a significant player in the medical equipment production, renewable energy technology, and automobile industries (maybe you’ve heard of Mercedes, Volkswagen, or BMW?). Because of this, knowing German will certainly come in handy if you want to do business in Central Europe! German takes a little bit longer for English speakers to learn than languages like Spanish and Portuguese. You should expect to spend about 36 weeks of intensive study, or 900 classroom hours, to reach working proficiency.
There are several reasons why French is good to learn for business. First, French is spoken by nearly 80 million people as a first language and is an official language of 13 countries (including France, Canada, and Switzerland). This makes it useful for business in many areas of the globe. Second, French is an official language of several international organizations, like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. This means that learning French can help you down a number of different humanitarian career paths. Like Spanish and Portuguese, French is an easy language to learn. It should take an English speaker roughly 600-750 class hours to reach working proficiency. Bonne chance!
Even though most of its 125 million speakers reside in a single country, learning Japanese can give you a leg up in the business world. Japan is a leader in a whole host of different industries, from automobiles to consumer electronics. Business in Japan is often done using the most polite form of Japanese, called keigo, which can be tricky to learn. However, having a good understanding of standard Japanese should be enough to allow you to get the hang of keigo relatively quickly. It takes around the same time to learn Japanese as is does to learn Mandarin: 2200 hours of intensive study. However, Japanese media has considerable reach in other parts of the world, so finding authentic learning materials shouldn’t be that difficult.
Learning Hindi can help you do business in a country with one of the fastest growing economies in the world – India. Hindi is the most prominent of the 20+ languages spoken in India, with 500 million speakers. India has the world’s largest consumer market for goods and services, so you can be sure that there will continue to be strong demand for bilingual speakers of Hindi in the business space. Hindi is a difficult language for English speakers, however. You can expect to spend 44 weeks or around 1100 hours of intensive study in order to reach working proficiency in Hindi.
Why is it Important to Learn a Foreign Language for Business?
Learning a foreign language for business is important because it can help you find a career, both domestically and abroad. Whether a company is well-established or a startup, they must eventually work with foreign companies in order to operate on the international market. Of course, this is only doable if employees can interact with business partners and clients in their native language. Being able to interact with people who speak your target language in your home country is also a great point to add to your résumé!
What Components of Language are Important for Business?
There are several components of language that are important for doing business globally. Components that are particularly important include professional vocabulary, polite language use, and common expressions used in a business setting. Of course, all parts of a language are necessary to achieve true fluency, and business language isn’t much of an exception. However, the more specific nature of business language means that you may only need to reach working proficiency in certain situations. As with many areas of language learning, it is truly up to the individual or, in some cases, the company they work for, to determine what is most important to learn.
What Level of Language is Enough for Business?
Although the precise level of language fluency that is “enough” for business differs from person to person, most companies require that employees have at least high intermediate to advanced proficiency. This roughly corresponds to a B2 or C1 level on the CEFR scale. The level of language proficiency you need will of course depend on your specific job. For example, a job where you give presentations and meet with foreign clients (e.g., sales) is probably going to require a pretty high foreign language ability. On the other hand, a job with simple interactions (e.g., grocery store clerk) will probably require much lower proficiency. Fortunately, standards such as the CEFR are reasonably well-documented, and provide a good estimate for what you need to reach various levels of business language proficiency.
What is the Best Way to Learn a Language for Business?
While there is no one “best way” to learn a language for business, many people choose to learn using apps. Apps which offer content geared towards a business environment are the best choice. Mango Languages, for example, offers courses specifically designed for doing business in Mandarin, Spanish, and English (for speakers of Spanish). Other ways to learn include taking online or in-person courses, reading blog posts, and watching videos on business language. Whatever method you choose, learning a new language will most certainly open the door to new opportunities in your life. So what are you waiting for? Get down to business and start learning today!
Eberhard, David M., Gary F. Simons, and Charles D. Fennig (eds.). 2022. Ethnologue: Languages of the World. Twenty-fifth edition. Dallas, Texas: SIL International. Online version: http://www.ethnologue.com.