A few decades ago, you needed only one language to get around in business: English. But now we’re part of a genuinely global marketplace.
Learning even a few words of a key language can help convey the degree to which you care about developing your international market share in a global marketplace. Speaking one of the most useful languages can help differentiate you from your competitors as someone who’s willing to go the extra mile.
The best language to learn for you and your business depends on the specific industry and sector you're in. However, some languages are considered more useful for business than others, including Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, German, and English.
Important Languages to Learn
You may have the most exciting new tool or service, but if you can’t talk about it, you might miss out on potential customers. Even with the explosive growth of translation technology, learning a new language can help you better connect and stand out with prospects.
Here are the seven best languages for an entrepreneur or business professional to learn. Difficulty will depend on several factors, such as your native language, prior exposure to other languages, and learning style.
Why is Spanish one of the most useful languages to learn? According to World Population Review, as of 2021, the U.S. has around 52 million Spanish speakers. There are more than 442 million Spanish speakers across the countries in which Spanish is the primary language. For English speakers, Spanish is considered one of the easiest languages to learn, which makes it one of the best ones to learn for business. Spanish is a particularly good choice for a number of industries, among them education, health care, law, and hospitality.
You may think you’re never going to do business in the country of Portugal, and you may be right. But that doesn’t mean Portuguese isn’t one of the best languages to learn. There are roughly 279 million Portuguese speakers worldwide according to World Population Review, and only 10 million of them are in Portugal. Why is Portuguese so important? Brazil. Brazil has positioned itself to be fuel independent (among other things), which means its important dependencies are reduced. As a result, more business will stay within the country. Industries Portuguese can be helpful in include manufacturing, mining, agriculture, finance, fishing, and textiles.
Russia's capital, Moscow, has one of the highest billionaire populations of any city in the world. Russia is rich in natural gas, oil, coal, precious metals, and lots of highly educated, smart businesspeople. The Russian language is based on the Russian alphabet, making it much harder for native English speakers to learn. If you’re willing to put in the work, you may have a big advantage. According to Babbel, there are about 258 million Russian speakers worldwide. Russian is one of the best languages to learn for the following industries: aerospace, natural resource extraction, tourism, finance, food and beverage, and several governmental departments.
4. Chinese (Mandarin)
China's dominance in the world economy makes it an obvious source of business opportunities for decades to come. Mastering either of the two primary variants of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, can be a benefit. Mandarin is China’s official language, and according to Babbel, it has roughly 900 million speakers. Mandarin is one of the best languages to learn for the following industries: technology, communications, manufacturing, government, marketing, tourism, and education.
Learning even a few words of a key language can help convey the degree to which you care about developing your international market share in a global marketplace.
According to GTS Translation Services, roughly 422 million people spoke Arabic worldwide as of 2021, though there are significant dialectal differences among them. The U.S. and Europe both have a sizable population of Arabic speakers. Industries for which Arabic is an important language of business include translation, government, marketing, finance, oil, and education.
Comparatively small in number of speakers worldwide, around 130 million, according to German news and media website deutschland.de, German is nevertheless an important international business language. Germany exports a vast quantity of high-quality manufactured goods, like cars, chemicals, and precision components. Because Germany is the largest economy in Europe, according to Statista, it’s worth putting in the effort to learn German if you plan to do business there.
English remains critical for business due to its dominance in economic powerhouses like the U.S., England, Australia, and large parts of India. Study the country and regions where you do business to understand the unique ways English is spoken there. Industries for which English is one of the most useful languages to learn (or master) include travel and tourism, technology, marketing, web development, education, and health care.
Learning a new language will require you to invest some time and energy. But even if you don’t achieve fluency, picking up some knowledge can give you a competitive edge.
A version of this article was originally published on June 7, 2012.
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