A mere few decades ago, you needed only one language to get around in business: English. But times change—we’re part of a genuinely global marketplace, and new economic superpowers are falling into place.
One potential disadvantage of a global marketplace is the degree to which we interact virtually. Learning even a few words of a useful business language can help convey the degree to which you care about developing your international market share. Speaking one of the most useful languages can help differentiate you from your competitors as the one who’s willing to go the extra mile.
Important Languages to Learn
You may have the most advanced widget or the sexiest new service, but if you can’t talk about it, you lose out on millions of potential customers. Even with the explosive growth of translation technology, you’re still at a disadvantage if you only speak a single language. But what are the most useful languages to learn? You might be surprised by some of them.
Here are the seven best languages to learn for an entrepreneur or business professional.
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 for 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 languages to learn for business. Spanish is a particularly good choice for a number of industries, among them education, health care, law and hospitality. Since so many people speak Spanish it is likely you will often be working with someone, in some capacity, who speaks it.
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. And as a consequence of that, more business will stay within the country. Industries for which Portuguese is one of the most useful languages to learn include manufacturing, mining, agriculture, finance, fishing and textiles. If you want in, you better speak the language.
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 business people. 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’ll 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 beverages, and several governmental departments.
China's dominance in the world economy makes it an obvious source of business opportunities for decades to come. With two primary variants of Chinese, Mandarin and Cantonese, mastering either language is a benefit. Mandarin is China’s official tongue, and according to Babbel, it has roughly 1.1 billion speakers. Mandarin is one of the best languages to learn for the following industries: technology, communications, manufacturing, government, marketing, tourism and education.
According to GTS Translation Services, roughly 422 million people speak Arabic worldwide, though there are significant dialectal differences among them. And not all Arabic speakers live and work where you might expect; 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, 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. Since you are reading this article, it's likely you are an English speaker already. But don't let this fool you into believing you have mastered the language dialects. Study the country and regions where you do business to understand the unique ways English is spoken. 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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