Monday, December 19, 2011

Just Five Languages...

I've been away all day so wasn't able to put finishing touches on this morning's post.  But on the way home I was asking myself this question.  If a person was going to travel the world or be involved in the whole world in some way, maybe you were Secretary of State or something, what would be the most important languages to know?  If a university had a "World Languages" major consisting of five languages, what would they be?

Here were my choices:

1. English
English seems the best single language to know.  Not only is it the most important internet language, but it gets you North America, western Europe, Africa, and India better than any other language.

2. Russian
It may be of decreasing value in the days to come, but at the moment Russia will get you Russia, all the eastern European countries, and all the -istan countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.  It's the single biggest region covered by any language.

3. Spanish
Spanish gets you most of South America and Latin America.  You can usually make yourself known in Brazil, Portugal, and even Italy if you know Spanish.

4. Chinese
I could be wrong but it seems to me that Chinese is the most important of the languages in Asia to know. It is also in the ascendancy and will likely take the place of Russian in the future as a lingua franca.

5. Arabic
Arabic will get you around in northern Africa and the Middle East all the way to Pakistan.  If you were going to travel the whole world, Arabic is your best bet throughout the Muslim world.

I wonder if any university has a degree like this.  I doubt it, since the university way is to focus on one language at a time...


Jose said...

Shortly after the end of the Cold War a friend from Poland explained the language situation there. All Poles understand Russian, he said, but none of them speak it.

The value of knowing Russian depends on the audience and the situation. A diplomat or bureaucrat may benefit from knowing Russian because s/he would be speaking with the older generation, which had ties to the Warsaw Pact era. Many of them were required to learn Russian as a second language. This is no longer the case for the younger generations of Eastern Europeans.

Erik said...

A quick question: which "Chinese" would you recommend? Mandarin and Cantonese are the two top languages in that language category, and they're pretty much mutually unintelligible.

Ken Schenck said...

Eric, maybe the Chinese script rather than the spoken language? Do you have another thought?

Jose, do you think something will replace Russian as a common language in the former Soviet countries?

Anonymous said...

It is a complete shame that IWU offers so few languages.

Ken Schenck said...

David Wright commented on this post in Facebook to say that a major something like this is actually in the works at IWU. I don't know any details.

Jose said...

Mandarin is pretty much the official language of China. A lot of the important people will speak both, but you won't find many speakers of Cantonese outside of Hong Kong and Guangzhou. And you are right that the written language is the same. Did you also know that Japanese script is similar enough that many Chinese can read Japanese and vice versa?

From what I can tell the former Soviet states and satellites keep looking to the west. English has become more common since the 1990s.

Jim said...

A PhD in Comparative Literature requires proficiency in several languages. My German professor was working on a PhD from the University of Arkansas in the early 80s. He needed to be proficient in 5 languages, I believe. His languages were English, German, French, Spanish, and Koine Greek.