Which is the best language?

Once a mark of the cultured, language-learning is in retreat among English speakers. It’s never too late, but where to start?

March/April 2012

An introduction by Robert Lane Greene

For language lovers, the facts are grim: Anglophones simply aren’t learning them any more. In Britain, despite four decades in the European Union, the number of A-levels taken in French and German has fallen by half in the past 20 years, while what was a growing trend of Spanish-learning has stalled. In America, the numbers are equally sorry. One factor behind the 9/11 attacks was the fact that the CIA lacked the Arabic-speakers who might have translated available intelligence. But ten years on, “English only” campaigns appeal more successfully to American patriotism than campaigns that try to promote language-learning, as if the most successful language in history were threatened.

Why learn a foreign language? After all, the one you already speak if you read this magazine is the world’s most useful and important language. English is not only the first language of the obvious countries, it is now the rest of the world’s second language: a Japanese tourist in Sweden or a Turk landing a plane in Spain will almost always speak English.

Nonetheless, compelling reasons remain for learning other languages. They range from the intellectual to the economical to the practical. First of all, learning any foreign language helps you understand all language better—many Anglophones first encounter the words “past participle” not in an English class, but in French. Second, there is the cultural broadening. Literature is always best read in the original.

Poetry and lyrics suffer particularly badly in translation. And learning another tongue helps the student grasp another way of thinking. Though the notion that speakers of different languages think differently has been vastly exaggerated and misunderstood, there is a great deal to be learned from discovering what the different cultures call this, that or das oder.

The practical reasons are just as compelling. In business, if the team on the other side of the table knows your language but you don’t know theirs, they almost certainly know more about you and your company than you do about them and theirs—a bad position to negotiate from. Many investors in China have made fatally stupid decisions about companies they could not understand. Diplomacy, war-waging and intelligence work are all weakened by a lack of capable linguists. Virtually any career, public or private, is given a boost with knowledge of a foreign language.

So which one should you, or your children, learn? If you take a glance at advertisements in New York or A-level options in Britain, an answer seems to leap out: Mandarin. China’s economy continues to grow at a pace that will make it bigger than America’s within two decades at most. China’s political clout is growing accordingly. Its businessmen are buying up everything from American brands to African minerals to Russian oil rights. If China is the country of the future, is Chinese the language of the future?

Probably not. Remember Japan’s rise? Just as spectacular as China’s, if on a smaller scale, Japan’s economic growth led many to think it would take over the world. It was the world’s second-largest economy for decades (before falling to third, recently, behind China). So is Japanese the world’s third-most useful language? Not even close. If you were to learn ten languages ranked by general usefulness, Japanese would probably not make the list. And the key reason for Japanese’s limited spread will also put the brakes on Chinese.

This factor is the Chinese writing system (which Japan borrowed and adapted centuries ago). The learner needs to know at least 3,000-4,000 characters to make sense of written Chinese, and thousands more to have a real feel for it. Chinese, with all its tones, is hard enough to speak. But  the mammoth feat of memory required to be literate in Mandarin is harder still. It deters most foreigners from ever mastering the system—and increasingly trips up Chinese natives.

A recent survey reported in the People’s Daily found 84% of respondents agreeing that skill in Chinese is declining. If such gripes are common to most languages, there is something more to it in Chinese. Fewer and fewer native speakers learn to produce characters in traditional calligraphy. Instead, they write their language the same way we do—with a computer. And not only that, but they use the Roman alphabet to produce Chinese characters: type in wo and Chinese language-support software will offer a menu of characters pronounced wo; the user selects the one desired. (Or if the user types in wo shi zhongguo ren, “I am Chinese”, the software detects the meaning and picks the right characters.) With less and less need to recall the characters cold, the Chinese are forgetting them. David Moser, a Sinologist, recalls asking three native Chinese graduate students at Peking University how to write “sneeze”:

To my surprise, all three of them simply shrugged in sheepish embarrassment. Not one of them could correctly produce the character. Now, Peking University is usually considered the “Harvard of China”. Can you imagine three PhD students in English at Harvard forgetting how to write the English word “sneeze”? Yet this state of affairs is by no means uncommon in China.

As long as China keeps the character-based system—which will probably be a long time, thanks to cultural attachment and practical concerns alike—Chinese is very unlikely to become a true world language, an auxiliary language like English, the language a Brazilian chemist will publish papers in, hoping that they will be read in Finland and Canada. By all means, if China is your main interest, for business or pleasure, learn Chinese. It is fascinating, and learnable—though Moser’s online essay, “Why Chinese is so damn hard,” might discourage the faint of heart and the short of time.

But if I was asked what foreign language is the most useful, and given no more parameters (where? for what purpose?), my answer would be French. Whatever you think of France, the language is much less limited than many people realise.

As their empire spun off and they became a medium-sized power after the second world war, the French, hoping to maintain some distance from America and to make the most of their former possessions, established La Francophonie. This club, bringing together all the countries with a French-speaking heritage, has 56 members, almost a third of the world’s countries. Hardly any of them are places where French is everyone’s native language. Instead, they include countries with Francophone minorities (Switzerland, Belgium); those where French is official and widespread among elites (much of western Africa); those where it is not official but still spoken by nearly all educated people (Morocco, Lebanon); and those where French ties remain despite the fading of the language (Vietnam, Cambodia). It even has members with few ties to French or France, like Egypt, that simply want to associate themselves with the prestige of the French-speaking world. Another 19 countries are observer members.

French ranks only 16th on the list of languages ranked by native speakers. But ranked above it are languages like Telegu and Javanese that no one would call world languages. Hindi does not even unite India. Also in the top 15 are Arabic, Spanish and Portuguese, major languages to be sure, but regionally concentrated. If your interest is the Middle East or Islam, by all means learn Arabic. If your interest is Latin America, Spanish or Portuguese is the way to go. Or both; learning one makes the second quite easy.

If your interests span the globe, and you’ve read this far, you already know the most useful global language. But if you want another truly global language, there are surprisingly few candidates, and for me French is unquestionably top of the list. It can enhance your enjoyment of art, history, literature and food, while giving you an important tool in business and a useful one in diplomacy. It has native speakers in every region on earth. And lest we forget its heartland itself, France attracts more tourists than any other country—76.8m in 2010, according to the World Tourism Organisation, leaving America a distant second with 59.7m. Any visit there is greatly enhanced by some grasp of the language. The French are nothing but welcoming when you show them and their country respect, and the occasional frost that can greet visitors melts when they come out with their first fully formed sentence. So although there are other great languages out there, don’t forget an easy, common one, with far fewer words to learn than English, that is almost certainly taught in your town. With French, vous ne regretterez rien.



Daniel Franklin

Imagine that the Spanish-speaking world was a single country, called Hispanidad. It covers a territory perhaps one-and-a-half times the size of China. Its population is nearly 500m, making it the world’s third most populous country, behind China and India. Among these people, the number of native Spanish-speakers is rising towards 400m; as a mother tongue, only Mandarin Chinese is bigger. Hispanidad also has a rich literature, from Cervantes to Gabriel García Márquez, that is best enjoyed in the original. And you really should see an Almodóvar film without subtitles. Only English and Chinese are more widely used on the internet than Spanish.

So if you are in business, into the arts or just want to join la conversación, the sheer size of Hispanidad is a powerful reason to learn Spanish. But Hispanidad is not a single country. The fact that it spreads across the Americas, Spain and even parts of Africa and Asia makes the case for Spanish stronger still.
After English, it is the most used international language. For tourists it eases and enriches travel in the 20-plus countries where Spanish is a main language (though some may prefer to skip Equatorial Guinea). Students have an enviable choice of stimulating places to hone their Spanish skills, from Venezuela to Argentina to Spain itself.

Not forgetting the United States, the country with the second-largest number of Spanish-speakers (about 50m and rising) after Mexico. Latinos are growing in influence culturally, commercially and politically. Nowadays, would-be presidents make sure to advertise in Spanish: Soy Mitt Romney y apruebo este mensaje.

Even for those with no political ambitions, there is another compelling reason to pick Spanish as your second language: it’s easy (certainly compared with, say, Mandarin). And once you’ve got Spanish, you’re half-way to Italian, French and Portuguese too.

Learn Spanish? ¡Cómo no!, as they say in Hispanidad.



Simon Long

“In German oder English I know how to count down
Und I’m learning Chinese,” says Wernher von Braun

Half a century ago, when Tom Lehrer wrote his satirical song, the idea of a German rocket scientist counting backwards to zero in Chinese must have sounded both exotic and rather sinister to his American audience. Now that China is ready to take over from America as the country that sends men to the moon, surely there can be no doubt that it talks the language the rest of us should be learning.

This is not, in fact, rocket science, but economic and political common sense. China is the most populous nation on earth. Even when India assumes that status in the next decade or so, Chinese speakers will still far outnumber those who understand and speak India’s biggest language, Hindi, even if Pakistani speakers of Urdu, which is very similar, are added in. If the point of a language is to be able to communicate with as many people as possible, there is no contest. Of course, there are many languages in China, too. But “standard Chinese”(putonghua, aka “Mandarin”), or something close to it, is understood almost everywhere, as it is taught in schools. So there is no need to agonise over which dialect to learn.

China’s economy is going to be the biggest in the world – the only question is when. You can make your own educated guess by using the clever interactive infographic at economist.com/chinavusa. The default option is 2018. Already China’s spectacular 30-year boom has transformed our lives. When I grew up in London, there were no Chinese tourists, and nothing we owned was made in China. And now? The Chinese economy is likely to continue to outpace the rich world’s for decades to come, tilting the balance of economic power. Learn Chinese, not to impress your future boss, but to understand what she is saying.



Josie Delap

To a native English-speaker, searching for a language to learn and probably inexpert in the dark arts of grammar, the simple Romance languages with their common-sense syntax might seem obvious choices, perhaps even those of Scandinavia with their familiar-sounding, if oddly spelt, vocabulary. But instead, breathe deep, and plunge into Arabic.

It is hard. The first years of Arabic are frustrating, like doing a jigsaw of a cloudy night sky. While those studying Spanish gallop ahead, chattering about beers they want and sisters they have, you must master a new script; one whose dots and dashes blur before your eyes, whose vowels fade into nothingness, whose letters change shape depending on where they appear in the word. Arabic’s three-letter root system for creating words – adding suffixes, prefixes, midfixes, to trilateral building blocks – will seem utterly alien.

But the struggle is a worthy one, and the rewards start with your ego. Knowledge of Arabic, however slight, will impress not only the monoglots and dullards who plumped for Italian, but native speakers too. Egyptians, Syrians and Palestinians, moved that you have troubled to do battle with their tongue, will shower you with praise.

When you understand how beautifully Arabic fits together – why the root meaning “west” leads to the words for “sunset” and “strange” – the sense of illumination is sublimely satisfying. No mere French subjunctive or Russian instrumental can do that. And the pleasure will never dim. Fluency may long elude you, but there will always be a fascination in picking your way through Arabic’s intricacies.


Helen Joyce

Brazilian Portugese

Some lunatics learn languages for fun. The rest of us are looking for a decent return on our investment. That means choosing a language with plenty of native speakers. One spoken by people worth talking to, in a place worth visiting. One with close relatives, so you have a head start with your third language. One not so distant from English that you give up.

There really is only one rational choice: Brazilian Portuguese. Brazil is big (190m residents; half a continent). Its economic prospects are bright. São Paulo is Latin America’s business capital. No other country has flora and fauna more varied and beautiful. It is home to the world’s largest standing forest, the Amazon. The weather is great and so are the beaches. The people are friendly, and shameless white liars. You’ll be told “Your Portuguese is wonderful!” many times before it is true.

You won’t need a new alphabet or much new grammar, though you may find the language addicted to declensions and unduly fond of the subjunctive. You’ll learn hundreds of words without effort (azul means blue, verde means green) and be able to guess entire sentences (O sistema bancário é muito forte: the banking system is very strong). With new pronunciation and a few new words you’ll get around in Portugal and parts of Africa. If you speak Spanish, French or Italian, you’ll find half the work is already done — and if not, why not try? With Portuguese under your belt you’ll fly along.

Best of all, you’ll stand out. Only about 10m Brazilians have reasonable English, and far more Anglophones speak French or Spanish than Portuguese, of any flavour. I did not choose this language; it was thrust on me by the offer of a job in São Paulo. But when I think of my sons, now ten and five, one day being able to write “fluent Brazilian Portuguese” on their CVs, I feel a little smug.



Tim de Lisle

I studied Latin for 15 years, and this may well be the first time it has been of direct use in my adult life. There was one moment, long ago, when it nearly came in handy. I was reviewing an album by Sting that contained a stab at a traditional wedding song. There are many such songs in Catullus, whose elegant poetry I had spent a whole term plodding through. If ever there was a time to play the Latin card, this was it, so I described Sting’s wedding song as “Catullan”. Somewhere between the Daily Telegraph copytakers and the subs, “Catullan” was changed to “Catalan”. It probably served me right.

So, direct use: virtually nil. But Latin—which gives us both “direct” and “use”, both “virtually” and “nil”—has been of indirect use every day of my career. If you work with words, Latin is the Pilates session that stays with you for life: it strengthens the core. It teaches you grammar and syntax, better than your own language, whose structure you will have absorbed before you are capable of noticing it. Latin offers no hiding place, no refuge for the woolly. Each piece of the sentence has to slot in with the rest; every ending has to be the right one. To learn Latin is to learn rigour.

The price for the rigour is the mortis. Soon enough, someone will helpfully inform you that Latin is a dead language. In one way, sure, but in others it lives on. It is a vivid presence in English and French, it is the mother of Italian and Spanish, and it even seeps into German. More often than not, the words these languages have in common are the Latin ones: it remains a lingua franca. The words we take from Latin tend to be long, reflective, intellectual (the short, punchy words we didn’t need to import: live, die, eat, drink, love, hate). Business and academia, two worlds with little else in common, both rely more and more on long Latinate words. The European Union speaks little else. Ten years ago, for another article, I had to read the proposed European constitution. It was a long turgid parade of Latin-derived words. The burghers of Brussels were trying to build a superstate out of abstract nouns.

Management-speak and Euro-blather are Latin at its worst, but learning it will still help you cut through them to find clarity. It is a little harder to bullshit when you’ve learnt Latin (though quite possible to bluster, as Boris Johnson proves). And if you stick at it you discover, after no more than eight or nine years, that this is a glorious language per se.

Its literature has stood the test of millennia: Ovid is diverting, Lucretius is stimulating, Cicero is riveting. Horace can be a drag—like a bad weekend columnist, always wittering on about his garden and his cellar, except when coming out with quotable drivel about how sweet it is to die in battle. But his contemporary Virgil is majestic. He set himself the most daunting task—giving Rome its own “Iliad” and “Odyssey”, in a single epic, while staying on the right side of an emperor—and pulled it off. I did French and Greek too for years, and enjoyed them, but nothing quite matched up to the pleasure of reading the “Aeneid” in the original. 

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