Wat are the most valuable foreign language skills to possess in the next decade?
September 5, 2004 11:48 AM   Subscribe

What are the most valuable foreign language skills to possess in the next decade(s)? Arabic? Chineese? Spanish? Does it depend solely on your chosen field? My question comes from a government and law perspective, but I'd be interested in all opinions. [more inside]

I'm currently attending a community college in order to transfer to a prominent state university in order to finish my undergrad degree, and then (hopefully) apply to the same school's law program. At the UG level, I'm going to study political science and either minor or double major in an area that particularly intests me: Scandinavian Studies, and more specifically Danish language courses. Since my career interests are leaning heavily towards work in government and/or politics, I was thinking about taking advantage of the university's offerings in Arabic as well. Do any of you think that a knowledge of Arabic would be of practical benefit in the fields of government and/or law over the next decade? It seems to me that it certainly would, but I'd be interested in hearing from anyone working in those fields with any specific knowledge. If not, would you recommend another language. (The Danish may never be of enormous practical value, but it's very important to me.)
posted by trivirgata to Society & Culture (16 answers total)
I think Mandarin for international business; Spanish for sheer numbers of people in the world that speak it, so useful for most any field, and more and more useful here at home. Arabic is useful, but more for intelligence, i think.
posted by amberglow at 12:08 PM on September 5, 2004

In intelligence and government it's an open secret that Arabic is very much in demand, although I would venture this isn't going to be particularly useful from a legal standpoint, but more of a diplomatic/espionage one.

Mandarin Chinese is obviously going to become a very useful language to have knowledge of in coming years, particularly from a business stand point (much where Japanese was in the '80s and 90's).

From a legal standpoint, however, I would suggest the European languages. Danish wouldn't be at the top of my list, although it could be very handy as it opens you up to understanding most of Swedish and Norwegian at the same time. If you're adventurous, and by considering Arabic it sounds like you are, Russian could be an ideal choice as there are bound to be larger connections between the EU and Russia in the future, legally and commercially.
posted by wackybrit at 12:23 PM on September 5, 2004

I agree with Mandarin, though I argue that it will be much more important in international diplomacy and government (along with business) as time goes on and their star rises in the world.

Korean, I feel, will be important as the issues on the peninsula are dealt with. Not only will it be necessary to learn Korean to make diplomatic overtures, but it will become important afterwards as corporations of all sorts move into Korea and set up shop.

I'm currently taking Japanese and Chinese, and I have some Korean under my belt. It's really a matter of chance that I didn't take Arabic in high school, else I'd be on a much different track. (Arabic's a good one to take if you want to head in that governmental direction...) But I really believe the future of the world will be in East Asia, so learn one of those languages. (Mandarin first, then Korean, then Cantonese, and maybe Hindi. Japanese isn't quite as important as it once was, but I think they'll bounce back in the next decade.)
posted by armage at 1:18 PM on September 5, 2004

In California (and, I expect, everywhere along the Mexican border), teachers who are fluent in Spanish are in great demand, and are likely to remain so.
posted by SPrintF at 1:27 PM on September 5, 2004

I wonder--possibly because I'm mono-lingual--whether it's more desirable to learn one language (in addition to your native language, I mean) thoroughly or to learn many not quite so well. One very bilingual person I used to know once told me, "Having a second language is like having a second soul." It struck me as a particularly arrogant thing to say, but I can sort of see what she meant, and my lack of a second language is one of my great regrets. But I digress. What I'm, getting at here is, at least in terms of soulful satisfaction, doesn't it seem better to really grok one language and all of its nuances than to be pretty good at several of them?
posted by willpie at 4:03 PM on September 5, 2004

From a legal standpoint, however, I would suggest the European languages.

From what I can see, there is absolutely no reason to learn any European language if you want to be a lawyer. (Other than personal reasons, of course). Most of the EU stuff is published in both English and French. Occassionally I have found some documents only in French, but you can get those translated easily enough. At bottom, lots of people speak the "big" European languages (like French and German), so translation is cheap and easy; fewer people speak the smaller European languages, but it's pretty unlikely that you'll need those languages.

Arabic will be very useful if we continue toppling governments in the region, and if you're very successful in the law: someone will have to help the new democratic governments draft their constitutions and laws, after all. I know a couple of attorneys who bolstered their careers by doing that in the wake of the Soviet breakup, back in the day.

A lot of the international commercial practice, at least at my firm, revolves around companies that want to invest in China and Korea. Being able to read Chinese would be a big asset in a China practice, because laws (and securities documents) are often filed only in Chinese.
posted by gd779 at 5:33 PM on September 5, 2004

That's just my opinion, by the way. I'm very new to the practice of law, so while that last comment probably made me sound like I know a lot, I may not.
posted by gd779 at 5:35 PM on September 5, 2004

Spanish, Arabic, Chinese.
posted by davidmsc at 8:14 PM on September 5, 2004

If you are looking to get a jump on a possible stint in the Foreign Service or something of that nature, French or Spanish would probably prepare you for the largeset minority of posts (Though, IIRC, you could still be sent somewhere else without regard to what languages you speak). On the other hand, I'm pretty sure that gd779 is right about EU documents and procedings and documents being universally available in English, maybe a European mefite can fill us in on this issue. If English will serve as a lingua franca throughout the EU, and you are thinking about a legal career in (or with relation to) Scandinavia, French or Spanish may not be your best bet. I'm not sure what help Arabic would be with relation to Scandinavian studies. Are there major Arab populations in that region? I personally think I would go with Russian if I were in your shoes.
posted by guidedbychris at 10:44 PM on September 5, 2004

I've been working with a lot of Indian people lately and have been, of necessity, picking up some Hindi. It's been a lot of fun and, I suspect, may be useful over the coming years.
It's also been an eye-opener to begin learning a language that will be useful if I should move back to the UK but is not a European language.
Anyway, my vote would be for Hindi, Arabic (which I really wish I could read) or Cantonese.
posted by thatwhichfalls at 10:48 PM on September 5, 2004

I imagine Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese are probably the most useful in the business world. Arabic for the intelligence world as well.

I majored in Spanish in college, partially because I used to live in California and Spanish is so prevalent there. I also took French, and because of this I'm (really close to) fluent in Spanish, passable in French, and I can do a decent job of understanding Portuguese and Italian because of how similar they are.

I would love to learn more languages, especially Korean, German, and Norwegian. Once you know one foreign language, the rest come so much easier!
posted by mabelcolby at 2:02 AM on September 6, 2004

Once you know one foreign language, the rest come so much easier!

This is true, somewhat. But although I have reasonable skills in French, Spanish and German, mabelcolby, let me tell you, Korean is a whole 'nother kettle of fish! Easy to read, hard'n'hell to speak.

Although that could be the accumulated brain damage from years of too much fun.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 2:48 AM on September 6, 2004

What I'm, getting at here is, at least in terms of soulful satisfaction, doesn't it seem better to really grok one language and all of its nuances than to be pretty good at several of them?

The problem with this theory is that you will never finish that first language. There is always more vocabulary (at a rate of thousands of words a year, and that's not counting the chemical names), and more grammar and style disputes to settle for yourself.

What's more important, I think, is to lay the groundwork in other languages so that you are *comfortable* in them. When you stop worrying about not knowing a language perfectly--because you never will--then its utility has surpassed your incomprehension.

This is why bilingual education is valuable and the clich├ęd bogus claim, "They'll just learn two languages badly" is wrong. They'll learn two languages to the same degree they'd learn one. The student who does not understand the subtleties of Spanish and English grammar in a bilingual program would never have become the next Joseph Conrad if he had only been taught just one. I'd also add: conversational language skills do not require a perfect understanding of, say, the subjunctive. They require and understanding of people and cultures, and language is the ideal medium for that understanding.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:05 AM on September 6, 2004

What Mo said.

willpie: It struck me as a particularly arrogant thing to say

WTF? Why is it arrogant to mention that a second language gives you a new perspective on life, a slightly different personality? Anyway, it's impossible to have a perfect knowledge even of your native language, so there's no point worrying about it for others. The more you know, the more benefit you'll get. I hope you don't settle for regret; it's never too late to learn another language.
posted by languagehat at 11:04 AM on September 6, 2004

i can imagine how it might come across as arrogant - in an "i've got more souls than you so i'm better than you" kind of way.

anyway, i'm not sure she was completely right. in my limited experience, it seems to be the associated culture, rather than the language, that gives one a different outlook on life. and i'm not at all sure the result is a net positive (there are good and bad things, of course, but, for me at least, it's not a pleasant feeling to have two rather different souls living in the same body).

so, willpie, i'd urge you to give her the benefit of the doubt - her apparent arrogance may well have been jealously at your solid consistency and frustration with her own internal ambivalence...
posted by andrew cooke at 12:43 PM on September 6, 2004

IME, being fully bilingual broadens your outlook and internal discourse a lot. There's a reason why two people who speak the same 2 languages fluently will often use both at the same time (e.g.:spanglish) when speaking to each other, it's an opportunity to fully communicate in the same fashion as you think on the inside.
If through some sort of head trauma I lost one of the languages I speak, I would certainly feel as if I'd lost a large part of my spirit. To start with, it would cut the amount of books I can read in the original in half.
posted by signal at 4:50 PM on September 6, 2004

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