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Languages Most Vital to the Future of the United States

By Salil Jain

New York City, New York

The lack of lingual diversity in the U.S. needs to be solved (Photo Credit: TVO)

American citizens do not have the language skills necessary for the future.

When it comes to learning languages, Americans have become complacent and comfortable with the notion of the English being the primary language in international communications. According to the 2010 census, more than three-quarters of the U.S. population does not speak any language other than English at home. 

However, it is important to learn languages for many reasons. One of the most important factors is that fluency in a language is useful in many jobs, especially in communications-centered posts such as customer service, sales, and marketing. In addition, emerging economies will grow in importance on a global scale. Because of this, knowledge of non-European languages is vital for our generation and beyond as globalization and social media connect the world. Nelson Mandela sums up the importance of learning languages: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

The following indicators were used to calculate the importance of various languages: current U.S. export markets, the language needs of U.S. businesses, U.S. government priorities, languages of emerging high growth markets, diplomatic and security priorities, the public's language interests, outward visitor destinations, and levels of English proficiency in other countries. Here is the final ranking of the most important languages for an American to know:

  1. Spanish

  2. Mandarin 

  3. Arabic

  4. Japanese (Tied)

  5. Korean (Tied)

  6. French

  7. German

  8. Russian

  9. Hindi

  10. Italian

  11. Portuguese

  12. Farsi


Spanish is a main language in Spain, Mexico, most South and Central American countries, the Philippines, Equatorial Guinea, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. It is also the second-most widely spoken language in the United States. It is spoken by 537.9 million people, making it the fourth-most widely spoken language in the world.


Mandarin is a main language in the People’s Republic of China, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Singapore. It is spoken by 1.12 billion people, making it the second-most spoken language in the world.


Arabic is a main language in most of the Middle East and North Africa in addition to Comoros, Djibouti, and Somalia. It is spoken by 274 million people worldwide, making the sixth-most spoken language.


Japanese is the official language of Japan. It is spoken by 126.4 million people, making it the thirteenth-most widely spoken language in the world.


Korean is the official language of North and South Korea. It is spoken by 79.4 million people, making it the 22nd-most spoken language in the world. The Korean script, Hangul, is a featural language system, meaning the letters mimic the shape of the mouth when speaking.


French is a main language in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Monaco, Switzerland, Canada, Haiti, much of Western and Central Africa, Djibouti, Comoros, Madagascar, Seychelles, and Vanuatu. It is the fifth-most widely spoken language, and is spoken by 276.6 million people worldwide.


German is a main language in Austria, Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. It is spoken by 131.6 million people, making it the twelfth-most widely spoken language in the world.


Russian is an official language in Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. It is spoken by 258 million people worldwide, making it the eighth-most spoken language.


Hindi is a main language in India and Fiji. It is spoken by 637.3 million people worldwide, making the third-most widely spoken language. Hindi is mutually intelligible with Urdu, the main language of Pakistan that is spoken by 170.6 million people, when spoken. However, they have two distinct scripts (Devanagari and Persian).


Italian is a main language in Italy, San Marino, the Vatican, and Switzerland. It is spoken by 67.7 million people worldwide, making it the 27th most widely spoken language.


Portuguese is a main language in Angola, Brazil, Cabo Verde, East Timor, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Macau, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe, and Portugal. It is spoken by 252.2 million people worldwide, making the ninth most spoken language.


Farsi (or Persian) is the main language of Iran. It is spoken by 55 million people worldwide, making it the 31st most widely spoken language. Farsi is mutually intelligible with Dari and Tajik, the main languages of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, when written, although they are different when spoken.

Spanish received almost one-and-a-half times as many points as Mandarin, the second-place language. Japanese and Korean received only one half of a point more than French. The top twelve languages all received more than ten points. (See full report for explanation of the points system.)

Three of the top twelve most spoken languages (not including English) were not part of the twelve most useful languages generated by this report: Bengali, Urdu, and Indonesian. They were replaced by Korean, Italian, and Farsi. Bengali, Urdu, and Indonesian placed 22nd, 21st, and 17th respectfully in the report. Eight of the top twelve languages come from the Indo-European language family, while the other four each come from their own language families (Sino-Tibetan, Afro-Asiatic, Japonic, and Koreanic). Spanish earned the most points in six of the eight categories. 

The U.S. has work to do to end its lack of lingual diversity: more languages need to be offered in schools, starting from an earlier grade; businesses need to fund night language classes for adults; Americans should take initiative in taking online courses in foreign languages; and the government should work with lingual and cultural institutions to promote access to various resources.

The full report can be read here.


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