Chapter 10: Which language should you learn?

A Very Brief Introduction to the Languages of the World

Which language do you want to learn? Perhaps you have already picked one out—or perhaps you are just window-shopping at this point. Your selection of a language is analogous to your choice of an undergraduate major. You have to determine your goals.

Do you want to learn a difficult language (like Korean) or a relatively easy language (like Spanish)? Would you be interested in a language that you could use extensively in the Western Hemisphere (Spanish or Portuguese), or are you looking for a language that would involve opportunities in exotic, faraway countries (Chinese, Vietnamese, etc.)? Is there a particular region of the world that has always interested you? Does your heart race at the thought of strolling down the streets of a stately European capital, or are you drawn to the high-tech factories of Japan?

You should consider the difficulty of the language. As a general rule, Western European languages—Spanish, French, German, Italian, etc.—are easier for native English speakers to learn than Asian, Eastern European, or Middle Eastern languages.

A Look at Language Families

Most languages share common elements with at least one or two other languages. A language family is a group of languages that share common characteristics. Some of the most important language families are indicated below:

  • Western Germanic: German, English, Yiddish, Dutch, Afrikaans, Flemish
  • Scandinavian: Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic
  • Romance: Portuguese, Spanish, French, Romanian, Italian
  • Slavic: Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, Polish, Slovak, Czech, Slovenian, Bulgarian, Serbo-Croatian, Macedonian
  • Sino-Tibetan: Chinese, Thai, Lao, Burmese
  • Semitic: Hebrew, Arabic

These close relationships between languages result from a variety of historical and geographic circumstances. (You probably noticed that many of the languages within the same family are spoken in neighboring countries.) In many cases, similar languages represent divergent branches of the same linguistic origin. At one point, a group of people were speaking essentially the same language, but one branch of the tribe migrated to another area. As a result, two mutually unintelligible but closely related languages developed. If you decide to specialize in the languages of a particular region, you may be able to take advantage of such similarities. For example, the languages of Scandinavia, which include Norwegian and Swedish, are substantially alike due to their common roots. If you learn Norwegian, then it will be fairly easy for you to learn Swedish later on.

A Look at Some Specific Languages

As mentioned earlier, each language has its own special challenges and rewards. Some languages are easier than others. Given the current trends in international business, some languages are guaranteed to be useful in the business world, while the commercial value of other languages is more speculative.

What follows are my observations about some specific languages that you might choose to learn. I have concluded this section with some concrete recommendations for those who are still undecided.


If you are living in the United States and you are undecided about which language to learn, then you can’t go wrong by choosing Spanish. Spanish is the “unofficial second language” of the United States, and it is widely used in public life in California, Texas, and other states near the Mexican border. Moreover, Spanish is a solid choice for the career-oriented language learner: español is the foreign language that is most commonly requested by employers on job sites like

The 1994 enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement has made Spanish extremely important to U.S. businesses. All major U.S. companies have a presence in Mexico, and the country is becoming a growing force in the manufacturing sector. The Mexican economy has encountered some bumps along the way—such as the peso crisis of the mid-1990s—but the country seems dedicated to achieving prosperity as a free market democracy. With a population of over 100 million, and a surging economy, Mexico alone makes Spanish a key language for businesspeople.

Spanish is also the language of most of Central and South America. (Worldwide, more than twenty countries use Spanish as an official language.) The economic development of the other Spanish-speaking American countries has so far been irregular, and plagued with banking crises, guerilla insurgencies, and other calamities. However, significant progress has been made. Both politically as well as economically, Latin America is far better off today than it was twenty years ago. Dictatorships have been replaced by democratic governments in Argentina, Chile, and Nicaragua. (Cuba is still a Marxist dictatorship; but Castro is nearly eighty years old at the time of this writing.)

Of course, Spanish is also the language of Spain. Spain was once considered an economic basket case, but Spanish industries have rebounded in recent years. I have been particularly surprised at the extent of the Spanish presence in the automotive and machine tool sectors.

As foreign languages go, Spanish is relatively easy to learn. As a Latin-based language, Spanish shares numerous cognates with English. Even if you have never studied the language, you can probably guess the meaning of the following words: nación, importante, mucho, fotografía, fortuna. Of course, there are some aspects of Spanish that are tricky; but the language is nonetheless far easier for English speakers to learn than Japanese, Russian, or even French.

There are innumerable books and self-teaching programs to assist you in learning Spanish. The Spanish area usually occupies the most shelf space of the foreign language section in any bookstore. Spanish is taught at nearly every institution of higher learning in the United States, including community colleges. If you live in a major U.S. city, then you can find newspapers, television channels, and radio stations that use the language. 

Spanish-speakers as a group are extremely generous with foreigners who attempt to speak their language. If you let on to a Spanish speaker that you are learning her language, you will receive encouragement, help, and lots of patient practice.


Japanese is spoken by about 130 million people, most of who live in the Japanese islands. Japanese is not a global language like Spanish, French, or English, but the language is understood in a number of locations outside Japan. During an extended business trip to São Paulo, Brazil, I was surprised to discover that many of the second-, third-, and fourth-generation Japanese living in the area still understood the language. In fact, a number of Japanese-language newspapers and radio stations continue to thrive in the São Paulo area, although the influx of Japanese immigrants tapered off more than half a century ago.

During the Great Depression, Japan’s economy was thoroughly battered, prompting an outpouring of economic refugees. American laws to limit Asian immigration had recently made the U.S. a less than friendly destination. Brazil, conversely, had liberal immigration laws, and millions of acres of cheap farmland. The Japanese came by the thousands, and the region surrounding São Paulo, Brazil, today hosts the largest Japanese population outside the home islands. The Japantown, or Nihonmachi district of São Paulo is a bustling mixture of Japanese restaurants, bookstores, and other interesting businesses. The area might easily be mistaken for one of the smaller cities in Japan, were it not for a  few excessively quaint touches that are obviously designed for tourists, such as streetlights shaped like traditional Japanese lanterns.

Ironically, the Brazilian-born children and grandchildren of many of the original economic immigrants from Japan themselves became guest workers in the land of their forebears. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Japan’s factories were operating at full capacity, and the country experienced a severe labor shortage. Although Japan had always had tight immigration controls, guest workers from abroad were granted temporary work visas. These guest workers came from a variety of countries, but Brazilians of Japanese descent comprised a singularly large percentage.

The Japanese immigrants to the United States settled mostly in California and Hawaii. In the American tradition of the Melting Pot, the language was preserved for superficial ceremonial purposes, but mostly vanished from everyday communications. Although remnants of Japanese culture persisted in cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, these lacked the linguistic authenticity of São Paulo’s Nihonmachi.

Then, in the 1980s, the Japanese language began to receive widespread attention in the United States. Japanese citizens suddenly had money, and their favorite tourist destination was America. Japanese businesses were also coming to the United States. A new influx of Japanese came to Southern California as expatriate managers for companies like Sony, Ricoh, and Toshiba. Service companies like the Japan Travel Bureau followed.

Local companies vied for a share the nouveau riche yen, often using the Japanese language as a sales and marketing tool. At the height of the Japanese investment boom in the United States during the early 1990s, Japanese-speaking tour guides, interpreters, and real estate agents enjoyed a lucrative seller’s market.

The existence of so many Japan-related jobs, and the rise of Japan as a major industrial power caught the attention of educators. The Japanese language, which had previously been relegated to the academic backwater of Far Eastern Studies, suddenly became a sought-after skill for engineers, MBAs, and others in the “mainstream.” Every university seemed to be starting a Japanese-language program, or looking for a qualified instructor to start such a program. Prior to 1987, self-instruction books and courses for learning Japanese were as sparse as hen’s teeth. By 1992, the Japanese instructional market was outpacing that of practically every other language.

Japan’s economy hit the skids in the mid-1990s, and world events have since propelled a number of other languages to greater prominence. NAFTA revived Americans’ flagging interest in the Spanish language, and the emergence of a unified Europe renewed interest in old favorites like French and German. In more recent years, the economic boom in China, and problems in the Middle East have perhaps made Chinese and Arabic the new “cutting edge” languages. The Japanese language has lost some of the luster that it had back in 1990 or so, when “Japanese-style management techniques” were all the rage, and the press heralded the coming of Pax Nipponica.

Nonetheless, there are still plenty of good reasons for learning Japanese. While Chinese and Arabic may become more significant to the United States in future decades, Japanese is more commercially advantageous at the present time. Japanese is spoken in the boardrooms of Toyota, Honda, and other universally recognized corporations. Moreover, you do not have to travel to Japan to take advantage of all this Japan-related work. Japanese speakers are frequently sought by automotive component manufacturers in the Detroit area—about as far away from the streets of Tokyo as one can possibly get. Japan is a major player not only in automobiles, but also in consumer electronics, machine tools, and steel.

Japanese is an agglutinative language. This means that most words are formed by combining one morpheme (the smallest meaningful unit of a language) with other morphemes. True competency in Japanese is reached by learning how the various pieces of the language are used in combination. Example sentences are a key aspect of learning any language—but they are especially important when learning Japanese.

Japanese is classified as one of the most difficult languages for English speakers to learn. Learning Japanese requires you to enter an entirely new language paradigm. Although the language has borrowed a small number of words from English, German, and other Western languages, you will be mostly unaided by cognates.  Japanese grammar does not resemble anything that you learned in English, Spanish, or German class. Sentences can exist without subjects, adjectives often behave like verbs, and the passive verb tense is used extensively. Japanese word order seems to have been deliberately designed to be the diametric opposite of English grammatical rules. Verbs typically fall at the end of the sentence. When you say, “I went to the office” in Japanese, you literally say, “I to office went.

Politeness, humility, familiarity and disdain are conveyed in Japanese through subtle distinctions in the parts of speech. You can insult or complement someone by your choice of a verb. There are several polite endings that can be added to a person’s name, such as the suffix –san. When you are first learning Japanese, you may occasionally make a mistake and say something that is insulting or overly familiar. However, the Japanese are usually patient with foreigners who make such gaffes.

The most intimidating aspect of Japanese is the writing system. Japanese is written with two syllabaries—which are similar to alphabets—and about 2,000 Chinese characters known as kanji. However, Japanese instructional texts often make use of rōmaji—Japanese transliterated into the Latin alphabet. Therefore, you can learn grammar, vocabulary, etc., while you are still getting up to speed in the written language.


Next to English, French is the most popular second language in the world. Until the mid-20th Century, French was the international language of diplomacy. The language has since ceded this distinction to English, but French continues to be used along with English on international documents such as passports and visas. In educated circles, French has retained its status as a language of high culture.

French is a major European language. It is spoken by the 60 million residents of France, by about 5 million Belgians, and around 2 million Swiss. French is also the official language of a number of African countries that were once under French or Belgian rule. In Canada, French is the primary language in the province of Quebec, and it shares official language status with English nationwide. French is also understood in Haiti, Martinique, French Guyana, and Guadeloupe.

If you learned French and you live in the United States, don’t focus solely on job opportunities that involve Europe. There are millions of French speakers just across our northern border. Any company that has a significant customer base in Canada could potentially use a salesperson who can speak French.

The presence of two major European languages in Canada (English and French) is the result of the global ambitions of two former colonial powers. In the 1700s, Canada was a common flashpoint for the Anglo-French contest over North America. In fact, from 1754 through 1763, the British and the French fought an 18th century version of the world war, fighting each other across the Caribbean, the Americas, and Europe. Canada was only one of the prizes up for grabs—but it was an important one, given its close proximity to the British colonies along the Atlantic seaboard. 

The British ultimately gained control of North America, but a large population of French-speakers remained in Canada. Although the profile of Queen Elizabeth appears on Canadian currency, Canada is today officially bilingual; public services are offered throughout the country in both English and French.

The influence of the French language on daily life is strongest in the former French stronghold of Quebec. Most Quebecois have at least passable skills in English, but French is by far the preferred method of communication. As a result, a French-speaking sales representative can open doors in Quebec that will remain shut for a monolingual English speaker.

Although French is a Western European language that shares common roots with English, it is the most difficult of the Romance languages. Vocabulary acquisition is relatively easy, as there are many shared cognates between French and English: riche, signer, entrer, etc. However, French phonetics present an initial challenge for English speakers. If you decide to learn French, you will have to spend a lot of time listening to tapes to hone your pronunciation.

Since French is a very popular language, there is no shortage of French study materials. Nor will you have trouble finding French newspapers, websites, or magazines.


This is the language spoken by about 1.3 billion people in China, about 23 million in Taiwan, and an unknown number of Chinese living abroad. The Chinese diaspora has carried the language to practically every corner of the globe. Wherever there is a major population center, there is almost certainly someone who speaks Chinese. I have used the Chinese that I know in such unlikely places as Hopkinsville, Kentucky and Mexico City, Mexico.

You may have heard that Chinese is impossibly difficult because there are scores of dialects, or local versions of the language. Although there are many dialects of Chinese, the Mandarin dialect has become nearly universal in the Chinese-speaking world. This is the version of Chinese that is used in schools throughout China and Taiwan, and it is also the version of Chinese that is taught to foreigners. If you buy a cassette course for learning the “Chinese” language, you have actually bought a cassette course for learning the Mandarin dialect.

The only real competition for Mandarin comes from Cantonese, which is spoken in an area of southern China, including Hong Kong. However, even the Hong Kong Chinese are now learning Mandarin, since the island reverted to Chinese control in 1997. Some speakers of the Cantonese dialect might be inclined to disagree with this statement—but the future of the Chinese language belongs to Mandarin, hands down.

Chinese is quite difficult, but there is an increasing number of books and instructional programs on the market to help you rise to the challenge. You can get started with some of the mass market programs available on Amazon and Barnes & Once you’ve mastered the basics, then visit specialty stores like Cheng & Tsui and Chinabooks for some more advanced materials. (See Chapter 19.)

A mere generation ago, the Chinese language would have been of interest only to academics and foreign policy strategists. Today, however, Chinese is increasingly important for businesspersons. China currently has the fastest growing economy, ranked at number two or three in the world by some measurements.

China is still nominally Communist, but the nation has shed most of the purely Marxist ideology that ruled in the 1950s, when Mao Zedong was forcing people into communes and agricultural collectives. In the early 1980s, Deng Xiao Ping, an economic reformer, came to power and instituted a wide range of market reforms. These began as “special economic zones”—areas in which capitalism was permitted on a provisional basis. These experiments with the free market gradually expanded. In fact, China now even has its own stock market—what would Mao Zedong say?

As capitalism has become increasingly entrenched throughout the country, China’s politicians have begun to abandon the “class struggle” rhetoric that prevailed through the mid-1970s. In November, 2002, China’s leaders met in Beijing for the 16th Communist Party Congress. The following principles, known as “The Three Represents” were written into the party’s constitution:

  1. Represent the most advanced productive forces, including private business.
  2. Represent the most advanced culture.
  3. Represent the fundamental interests of the broad masses (i.e. not merely a “revolutionary party” but one that stands for all Chinese.) 

Source: November 15th, 2002

In March, 2003, the Chinese legislature passed another round of sweeping changes designed to bring the country closer in line with global free market ideals. New mechanisms were implemented to bolster bank profitability, consumer safety, and more liberalized foreign trade. The legislature also decided to reform China’s strict population control program, which has been the object of much international criticism.

Of course, not all of the news about the Middle Kingdom is good. China still has a number of obstacles to confront before it fully joins the community of free, prosperous nations. There is a vast disparity between the standards of living found in China’s booming coastal cities, and the largely agrarian interior regions. Moreover, while China has embraced a variant of free-market capitalism, the Beijing government still maintains a monopoly on the political front. (In other words, capitalism is one thing, democracy is another.) Basic freedoms of speech, assembly, and the press are often subject to severe curtailments in China that would be unacceptable in the United States, Europe, or Japan. The transition to a true representative democracy will probably take at least another decade.

Mainland Mandarin vs. Taiwanese Mandarin

One remnant of the Communist revolution of 1949 is that there are effectively two Chinas: the People’s Republic of China (Mainland China) and Taiwan, or the Republic of China. When Mao Zedong’s army took over the mainland in 1949, the remnants of the Nationalist forces fled to the small island of Taiwan and set up a national government.

Today, Taiwan is a modern, free-market economy, but the nation clearly exists in the shadow of its behemoth Communist rival. There has been sporadic saber-rattling between the two Chinas since the 1950s. China claims Taiwan as a “renegade province” of itself, while Taiwan asserts its right to nationhood.

However, the two Chinas are pursuing economic integration even as they continue to squabble over political issues. As of September, 2002, Taiwanese investments in the People’s Republic surpassed the $100 billion mark. During the first half of 2002, Taiwanese investments in China grew by 47%. (Taipei Times, 2002) In early 2003, the Chinese government called for a massive easing of restrictions in commercial flights between Taiwan and the Mainland.

Mandarin is the dialect of Chinese used officially in both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. However, the writing system varies slightly between the two countries. The Communist government in Beijing has simplified the complex Chinese writing system in an effort to make it more accessible for Chinese nationals and foreign students alike. The simplified system of writing Chinese characters that is used in China is called jiantizi (“simplified characters”). The system used in Taiwan is called fantizi (“traditional characters”). The two writing systems do have significant differences, but most educated readers can switch between the jiantizi and fantizi with minimal difficulty.

In both countries, there has historically been a bias against using the character system of the other. The Mainland Chinese once viewed the fantizi as a vestige of the “old” China, whereas the Taiwanese viewed the jiantizi as a corruption of the traditional beauty of the Chinese language. However, this seems to be becoming less of an issue as economic ties between the Mainland and Taiwan increase. Most Chinese textbooks written for non-Chinese defer to the jiantizi, given their relative simplicity, and the fact that the People’s Republic is so much larger than Taiwan.

The differences in the spoken languages of the two Chinas are more subtle, and might be likened to the differences between the English spoken in London and the English spoken in Alabama.  In China, the Mandarin dialect is referred to as putonghua (“common speech”), while the Taiwanese use the term gouyu (“national language”). In Taiwan, you refer to a tomato as fanqie, while in most of China, you would use the word xihongshi. There are China- and Taiwan-specific terms for most words which refer to technology that has been developed since 1949. For example, the Chinese and Taiwanese use different words to indicate answering machines, computers, and electronic pagers.

The radically different political histories of Taiwan and the People’s Republic have also left their mark on the language. In China, it is common to speak of the establishment of the Communist government in 1949 as “liberation,” or jiefang. People often use this historic event to mark time, just as Americans use the term “postwar” to designate World War II as a chronological marker. Newspapers in China speak of events occurring “before liberation”, or “after liberation.” These terms have come into such wide usage in China that they have lost much of their political significance. But be careful not to use this term if you travel to Taiwan. Needless to say, a reference to the 1949 Communist victory as “liberation” will not earn you any points with your business partners in Taipei.

In the immediate post-revolutionary period, the mainland Chinese largely discarded traditional forms of address like “Miss” (xiaojie) and Mr. (xiansheng) in favor of the universal and egalitarian form of address, tongzhi, which means “comrade.” As a foreigner, you will not be expected to use or answer to tongzhi, and the Chinese use this word less and less among themselves. It is once again acceptable to use traditional forms of address in China, so do not hesitate to refer to your counterparts as “Mr. Wang,” “Miss Li,” etc.

Grappling with the Tones of Chinese

Next to the writing system, the tonal system of Chinese is probably the greatest challenge for students of the language. Every Chinese syllable is pronounced with one of four distinctive tonal pitches, or a flat “neutral” tone. For example, the syllable pronounced “shu” can alternatively mean “book,” “tree,” or “cottage” depending on the tone.

The only way to learn the tones is through repeated listening. They are difficult to master, and there are foreign speakers of Chinese who have been using the language for years and still haven’t completely mastered the tonal system. This brings us to another important point: although you should strive for mastery of the tones, a few mistakes in this area won’t hinder your daily communications. Chinese listeners can understand your meaning through the overall context of what you say. In practice, you will usually be understood even if your tones are largely incorrect.


Along with French and Spanish, German is one of the “big three” foreign languages that are taught in American schools. Therefore, some readers may already have been exposed to the language in high school or college.

Germany is the economic powerhouse of continental Europe; and the language is also spoken in Austria and Switzerland. Smaller pockets of German speakers can be found in northern Italy, eastern France, Argentina, eastern Belgium, Luxembourg, and the principality of Liechtenstein.

There is a strong demand for German language skills in banking, finance, and throughout the industrial sectors. German companies have been actively locating branch offices in the United States for years. Based on the job data available on, many of them value German language skills on a résumé.

I would classify the German language as lying within the intermediate range of difficulty. German grammar is perhaps the most difficult among the Western European languages. There are many details that take a long time to fully master.

German and English have common roots. There are aspects of modern German grammar which are strikingly similar to Old English. For example, the verb forms “thou hast,” “thou comest,” “he hath,” and “he cometh” are not used in modern English. But German speakers continue to use these equivalents: du hast, du kommst, er hat, and er kommt, etc.

The shared lineage of German and English means that there are numerous cognates. Words such as Winter, lernen, Garten, and Onkel will be familiar to English speakers from the beginning.


As the language of the South American nation of Brazil, Portuguese is the logical choice after Spanish for the aspiring Latin American area specialist. Although there is of course no rule which says that you must study Spanish before you study Portuguese, this seems to be the universal practice.

The similarities of Spanish and Portuguese originate from the geographic proximity of Spain and Portugal. If you dive into Portuguese after you have first achieved competency in Spanish, you will already be acquainted with vast amounts of Portuguese vocabulary. Many Portuguese words are identical to Spanish words, and many others are only slightly different. A person who knows Spanish well can comprehend the headlines of a Portuguese newspaper, and perhaps even the gist of each article.

But Spanish is by no means a free pass to fluency in Portuguese. Portuguese pronunciation and grammar are somewhat more difficult. Whereas the Spanish accent comes easily to the average English-speaking learner, the nasalized sounds of Portuguese require some more practice. The complexities of Portuguese grammar, while not insurmountable, will make the rules of Spanish seem generously lenient.

Portugal itself is a small country, with a population of around 10 million. (To put this in perspective, the population of Germany is 83 million.) Economically, Portugal has yet to realize the same level of prosperity enjoyed by many of its neighbors. The country’s GDP per capita is about 25% below the Western European average. As a low-cost producer, Portugal has recently faced stiff competition from the new capitalist economies of Eastern and Central Europe. Portugal is also plagued by an ailing educational system and a high national deficit. As a result of these factors, Portugal is not currently a major player on the global economic stage.

Nonetheless, Portuguese is truly a global language, on par with heavyweights like French. (In fact, native speakers of Portuguese actually outnumber native speakers of French.) Portuguese is spoken across a number of continents, and in a diverse array of countries. This is all the result of Portugal’s seafaring past. Like England, France, and Spain, Portugal was once a major colonial power. In the 1500s and 1600s, Portuguese sailors, soldiers, and settlers carried their language throughout the world.

Today, Brazil is the largest Portuguese-speaking country, with a population of more than 186 million. It is also the largest country in South America: in population, GDP, and land mass. People who are not acquainted with South America often assume that Brazilians, like most of their neighbors, speak Spanish. Many Brazilians can understand Spanish, but relatively few are truly comfortable holding a conversation in Spanish.

Brazilians speak Portuguese rather than Spanish because of an agreement made between Portugal and Spain in 1493. The two European countries decided to divide the New World along an imaginary north-south line just west of the Cape Verde Islands. Under the agreement, Spain laid claim to the lands located west of the line, and Portugal acquired rights to the lands located to the east. Brazil occupies the portion of South America which lies to the east of that demarcation line. Therefore, Brazil is today a Portuguese-speaking country in the middle of a Spanish-speaking region.

The Brazilian economy has well developed agricultural, industrial and service sectors. Over the past decade, Brazil’s fortunes have fluctuated with broader global trends. After a boom in the mid-1990s, the country was hit by the Asian and Russian financial crises of 1997 and 1998. Moderate growth resumed in 1999, only to be slowed again by the global recession of 2001. Growth has resumed in recent years as the global economy has improved.

Brazil’s own economy is consistently ranked as one of the ten largest in the world. For the past ten years or so, American, European, and Japanese companies have been moving into Brazil in large numbers. The nation has the potential to become a major economic force in the future. Of equal long-term significance is the fact that many world leaders are now beginning to view Brazil as an ascending political power.   

Although Brazil is the prime destination for students of Portuguese, the language is also spoken in a handful of African nations: Mozambique, Angola, Guine-Bissau, Cape Verde, and São Tomé e Principe. In Asia, you will find Portuguese speakers in the Chinese territory of Macau (next to Hong Kong), and in the newly independent Indonesian state of East Timor. Portuguese is also widely spoken in the Indian territory of Goa. There are additional pockets of Portuguese speakers in North America: in sections of New England, and in the Canadian province of Ontario.


This is the language of North and South Korea, as well as substantial overseas Korean communities in the United States and Japan. Korean is the third most commonly studied of the East Asian languages, after Chinese and Japanese.

The Korean alphabet, known as Hangul, is one of the most significant linguistic achievements in history. An initial version of Hangul, known as Hunmin chong-um, or, “correct sounds for common instruction” was invented the Korean King Sejong in 1446. At that time, there was no native Korean alphabet. The learned classes used Chinese characters for written communications, but these were beyond the grasp of commoners.

King Sejong wanted to create a writing system which was both uniquely Korean as well as easily accessible for common citizens. The king recognized that Chinese characters, being foreign, were an imperfect vehicle for the Korean language. Hangul, on the other hand, was created with Korean phonetics and grammar in mind. Although modern Korean makes limited use of Chinese characters, today most written Korean texts consist entirely of an evolved version of King Sejong’s Hangul.

The Korean alphabet is logical and relatively consistent. It is much easier to learn to read and write Korean than Chinese or Japanese. Chinese and Japanese each employ thousands of complex characters. By contrast, a dedicated student can absorb the Hangul alphabet over a few weeks.

The above is not meant to imply that Korean is an easy language. In fact, Korean is one of the hardest languages for English speakers to learn. It shares many grammatical characteristics with Japanese—another language noted for its difficult grammar. Korean verbs are placed at the ends of sentences. There are dual counting systems, and multiple levels of politeness. There are no tones in Korean, but most English speakers struggle before achieving a correct pronunciation. Moreover, we get few breaks on vocabulary; Korean shares no common roots with English.

Korean is a worthwhile challenge. South Korea is surging forward in a number of industries, including automobiles and machine tools. The nation is a major trading partner of the United States, Britain and Canada. Like Japanese firms in the 1980s and 1990s, Korean companies are now building plants and locating offices in the United States and elsewhere.

While North Korea is currently an insular Stalinist state, it will become a new market when the communist regime inevitably falls or reforms. Until that time, the North Korean threat makes Korean one of the languages most in demand in the national defense and intelligence sectors.

Just as Portuguese is overshadowed among the Romance languages by Spanish, French and Italian, Korean is typically neglected for other major languages in the East Asian sphere. Most language students with an interest in Asia veer toward Chinese or Japanese. Korean is therefore a good choice for the learner who wishes to acquire a scarce yet marketable skill.

If you decide to study Korean, you should visit the Hollym ( and the Cheng & Tsui ( websites. Hollym specializes in Korean materials, and Cheng & Tsui includes many Korean language products among their Far Eastern languages selection.


The language of the former Soviet Union received a great deal of attention during the Gorbachev era. With the prospect of Russia being open for business, students filled Russian-language classes across the United States and Western Europe.

The reality of economic reforms in Russia has been more sobering. Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia has been battered by mafia turf wars, attempted coups, rampant drug abuse, and a declining population. In 1998, there was a run on the Russian ruble, creating even more chaos.

But Russia has been down in the past, only to bounce back in later years. In this century alone, Russia has survived catastrophic war casualties, dictatorship, and famine. And in the most recent few years, the news from Russia has brightened considerably. The banking system has recently recovered from the 1998 Ruble crisis. There have also been more broad-based economic improvements. In 2004, the major sectors of the economy posted a 4.1% improvement against the previous year. Russia has abundant natural resources, and a well-educated population that is struggling to ascend the learning curve of free enterprise.

Russian is not an easy language, but it is not nearly as difficult as Chinese, Arabic, or Korean. Although the Cyrillic alphabet looks intimidating at first, it is among the easiest of the non-Latin scripts. Russian grammar, however, is quite difficult.

Non-Russian Central and Eastern European Languages

Prior to the 1990s, countries like Poland and Bulgaria were the enemy. This is not the case anymore. I recently spoke with a colleague who is a buyer at a major automotive manufacturer in Great Britain. When I asked him, “Where are most of your suppliers located?” his answer—“Poland”—was a surprise. However, it is no longer unusual for a product to be manufactured in Poland, Romania, or the Czech Republic. The countries of the old Warsaw Pact are seeking greater integration with Western Europe (such as membership in the European Union), and they are aggressively pursuing capitalism.

The Central and Eastern European region is extremely diverse linguistically. The Slavic languages share significant amounts of vocabulary and grammar with Russian. About half of the Slavic languages—Polish, Czech, etc.—use the Latin alphabet, while the other half, which includes Bulgarian and Serbian, use the Cyrillic alphabet.

The Romanian language is thought to be descended from the Latin spoken by Romans who colonized the area near modern Transylvania in 106 A.D. The Roman colony, known as Dacia, dispersed around 275 A.D. due to repeated barbarian incursions. The Latin-speaking population dwindled to small settlements deep in the Carpathians. The legacy of the Dacian Romans is a close resemblance between Latin and modern Romanian. In addition to elements of Latin, the Romanian spoken today also reveals strong Slavic and Greek influences.

Hungarian is often described as a “linguistic island.” Hungarian is a difficult language, with numerous verb and noun inflections. It is not similar to any of the Western European languages, nor is it similar to Russian. The only modern relatives of Hungarian are Finnish and Estonian, two languages with which you are unlikely to be familiar.

In the last ten years, there has been a marked increase in the number of Central and Eastern European language materials on the market. If you learn one of these languages, Audio Forum and Spoken Language Services should be your first stop. (See the Language Student’s Buying Guide later in Chapter 19.)


There aren’t many Americans learning Vietnamese today, but that might change in the near future. For decades, the Vietnamese language, like everything else related to Vietnam, had only one association: the Vietnam War. Things changed in the 1990s, when President Clinton authorized the restoration of U.S.-Vietnamese diplomatic relations. It is now much easier for Americans to travel to Vietnam for business as well as pleasure. Moreover, in 1986 the Vietnamese government began the process of doi moi, or “reform and renovation”.  Incentive programs and private enterprise were gradually introduced. In 2000 a stock market was founded in Ho Chi Minh City

Vietnam is still a communist nation, and the country has a long way to go before it is a serious economic player. But there are reasons to be hopeful for the future. The Vietnamese people are known for their industriousness and thrift, and the literacy rate in the country is near 100%. Prior to the start of the Vietnam War, Vietnam had the strongest economy in Asia outside of Japan.

Vietnamese is a good language to learn if you want to corner a niche in the East Asian arena. In Western countries like the United States and Canada, Vietnamese speakers are limited to the refugees who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and early 1980s. In fact, there are only a handful of non-Vietnamese who speak the language well.

Vietnamese might be a particularly strong choice for the East Asian specialist who has already mastered Chinese or Japanese.


Indonesian, or Bahasa Indonesia (“Indonesian language”), is the official language of the Republic of Indonesia. Bahasa Indonesia is the mother tongue of about 25 million people, but most of Indonesia’s population of 200 million can speak and understand the language.

Indonesian has the reputation of being easy to learn in comparison to other major East Asian languages. Indonesian uses the Latin alphabet, and the grammar is simple and consistent. Among the Asian languages, Indonesian seems like a walk in the park if you have ever studied Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Thai.

The approachability of Indonesian makes it an addicting language to study, and the huge population of Indonesia qualifies Bahasa Indonesia as a major world language. There are, however, a few caveats to consider. First of all, learning materials for Indonesian are not especially numerous. Many of the major language materials publishers do not even sell materials for learning Indonesian. In addition, native speakers and books written for them are difficult to find—at least in the United States. Although I am sure that one would have better luck in Los Angeles or Chicago, I have met exactly two native Indonesian speakers in Cincinnati—although I have met dozens of native speakers of Chinese, Spanish, Korean, and even Thai.

Moreover, Indonesia has recently undergone turmoil that threatens the country’s economic development in the near future. Sectarian violence, terrorism against Western tourists, and governmental infighting all weaken the odds that Indonesia will emerge as a major economic power anytime soon. However, Indonesia’s large population and past runs of strong economic performance make the language worthy of your long-term consideration.


The aesthetically pleasing sounds of the Italian language have led many observers to describe the language as one of Italy’s greatest national resources. Indeed, spoken Italian does have a melodic quality that few languages can rival. Italy itself is a country that enchants the senses. In fact, there is so much beauty to observe in Italy, that you may not get a chance to notice the language. Italy is the land of ancient Roman ruins, Venetian canals, and rugged Mediterranean landscapes. 

Italy is also one of the middleweight economies of Europe. Italy’s main industrial sectors include clothing, footwear, machine tools, and precision instruments. Italy is also the home of the automakers Fiat, Alpha Romeo and Ferrari.

Italian is a Romance language, and is acquired with minimal difficulty if you have previously learned Spanish or Portuguese. Once you learn Italian, you will find that the language is useful not only in Italy, but also in sections of Switzerland, and in limited areas within Argentina and Brazil. 


Arabic a difficult, fascinating, and potentially useful language. There are about 245 million Arabic speakers in the world, most of who live in the Middle East. If the number of speakers alone were the primary criterion, Arabic would be an advantageous choice for the language student.

The problem, of course, is that political turmoil in the region, such as the Arab/Israeli conflict, the war in Iraq, terrorism, etc., have made the area far too unstable for companies to come in and start building factories. Add to this the fact that by severely restricting the rights of women, most Arabic-speaking countries have effectively disabled half of the participants in their economies. In the current climate, it is difficult to conceive of many career opportunities utilizing Arabic, outside of a few specialized areas such as petroleum and national security.

I recently read that Arab countries purchase less than 2% of U.S. export goods. When I searched the Internet for job postings related to the Arabic language, there was almost nothing outside of the CIA, FBI, etc.

But perhaps it is unnecessarily pessimistic to assume that the problems in the Middle East are permanent. I occasionally reflect on the irony that while my grandfather faced Imperial Japan in battle, I have benefited greatly from the peaceful ambitions of Japan, Inc. Today’s foes can often become tomorrow’s trading partners. Once the political problems in the Middle East are solved, there is no reason to believe that the region should not develop economically. Perhaps Americans will one day even purchase cars that are manufactured in a free, capitalist Iraq. (If this seems ludicrous, consider, from the perspective of 1942, the idea of Americans buying Japanese cars.)

Although Arabic is not currently one of the most useful languages for businesspeople, there is a long tradition of Arabic language studies at major U.S. and British universities.  There are many materials on the market that can help you to learn this language.

Still Can’t Make Up Your Mind?

If you are completely undecided about which language you want to study, I would recommend that you select one of the following: Spanish, Japanese, German, French, or Chinese. My recommendations are based on two facts:

  1. Each of these languages is spoken in one or more of the world’s major economies. These languages will always have a place in the business world.
  2. For each of these languages, there is a large body of published learning materials. Therefore, you can learn any one of these languages through independent study. 
CHAPTER 10 appendix: artificial languages—An Attempt to Create a Level Playing Field

All the world’s languages developed gradually over time, and often in ways which make them difficult for adult learners to grasp. With few exceptions, every language on earth has certain aspects which are intrinsically difficult—the tonal system of Chinese, the irregular verb and adjective forms of English, the case endings of Russian. As a result, when a particular language is used for communications purposes, the native speakers of the language have an obvious advantage. It is always the other, nonnative side which must do the heavy lifting.

In 1887, Dr. Lazarus Ludwig Zamenhof created a language which was supposed to put everyone on an equal linguistic footing. His invention—the language known as Esperanto—was designed to be easy to learn. Esperanto featured simple, consistent grammar, uncomplicated phonetics, and a small number of basic vocabulary elements that could be easily combined to create more complex terminology.

Esperanto failed to take off. Today, it is estimated that only about two or three million people actually speak Esperanto. Other artificial languages, such as Universalsprache and Kosmos, have also failed to attain a wide following. Lingua francas seem to be chosen by random, accidental market forces rather than by deliberate planning or design.

Despite this track record, there is no shortage of new artificial languages on the scene. One of the newest ones is Mondlango. Mondlango was created in China in 2002. Based on Esperanto, Mondlango is a phonetically accessible language with consistent grammar. Advocates of Mondlango claim that it can be learned in a tenth of the time required to learn any naturally evolved language.

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