The business world is becoming a tougher place every day for monolinguals.
The most successful CEOs of the 21st century are presenting business plans in Mandarin and dialing into conference calls in French.
Nowadays business is global. Investors in South Korea and Egypt are funding startups in Chile and the Netherlands, who work with contractors in Kenya and the Philippines and sell to clients in Turkey and Bahrain.
Languages like English, Mandarin, Russian and Japanese have dominated global commerce as long as anyone alive today can remember, and while those are four of today’s business power tongues, that may not be the case tomorrow.
Like everything else in the modern world, the linguistic landscape is changing, and which languages are sitting on the biggest pots of gold are changing with it.
So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” and if you’re preparing to invest in your financial future with a new language, forget about the typical top 10 lists, the languages with the most speakers or those of today’s strongest economies.
Instead, you’ve got to think about your investment’s future: What are the fastest-growing languages, and what’s the language of choice for the up-and-coming power players of tomorrow’s big economies? What are the best languages for business in the modern, globalized world of today and tomorrow?
It’s hard to say which is the best, but here are eight languages showing the kind of consistently strong performance that makes a low-risk, high-return investment for any entrepreneurial language learner.
The 8 Best Low-risk, High-reward Languages for International Business
1. Portuguese: Doing business across four continents
Only about 4% of world’s Portuguese speakers are in the language’s namesake country; the rest are scattered across some of today’s fastest growing populations and economies.
The Lusophone (Portuguese-speaking) giant we all know and love is of course Brazil. The country that put the B in the BRICS countries—the four other countries plus Brazil that together make up the biggest, baddest, boomingest economies—is spending countless reais to influence the world and the way it does business.
Under Brazil’s economic influence, Portuguese is likely to compete with or even displace English as the most important foreign language in South America. It’s the revving engine of the MERCOSUR trade bloc, whose combined GDP of $4 trillion US dollars makes it a player of global proportions.
But don’t be distracted by the headliner: Portuguese-speaking Angola is an oil-rich African nation that’s rapidly developing and Macau, Hong Kong’s often overlooked sister “special administrative region” of China which is also a former Portuguese colony, is the fastest-growing economy in the entire world.
From Brasilia and São Paulo to Lisbon, Luanda, Goa and Macau, Portuguese has spread itself across established power centers and up-and-comers both, making it one of today’s smartest long-term investments for language learners.
2. Cantonese: Money talks in Southeast Asia
Speaking of Macau’s neighbor across the bay, Hong Kong is one of the four East Asian Tigers that dominate the economics of the East. Like its neighbor and fellow Tiger Singapore, the de facto language of daily life is Cantonese rather than the Mainland’s favored Mandarin.
In Hong Kong, Singapore and other key financial centers in southern China like Guangzhou, Cantonese is the language of choice. 60 million people throughout Southeast Asia and southern China are taking care of business in Cantonese, which spells opportunity for business-savvy language learners.
What’s more, Cantonese has spread across most of the world in a unique way. Most Chinese emigrants to Western countries in the 20th century came from the Cantonese-speaking Guangdong area, resulting in Cantonese rather than Mandarin becoming the lingua franca of Chinatowns from Vancouver to London and most places in between.
Add to that the fact that the large Chinese enclaves in Vietnam, Malaysia and other pockets of Southeast Asia are also primarily Cantonese-speaking, and you’ve got a formidable linguistic tool for doing business throughout the world.
3. Urdu: The language of emerging markets
China normally steals the spotlight in The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, but just to the south the Indian subcontinent and its 1.5 billion inhabitants are shaking up the system.
By 2030, India is projected to be the world’s largest country by population, and neighboring Pakistan will hold the number six spot, combining to total a whopping population of 1.75 billion just 15 years down the road.
English fluency is high in this part of the world, but never underestimate the impact of learning the local language. Pakistan and most of its 200 million inhabitants speak Urdu, the national language, which spills over into the homes and businesses of 50 million more people in India. With nearly 5% growth per year, Pakistan is designated one of the Next Eleven economies which promise bountiful business opportunity in the near future.
Even better, Urdu is mutually intelligible with Hindi, and linguists often consider the two to be dialects of one language called Hindustani. Estimates of the total number of Hindustani speakers range from 400 to 500 million, making it by any count one of the world’s largest languages.
With Karachi’s $78 billion market looking to invest in its workforce and technology, it’s easy to see why Urdu’s stock is soaring.
4. Spanish: Anything but business as usual in Latin America
Two of today’s G20 major economies, Argentina and Mexico, are Spanish-speaking. These Latin American powerhouses are well-established global forces, but they no longer tell the entire story of how business is done in Latin America.
Inconspicuous economies like Chile, Peru and Colombia are quietly pushing forward through initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and successful measures to reduce corruption and violence in their countries. These growth-leaders will almost certainly bring unprecedented cash flows not only into their own borders, but also to their neighbors through trade unions like MERCOSUR and the Andean Community of Nations.
The other Spanish-speaking G20 country that is too often overlooked on a list like this, the country with the #2 hispanohablante population in the world, is the United States. English is the first language that comes to mind when the USA is named, but its 50 million Spanish speakers and their small and large businesses might kindly remind you that it’s not the only language spoken in the country.
If you’re one of the 90 million learners worldwide who’s already picked up some Spanish, try brushing up on your business Spanish to stay on the cutting edge of the business world.
5. German: The language of European industrial might
You’d be hard-pressed to overestimate Germany’s economic impact on the affairs of the European Union.
Europe’s largest economy is also the fifth largest in the world: 80 million industrious Germans make up one percent of global population, yet they generate an astounding 4.5% of global GDP.This and the fact that Frankfurt is home to the European Central Bank is a sure sign that German for business will only continue to grow in importance in the business world.
But, as with many of the other languages on this list, it’s not just the country that gives the language its name that holds the brightest business prospects. German-speaking Austria is another dynamic European economy, and Swiss banks still save and spend their dollars and francs in Deutsch.
To language learners, German might at times sound like an angry chest cold, but to the business leaders and deal closers of Europe, it sounds like money.
6. Arabic: The web’s fastest-growing language
If you turn on the news today, you might make the mistake of associating Arabic with conflict and violence. You’d only be seeing a small sliver of what’s going on in the homes, offices and bank accounts of the world’s nearly 300 million Arabic speakers. Instead, take a glance at Twitter or the latest global financial news and you’ll find a different story.
Ever since social media catalyzed democratic revolutions in the Arab Spring starting in 2010, Arabic has been the fastest-growing language on the worldwide web. To be exact, online use of Arabic has grown by 2500% in the last ten years, compared to 743% for Spanish and 281% for English.
A quick investigation will show you why. In the United Arab Emirates, multi-billion dollar oil deals are arranged in Arabic. In Cairo, it’s the language of one of the world’s most massive film and television industries. In Doha, stock traders shout to buy or sell in Arabic in the Qatar Stock Exchange. In Beirut, it’s the language used to advertise the chic high-end fashion of the Middle East.
And here’s the real news: As of 2013, only about a third of the world’s 300 million Arabic speakers were online. That means there’s plenty more room to grow, which should scream opportunity to language learners with an interest in the Middle East.
7. Mandarin: The language that’s dying to spend its money
Ah yes, there’s the Chinese language you thought you’d find on this list.
It’s the one that you just can’t miss when talking about the best languages for business, the duh candidate with its billion plus speakers and largest purchasing power in the world. In fact, we can’t think of a single reason a budding entrepreneur shouldn’t learn Mandarin (it’s really not as hard as they say).
The reason this language will only continue to become even more important is because of the nearly mythical economic shift taking place in China. In about 30 years, the country went from one of the poorest countries in the world to its largest middle class. And one of the key factors of any consumer segment labeled “middle class” is its disposable income. The newly wealthy are adding to their numbers daily in China, and all those yuan are burning holes in their pockets.
8. English: The language of globalization
And finally, the other unavoidable giant: English.
It’s the official language of 67 countries and 27 territories, as well as all of the most important global institutions like the UN, the European Union, NATO and the OECD. With over 350 million native speakers and a mind-blowing 500 million second language speakers in the world, English permeates nearly every aspect of global society, from Wall Street and London to the Internet and international governance.
And there doesn’t appear to be an economist, entrepreneur or linguist on the map who thinks the unstoppable tide of English will do anything but continue to gain momentum. The British Council predicts that the total number of people learning English will exceed 1.9 billion by the year 2020. That’s in addition to the growing population of native speakers, and 2020 is a short four years away.
With the evergreen importance of English in business and life, congratulate yourself on reading this article in the world’s most widely-spoken language, but don’t stop there. Business English is a rapidly growing field, and rightly so. The way we talk to colleagues and boards of directors bears little resemblance to the language we use in classrooms, cafes and social gatherings.
The best way to close tomorrow’s business deals
These are eight of the best and most practical languages for the innovators, investors and in-the-know businesswomen and men of the coming years, but it couldn’t be further from an exclusive list.
Deciding on the best language for business depends on your particular aspirations, what kind of work you’re good at, what you’re passionate about and what corner of the world pulls strongest at your itchy feet. It could just as easily be Swahili, French, Dutch, Japanese or Thai as any of the eight giants above.
Learning a language is for life, not just for business. It’ll certainly give you a brighter outlook on the job market or in launching your innovative startup, but don’t forget about all the other benefits that come along with it! And FluentU can help you along that journey!
What matters is that you learn another language and, hopefully, along with it, another culture. Business life went global years ago, and now our personal lives are becoming more and more global by the day, which makes it all the more important to learn a foreign language and become a better participant in global society.
Whether your goal is to make it big on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange or to build schools for Urdu-speaking minorities in Hyderabad, it all starts with taking the plunge and <a href=”https://www.fluentu.com/blog/becoming-
Jakob is a full-time traveler, obsessive language learner and dedicated language teacher. He writes about language, travel and the many places they meet on the road at his blog Globalect.
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