“Is anyone on this plane a polyglot?!”
That’s not a sentence you expect to hear in a Hollywood disaster film, is it?
However much you may love the idea of learning languages, you probably wouldn’t call it “critical.”
When you’re learning to conjugate verbs, you don’t imagine lives hanging in the balance.
When you practice speaking with an exchange partner, you don’t fantasize about being the hero who saves the day.
As you work on honing your listening, you don’t think about how this skill could put you in control of a situation where others depend on you.
Unless of course you do, in which case you’re totally in the right place.
Because in the post, we’re going to talk about how some languages are literally categorized as “critical.”
By their nature, these are languages that will open up the window to a world of unique opportunities for travel, employment and more—if you learn them.
And don’t worry, we’ll look at how to do that, too!
What Are Critical Languages?
A critical language is one which the United States government has deemed not only strategically important for the country, but also with demand outstripping supply of speakers. Basically, there aren’t enough Americans who speak these languages!
Often these languages are considered important for reasons of diplomacy, trade and national security. They’re not set in stone: They’ve changed many times over the years, and at the moment there are 14 of them.
We’re going to look at each one in turn shortly, but first it’s worth noting that—while the term is a U.S. designation—it’s easy for anyone in the English-speaking world to see why these might be important in an international sense. Due to their status as “critical,” anyone who attains proficiency in these tongues has improved career prospects, whether in government, international companies, NGOs or security services.
How Can You Learn Them?
First, let’s get this out there: By their very nature, these languages are often more challenging than others, at least for native English speakers. The reason there’s a shortage of speakers is not only due to them being less mainstream than languages like Spanish and French in schools and everyday society, but also because it’s often much harder to reach a good level. That’s not to say it’s impossible, though—and if you are able to commit, the rewards are significant.
If you’re really interested and you’re in the U.S., lucky you. Take a look at the Critical Language Scholarship or the National Security Education Program. Both of these are government-funded programs to get bright and committed students of the language up to a level where they can use it in professional settings. They recognize that it’s not usually something you took in high school, so there isn’t a need to be fluent already; however, you should expect a college-level education and an immersive experience living in a country that speaks your target language. Basically, this is not for the casual learner!
If you’re not quite ready to pack your bags or you’re not an American citizen, it’s time to find a different route. Obviously, in an ideal world you’d be able to interact with members of your community who are native speakers, but given the nature of the languages these opportunities may be fewer and further between. A staffer at the State Department compiled this list of suggestions—one of the keys for him was taking hard classes with grammar.
No matter what your level of interest, online resources are a great option for exploring, learning and supplementing any official training for these languages.
Having said that, since by nature some of these languages are less mainstream, they might be trickier to find online. Here are some tips for where to start:
- While they’re less likely to be present than others, some of the languages below can be found on popular online resources that offer complete learning programs. For example, you can start learning Mandarin Chinese, Korean, Japanese or Russian right here on FluentU.
- If you have your heart set on learning Azerbaijani or Bengali, you might have to look a little deeper. Some enthusiastic amateurs are up on YouTube to teach you the basics of less popular languages—for example, have a look at this Azerbaijani lesson.
- Meanwhile, there are free websites out there like ilanguages.org that will teach you the basics of grammar and vocab in a variety of languages to help you get started. Even if you have to use multiple resources to tackle different parts of one language, it all adds up.
- Once you have beginner elements down, the best next step is to find a language partner. If you don’t happen to have a Bangla or Punjabi community on your doorstep, italki allows you to find the perfect exchange partner who’s looking to learn a language you speak—all online!
Guys, nobody said this was going to be easy! But once you’ve taken the first steps into learning a critical language, I know you’re going to see the pay-off.
It’s Critical! What Each of the 14 Critical Languages Offers Learners
Okay, let’s get down to business—what are these 14 tongues that are so highly prized? If you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” which ones are going to give you the best bang for your buck?
We’re going to go through each of them, tell you a little about them, then raise a warning about what makes them tough but also give you a great reason why they’re worth studying.
Keep in mind that these descriptions don’t even come close to covering everything about each language and that they’re intended mostly for the perspective of an English-speaking (and particularly American) audience—so if one of these languages interests you, dig in and find out more about what it can do for you!
I’ll leave it to you to decide which one (or few!) to go for…
I think you could have guessed this one was going to pop up here…
According to the CLS website, almost 300 million people speak Arabic. Aside from the sheer volume of speakers, Arabic makes the list due to being the primary language of the Middle East and North Africa, regions with which the U.S. has had a troubled political history. That makes it all the more important to have proficient Arabic speakers in a variety of roles and situations, from immigration to intelligence.
What to watch out for: As Arabic is so widely spoken, there are numerous dialectic variations. What you might hear in Morocco is very different from Lebanon, and both are different from Modern Standard Arabic. Even when you’ve got the basics down, there’s a whole world out there.
Why to study it: The size of the Arabic-speaking world is also its primary attraction, even if government work doesn’t float your boat. Lots of big companies need people who speak the language—and it offers travel prospects galore!
We go from a language you definitely would have guessed to one you probably wouldn’t have. Azerbaijan is not usually at the top of people’s travel itineraries (although there are plenty of reasons why it should be), but the U.S. government considers the Azeri language to be vital. With groups like Al-Qaeda having a history of operating in Azerbaijan, as well as Azerbaijani being spoken in parts of old adversary Iran, this is considered an important language for national security.
What to watch out for: For English speakers living in English-speaking countries, this is a language that might not come quite so much in handy in everyday life.
Why to study it: Despite it being quite a unique language, it has a lot of crossover with Turkish—another language on this list—meaning it’ll put you in a position to be even better equipped with critical languages.
Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh as well as the second most spoken language in India and the seventh most spoken in the world. You’d be keeping good company if you picked this one up!
What to watch out for: Bangla is not so much one consistent language as a series of many dialects—not all of which are mutually intelligible.
Why to study it: As the economy and global standing of South Asia grows, this language is beneficial not only for careers in government but also in business, research and non-profits. It also has a rich and beautiful literature to explore, making this far more than just a purely practical addition to your linguistic arsenal.
Another of the more predictable entries on this list: China is a super-power and very competitive with the U.S. on the global stage. In fact, it’s currently predicted that it will overtake the States as the world’s dominant economy before 2030. No wonder the Americans want people who can communicate with them!
What to watch out for: With thousands of characters in use, Chinese presents some memorization challenges. Meanwhile, it is one of the more popular languages on this list, so it might not be the one to choose if you want to set yourself apart from the crowd.
Why to study it: Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language on the planet and its speakers are not only confined to the most populous country in the world but spread all over. A few words of Mandarin can go a long way in Beijing, Brooklyn, Brisbane or Belfast…
Another of the behemoths of the language world. Along with Chinese, English and Spanish, Hindi is one of the most spoken languages in the world. Around 40% of the population of India has Hindi as a mother tongue. With Indians being among the world’s most emigrant populations, you’ll find Hindi speakers in all corners of the world.
What to watch out for: The sounds in Hindi can seem quite alien to English speakers, and it requires a more flexible tongue.
Why to study it: This is a personal one, but I’ve always found the curling, dangling Devanagari script—which is used to write Hindi—beautiful. How wonderful would it be to master that?
Would you have put this one on the list? I wouldn’t have, but actually it’s easy to see why it’s here. Indonesia is the world’s most populous Islamic country. At the same time, only hundreds of Americans a year enroll in collegiate Indonesian courses. Pretty exclusive club, eh?
What to watch out for: Unlike some of the other languages on this list, Indonesian tends to be more focused in a single country, making this a skill that’s difficult to transfer.
Why to study it: If you get a chance to travel to Indonesia, it really is stunning—and we all know that traveling with the native language under your belt is always better. This also tends to be one of the easier non-European languages for an English speaker to master.
Another language more focused in an individual country is Japanese. However, Japan is an economic and cultural powerhouse of East Asia, and speakers of this language are much sought after. You’d also be able to access a literary tradition that includes the famous haiku style of poetry and contemporary novelists like Haruki Murakami, while other forms of Japanese culture like anime have impressive reach around the world.
What to watch out for: Japanese may be more commonly seen in international media, but the Foreign Service Institute considers it to be one of the very hardest languages to learn.
Why to study it: Lots of reasons! Whether it’s being able to wander the streets of the busiest metropolitan area in the world, order like a native in your favorite noodle bar or relate to more than a million people who are Japanese or of Japanese descent around the world—Japan has given a great deal to the world and it can only be enriched by getting a grasp of the language.
Staying in East Asia, Korean also makes it onto our list. The unstable relationship between Pyongyang and Washington stretching back through a history of U.S. involvement in Korea, along with the importance of North-South Korean relations on the world stage, makes this a crucial language.
What to watch out for: Korean is considered a language isolate, meaning no other languages are properly connected to it. This makes it difficult to learn and difficult to transfer.
Why to study it: While North Korea is inaccessible to most, South Korea is one of the most fascinating countries on the planet. Pay a visit to bustling Seoul, share a soju with some locals and get insight into its unique work-hard-play-hard culture.
Again, this is a language considered important primarily due to the country it’s spoken in, in this case Iran. For decades, Iran and the U.S. have been at loggerheads culturally, economically, militarily—you name it. Despite this, Farsi isn’t very widely spoken in America.
What to watch out for: As relations are strained, the U.S. Government advises against travel to Iran “due to the risk of arbitrary arrest and detention of U.S. citizens.”
Why to study it: In addition to the job prospects that put it on this list, Persia is one of the most historically important regions on earth. As the language remained relatively unchanged for centuries, it’s fairly easy for newer students to delve into epic poets like Hafez, writer of numerous proverbs.
Like Hindi and Bengali, Punjabi is a language widely spoken in India. But it might be its status as the most spoken language in Pakistan—a country that American intelligence services keep a close eye on—that puts it on this list.
What to watch out for: Punjabi is written in two different scripts: Arabic and Gurmukhi. These can be difficult for foreigners to get the hang of.
Why to study it: Punjabi speakers are all over the globe, meaning you’d have plenty of people to chat with. In fact, Punjabi is one of the most spoken languages in the United Kingdom!
Along with the U.S. and China, Russia is normally mentioned as the third big superpower. Its relationship with the U.S. has been fraught, and particularly recently. You can see, then, why it’s important to have Americans who can speak Russian!
What to watch out for: Russian grammar includes some grammatical concepts that are more foreign to English speakers, like cases.
Why to study it: One of the most enduring languages on this list, Russian is spoken in the largest country on earth. It’s also widely spoken in other parts of Eastern Europe and particularly ex-Soviet states, where it’s often the normal second language studied in schools.
One of the most well known African languages, Swahili is spoken across a number of countries in Eastern and Southeastern Africa. Its origins are very different from all others in this list as it stems from Bantu roots.
What to watch out for: Given that origin, if you’re primarily familiar with English and European languages, there’s less crossover, meaning a lot more study of vocabulary.
Why to study it: With many international businesses looking to expand their presence in East Africa, Swahili offers a plethora of job opportunities. It also shares some vocabulary with Arabic, giving you greater access to another critical language.
If you’ve ever seen photos of Istanbul—stunning mosques atop crowded hills overlooking the Bosphorus—you’ll know some of the attraction of Turkey. It’s a bridge between continents, an amazing travel location with a fascinating language. That said, it has had a turbulent time recently, with border regions suffering fighting and a government accused of human rights abuses, meaning the world watches it closely.
What to watch out for: Like some other languages on the list, Turkish is challenging as it doesn’t share as many cognates with other languages you may be familiar with.
Why to study it: Turkey spans regions, and appropriately its language will give you access to a significant area of the world. On the one hand, it opens up other Turkic languages like Turkmen, Kazakh and Uzbek; culturally and politically, meanwhile, Turkey has strong links with Arab countries—this language may be of great interest to Arabic speakers looking to deepen their understanding of the region.
Urdu is another tongue from Northern India and Pakistan. We spoke earlier about the importance of Pakistan to U.S. interests; while Punjabi is the most spoken language in the country, Urdu is an official language, giving it significant value.
What to watch out for: Like in English, pronunciation can be tricky in Urdu. It’s important to memorize vocabulary with the accurate way of saying each word.
Why to study it: As well as the advantages it gives you for speaking to Pakistanis, Urdu is very similar to Hindi. So a whole swathe of South Asia—and two critical languages—is opened up to you.
Learning a critical language is quite an undertaking, but the payoff is undeniable.
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