We asked business experts their advice on what are the best and most practical languages to learn for business, that would give you the competitive edge you need in building potential connections around the world.
Founder, Jordan Counsel
The question should be: “For a career in international business, what’s the best second language FOR ME”?
My particular career in international business has focused on Europe and South America, so here’s my take on the languages I learned while in those two regions:
Spanish and Portuguese
Regardless of your target industry, if you enjoy Latin America (or Latin American culture), the answer is clear: learn Spanish. And afterward, learn Portuguese. Or vice versa. Just be sure to include both of those languages in your plans.
French or Italian
If you have an interest in the luxury goods, fashion or tourism industry, either of these two languages would be a great choice. Or better yet, learn both. But a word of warning: French is one of the most popular second languages, so having a third language under your belt would really set you apart from the crowd.
If you have a background in engineering, science or finance and can picture yourself working in Europe, then you should definitely learn German. That will give you a leg up for a career with one of the many leading manufacturing companies (automotive, pharmaceutical and medical devices) or investment banks in Germany and Switzerland. Although most Germans speak English, your colleagues will accept you as “one of them” quicker if you speak their language.
Did you know that there are six countries where Russian is spoken by more than 20% of the population? And because many people in those countries do not speak English, you would provide a great service if you could communicate with those people in Russian. This would especially hold true in professional services, such as law or consulting.
Every day the business world becomes tougher for monolingual businessmen. The most successful leaders of the 21st-century present business plans in Chinese, and conduct conference calls in French.
Today, business is global. Investors from South Korea and Egypt finance startups in Chile and the Netherlands, that work with contractors from Kenya and the Philippines, selling goods to customers from Turkey and Bahrain.
It is difficult to say which language is the best. Me personally, I speak Romanian, German, Russian, Ukrainian, English. My current project is Spanish. For the near future, I consider learning Portuguese, Arabic, and Chinese. Why these languages? I’ll give you my reasons.
Ukrainian and Russian are my native languages.
Romanian, at the beginning of my IT career, I left Ukraine to work for a Romanian company and there, in fact, I learned this language with the goal of effective in-team communication. Still, Romania is considered a reliable investment target and entrepreneurs are ready to invest in Romania and are going to invest in the Romanian economy.
English is the language of globalization. An inevitable giant, it is the official language of 67 countries, 27 territories, as well as the most important global institutions such as the United Nations, the European Union, and NATO. English permeates almost every aspect of a global society. So, no questions asked here, this is a must-have for any self-respecting businessman.
Mandarin is the language to spend money. Mandarin Chinese is for business. China and Chinese are simply not to be missed when it comes to the best languages for business. The reason for this is the billion people who speak it and the largest purchasing power in the world.
Novice entrepreneur must learn Chinese. It is not as difficult as they say. The reason for the importance of the Chinese language lies in the almost mythical economic development of China. In about 30 years, this country has gone from one of the poorest countries in the world to the country with the largest middle class. The number of rich people in China is increasing daily, and many yuan simply burn holes in their pockets.
German is the language of European industrial power. It is difficult to overestimate the economic influence of Germany in the European Union. It is the largest economy in Europe and the fifth largest economy in the world. 80 million hardworking Germans make up 1% of the world’s population, but generate 4.5% of global GDP. Even the fact that the headquarters of the European Central Bank is located in Frankfurt is a sure sign that the importance of German for business will increase.
Portuguese allows business across four continents. Only about 4% of Portuguese-speaking people live in Portugal. The rest live around the world, including in the fastest growing countries. Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking giant that everyone knows and loves. Brazil’s economy has a big impact on the whole world.
Under the economic influence of Brazil, Portuguese begins to compete and even supplant English as the most important foreign language in South America. Portuguese-speaking Angola is an oil-rich African country that is developing rapidly. Macau is also a former Portuguese colony that has the fastest growing economy in the world.
Spanish is nothing but business. The leading modern economies of Argentina and Mexico are Spanish-speaking. These Latin American heavyweights are well-established global forces. The inconspicuous economies of Chile, Peru, and Colombia are gradually, but steadily moving forward thanks to initiatives such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These growth leaders will most likely bring unprecedented cash flows not only within their own borders but also to partners around the world.
Arabic is the fastest growing language on the world wide web. To find out about what is happening in the offices and bank accounts of nearly 300 million people who speak Arabic, you need to turn on not TV, but Twitter or global financial news feeds. Since social media has become the catalyst for the democratic revolutions of the Arab Spring, since 2010, Arabic has become the fastest growing language on the world wide web. To be precise, over the past 10 years, the use of Arabic on the Internet has increased 26 times.
To sum up, the best way to make a deal in tomorrow’s business world is to speak the same language your business partner does. The above languages are, as for me, the most suitable and practical languages for innovators, investors, and entrepreneurs. However, this list may not be limited.
Deciding on the best language for business depends on specific aspirations. Like any language from the list above, it can be Swahili, French, Dutch, Japanese or Thai. Day by day, personal life is becoming increasingly global. If your goal is to trade on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, build roads in India, or enter international markets with innovative offers, remember that everything starts with language.
Marketing Director at Mashvisor
Learning Mandarin Chinese is an absolute must if you run a business in the US or any other market, for that matter. Speaking Chinese is particularly important for anyone working in an investing-related field as Chinese investors are increasingly looking for overseas investment opportunities. Chinese is the most spoken language globally with over a billion native speakers, which means that there are many more Chinese-speaking people with whom you can do business than the entire US population.
Spanish is another language which business people should speak in order to succeed. To begin with, a significant proportion of the US population speaks Spanish as a native or a second language. Moreover, the geographical proximity to Latin America is an important factor to consider. Investors from South America have historically been looking for opportunities in the US, and the trend is continuing in the present.
Although Portuguese is spoken by fewer people than Spanish, it is still a crucially important language for American businesses. There is a significant number of Brazilian investors who are attracted to the US market because of profitable opportunities. In addition, while investors are likely to find a lot of business people who speak Spanish, this is not the case with Portuguese speakers, so they will definitely appreciate the efforts you have put into learning their language.
Digital Marketing Manager, Aware Corporation Ltd.
I think the best languages for business people to learn are the ones that make a material difference to either business opportunity or salary. I think you are going to get a lot of response that says “Cantonese” or “Mandarin” – so I will answer differently – although the rationale is the same.
For me as a westerner in Thailand – the ability to speak Thai, when very few foreigners can to any decent level, greatly increases your opportunity in both location (where outside Bangkok people’s English is not so strong) and position (even major MNCs are looking for high level Thai and English languages) so managers can speak to colleagues from all levels. With that being said, you need to be good enough to make a difference in the business – not just conversing with friends.
I know that in Thailand if you learn Japanese you can greatly increase your salary, due to a large amount of Japanese business in Thailand paired with the limited capabilities of their English and Thai. I think the greatest opportunity lies in niches like these – Japanese speakers in Thailand – English Speakers in China – where the upside of learning the language separates you from the competition.
CEO and Founder of iPromo
The Spanish Language
Spanish is used by over 30% of the US population making it a coveted language for business. The growth of the Hispanic population is consistently increasing and having insight into this demographic can create high marketing power. Spanish is a valued language for business because it can call the attention of an overlooked population.
The Mandarin Language
Speaking the most popular language in the world makes mandarin the most in-demand language for business. One billion people speak this language and trillions of dollars are invested in the manufacturing of products in China. Doing business with Chinese clients is spearheading the future making Mandarin the most important language for any business.
Founder & CEO of Jennifer Harder Mortgage Brokers
Many people do not realize that in fact, French is spoken in over 50 countries by hundreds of millions of people.
In many areas, it is not English that is the second language, but actually French. For example, I live in Canada, so French is a serious asset as we routinely get French Canadians consistently moving to this region. This applies even more if you are doing business in Africa, or with those who have moved from Francophone Africa.
As a general rule, being multilingual is a huge plus for any business oriented professional, and while English, Spanish, and Mandarin are very popular these days, I believe French is and is going to continue to be, one of the major business languages of the world.
Career Advisor and Hiring Manager at ResumeGenius
By helping hundreds of business people describe language skills on their resumes, I’ve learned that some languages are more likely to further a career than others.
From my experience, the best language to learn for business is Arabic.
The number of capable Arabic speakers is critically behind demand in the western world, so there are numerous opportunities in almost every industry for those who are fluent.
With 280 million native speakers, Arabic is the fifth most widely spoken language in the world. It’s widely known that the Middle East is rich in natural resources, plus its relationship with the US has never been at a more important juncture than it is now. Business culture in Islamic countries is based on trust – and a huge part of that trust is built through language.
It’s not just the US job market seeking speakers of Arabic, either. Since the 2008 financial crisis, Arabic countries have invested heavily in the UK and Europe, particularly in property. Islamic banks and investment funds have a growing share in European markets, and this development is expected to continue for years into the future. If you work in the financial sector, learning Arabic could do wonders for your career.
In addition, there are plenty of incentives to relocate somewhere like the UAE. For example, tax-free salaries, low crime rate, high living standards, and a multi-cultural expat community. One client told me that learning Arabic is no longer just the gateway to the Middle East, but now to the entire world.
Writer & Editor, G.P. Heilers
For the past five years, I have lived in China for roughly half of every year.
This experience has opened my eyes to just how invaluable both Mandarin and English are.
I must admit upfront: my Mandarin reading and writing skills are poor, so I can only comment on how spoken Mandarin has helped me in business. My clients in the US enjoy having someone “on the ground” in China, and someone whose Mandarin is decent enough to make connections for them. In the past few years, I have made connections I never would have dreamed of, simply because of my cultural and language exposure. I know enough to know that as my reading and writing (and speaking) skills continue to progress, I will enjoy even more opportunities than now.
As a native English speaker in China, I have a number of opportunities right out of the gate. This has led to me working with state-owned and private organizations, from the Open University of China to AVIC to major retail brands. I’m able to perform not only copy-editing of B2C and B2B content but also what I call “cultural translations.” I help my Chinese clients by shaping their content into something a Western audience will resonate with.
Language is a powerful tool, and I’m thankful to have been born with English. However, I also know that is not enough – moving forward, I will continue to study Mandarin, and benefit from that effort.
Founder and CEO of Happysleepyhead
The Arabic language is a door into the Arab world. It’s used as the official language by 22 countries on the Arabian peninsula and the continent of Africa.
Today these countries experience faster economic growth than, say, a decade ago, which creates a lot of business opportunities. If you decide to go for one of them, the knowledge of Arabic will surely come in handy. Besides, Arabs are known to have high respect for those who have learned their language, which is definitely a plus for building successful business relationships.
Now, the Arab world used to lag behind the rest of the world in adopting the Internet. One of the reasons was the technical difficulty with the rendering of the Arabic alphabet by web browsers. But it’s not an issue today. Thus, any company can launch a website targeted at the local population. But considering the fact that most locals don’t speak English, you will likely need to launch your website in Arabic. And that’s when the knowledge of this language comes in again.
Chief Executive Officer of ExpertSure
In my opinion, I firmly believe that Mandarin Chinese is the business language of the future. This increasingly dominant language is spoken daily by over a billion people in China which is the world’s second largest economy and the source of growing overseas investment.
As this dominance mounts, it is critical that existing business develop connections and partnerships with Chinese-based organizations. Therefore, getting your head around this most challenging of languages ahead of time will give you a competitive advantage in the job market of the future – from understanding business agreements to improved communication and enabling you to trade lucrative business insights and technical ability. Accordingly, Mandarin is most definitely the best language to learn for business.