You are here

What is the second most useful language?

Mandarin is the obvious answer but there is a strong case for learning any tongue.

The day before I was due to interview a leading French industrialist some years ago, I got a call from his press officer to discuss the arrangements. At the end of the conversation, she said: “By the way, the interview will be in French.” I spent the afternoon in London anxiously preparing and rehearsing my questions. Switching on my recorder in the great man’s office in Paris the next day, I asked what language he wanted to use. “English,” he said.
I have learnt not to take the furious debate in France over the incursion of English too seriously, including the recent fuss over a new law to allow more teaching in English in French universities. In a trenchant essay, the Paris-based Institut national d’études démographiques says the younger generation of French researchers and scientists regards the language question as solved: English is the language in which they work. While 70 per cent of those born between 1945 and 1949 agree that English is unquestionably the world’s research language, almost 90 per cent of those born between 1985 and 1989 feel this way.

I remember when you would come across older, educated people in countries such as Greece and Turkey whose second language was French. I doubt you find them any more. Anyone who wants to get ahead, anywhere, learns English. This poses a dilemma for native English speakers: what foreign language should they learn?

Many will say “none”. Why bother? Everyone speaks English. This is a rational choice. You could instead spend the time learning how to code or how to route profits to low-tax jurisdictions. But there is something embarrassingly provincial about people who speak only one language when they are surrounded by colleagues who have mastered at least two.

So what language should English speakers learn? If you are living or working in a country, you should learn its language. It is polite, and you will get far more out of the experience. When you can understand your new colleagues speaking their own language, you realise that you didn’t really know them when they spoke English. They are suddenly more self-assured, wittier, more rounded.

But what if you are living in an English-speaking country? What language should you learn then? I don’t regret the years I have spent learning French. I find the country and its people fascinating. But if I were starting now, I would probably opt for Spanish, which has greater pretensions to being a world language – except that it is not the language of Latin America’s most dynamic economy. Brazilian Portuguese might be a good option, but it is not much use elsewhere, and what if the Brazilian miracle ends in disappointment?

The answer seems obvious: English speakers should learn Mandarin, the language of the world’s soon-to-be largest economy. I have colleagues who are impressively proficient in the language, but not many are. In his essay “Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard”, the American China expert David Moser writes: “Every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves ‘Why in the world am I doing this?’ ”

Mr Moser says that how hard a language is depends on the language with which you start. It is far easier for an English speaker to learn French or Spanish because the three languages have much in common and Chinese does not. But he argues that Chinese is “also hard in absolute terms”. The characters are difficult. It takes twice as long for Chinese children to acquire literacy as their European counterparts.

Foreign learners have to cope with Chinese tones, which dramatically change the meanings of words. Mr Moser says many learners of Chinese give up. “Those who merely say ‘I’ve come this far – I can’t stop now’ will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.”

So what language should English speakers learn? Any language. None will have English’s international currency, but in an age when so many are speaking and working in English as a second language, it helps to have a second language too. Why? So that you know what your colleagues, fellow conference delegates and negotiators are going through, how tiring their working days are and how impressive their linguistic accomplishment is.

Michael Skapinker