Which is the best language to learn in today's world?

I am a recent graduate working at an angel investment network. I have some time on my hands and plan on learning a new language. Though it is purely for learning something new, any positive impact on my career would be an added advantage. I am thinking of Mandarin. Everywhere I see and everything I read points to China's rise. Which language would be better in your opinion?


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Comments (45)

Jan 30, 2017 - 11:02am

Mandarin, it's really tough but worthwhile I would say. Many of my friends started but gave up halfway after the going got tough. I would recommend that you immerse yourself with like-minded learners and dig deep so you'll appreciate the underlying culture, regardless of which language you pick.

I'm starting to learn Japanese myself and it hasn't been easy, especially since I do not live there. However with the help of North American friends in Japan who went through the same struggle, I am getting more confident in knowing that I will be proficient if I keep at it. Hope that helps!

Jan 31, 2017 - 3:02am

I really wish I learned Mandarin, even just a conversational proficiency in high school or college. I just got knocked from a superday in HK for S&T because the interviewers decided they wanted a native Mandarin speaker instead.

Also, I agree that learning Japanese is tough. I'm Japanese American and I'm barely business proficient (got knocked from several interviews for a position in Tokyo because I'm barely business proficient).

Jan 31, 2017 - 2:03pm

Lived in Japan for a year and even with that my Japanese isn't great. My ex bf studied Japanese for years and went to high school and university there and it still took hima while to pass the highest Japanese Language Proficiency exam. What makes it hard is all that kanji!!

********"Babies don't cost money, they MAKE money." - Jerri Blank********
Jan 30, 2017 - 12:10pm

The Economist had an interesting article suggesting that learning Mandarin would be a poor ROI from a business approach. They compared it to the 80s when everyone said that Japanese would be the new world language and it has not at all materialized. Their point included that many native speakers, in China, can often not even write basic words anymore because cell phones and word processing programs use a Roman alphabet and context to determine the right character. Not saying I necessarily agree, but it was an interesting take.

I would probably go with Spanish, Portuguese or French. Maybe even German. I feel like these would all be realistic for me to use, and I could use them sooner.

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Best Response
Jan 30, 2017 - 2:59pm

Unless you are going to live in China and eat/breathe/shit Mandarin only for 3 - 4 years, trying to learn it will get you nowhere. At best, you'll be viewed like a toddler who has learned enough words to say "I need go toilet". You will be a long way from functional Mandarin. Anyone from Mainland China you encounter outside of China will speak English. Even if that English is crappy, it will be much better than your crappy Mandarin.

Also, as noted above, learning Mandarin today is a bit like learning Japanese in the '80s. Except Japan had cool shit like samurai, ninjas and octopus pornography. Mainland China culture has very, very, very little to redeem it.

Those who can, do. Those who can't, post threads about how to do it on WSO.
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Jan 31, 2017 - 10:05am

We're calling tentacle porn "cool shit"? I think I've just learned too much about you.

"There's nothing you can do if you're too scared to try." - Nickel Creek
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Jan 30, 2017 - 11:42pm

The new HB1 Visa executive action was leaked today and you are right. In my opinion, it is incredibly stupid to send back ambitious foreigners who are educated by elite US schools and who will now build up their own economies instead of America's.

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Jan 31, 2017 - 2:04pm

This x1000!

********"Babies don't cost money, they MAKE money." - Jerri Blank********
Jan 30, 2017 - 11:46pm

Don't pick which one you think will be more "useful," because it's hard to get to a useful level with any language unless you're a natural and/or have lots of time on your hands and a passion to boot. There's simply too many nuances and cultural tidbits you need to understand to be truly fluent.

That said, I'd go with the language you find most interesting from a cultural standpoint. I personally studied French because I like French culture, and I enjoy traveling to the Francophone countries. Italy is also an amazing country, though fewer former colonies you can get by in. Spanish is never a bad idea either.

Jan 31, 2017 - 3:08am

This. My parents tried to teach me Japanese my whole life up to college, and without any friends that speak native Japanese and exhibit cultural nuances in conversation, my Japanese barely passes for business proficient.

Jan 31, 2017 - 12:38am


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Jan 31, 2017 - 12:05am

Random thing to consider, but if you ever want to work in London then knowing French or German would be very advantageous. In terms of actually being able to use that language at a proficient level, I would say at this point in your life a Romance language is your best bet.

Jan 31, 2017 - 12:11am

I've always wanted to learn another language, I took Spanish through the AP level in HS and spent a few weeks there with a host family, took a year of French and a year of Mandarin in college. About once or twice a year I spend a few hours researching local classes, looking at immersion programs, etc and I secretly have a goal of going to South America for a few months to just hang out and learn the language...but after my daydream ends I always talk myself out of it for the same reasons.

As awesome as it would be to learn another language, in my opinion it is generally a poor use of time and a waste of money for a few reasons.

  1. It's an immense time commitment with almost no return. Learning a few phrases here and there with no end goal is fairly useless. With that being said, maybe you plan to spend enough time to become completely fluent in the language. With that comes point number two

  2. From my research and experience, it is nearly impossible to become fluent in a language unless you're immersed in it for an extended period of time. Even if you look at guys like Benny the Polygot(google him) they still take at least 3-6 months of complete immersion to become fluent and it probably takes closer to a year. Is that something you're going to want to pursue in a few years time? Taking a year off of work to live in xyz location to perfect your language? Sure it sounds awesome, but make sure that's something you're actually going to pursue. The opportunity costs is pretty high.

  3. Assuming you do pursue your language acquisition and spend 6months to a year in a country, are you going to want to live there forever? Or are you going to take a year off Pre-Business School, learn Spanish, go to business school and then end up working in banking/consulting/tech etc in a major US city and slowly forget that language you spent so much time and effort learning. Sure you can show off a little when you travel to Europe 2x a year, but is it worth it?

With all that being said, do what makes you happy. If you love learning a language and will commit to it for the next few years over other extracurricular opportunities(GMAT, CFA, Volunteering, Learning to Code, Online Courses, etc) go for it. Maybe one day we'll bump into each other in the streets of Buenos Aires and we'll be able to converse fluently in Spanish over a nice glass of red wine.

And to actually answer your question. Spanish, French and German would be my picks. Not too hard to learn, not too hard to find people to speak with, and good options for immersion if you ever go that route.

Jan 31, 2017 - 12:17am

Spanish for South American emerging market business. Mandarin makes sense if you do business in China a lot, but outside of China Mandarin isn't spoken over English, whereas Spanish is spoken in countless countries that have great business potential.

Of course this is from a business standpoint. If you are going for intellect/social uses, French. Swoon my friend. Swoon.

Jan 31, 2017 - 12:28am

As others have said, learning Mandarin is a fruitless endeavor, particularly from a business standpoint. My business partner is Chinese (from China) and she said it's basically worthless for Westerners to try to learn it unless they plan on living in China full time indefinitely.


Jan 31, 2017 - 12:44am

Fun fact -

Spanish - I went to a community college when I was younger and spoke a few words, and it landed me with a hottie for a date. She's mixed of Chinese and Spanish.

I am learning both French and Spanish these days because of the people I interact with on a daily basis. The Chinese folks where I live at speaks Vietnamese too, coincidentally.

Jan 31, 2017 - 12:57am

I think you should try to study more on how to managing a diverse team instead of learning a new language - if you end goal is to advance in the corporate world. Because learning a new language is useless. As an outsider, you will never be able to speak a foreign language complete because language is very culture context based.

Case in point, many Koreans who are born and raised in Japan and speak fluent Japanese, are still not considered as Japanese by Japanese people. Another friend of mine spoke fluent Japanese and went to work for a Japanese corporation felt the same way. It is very similar in China and Korea as well. Even for oversea Chinese, when they go and work in China, they are considered as foreigners because they are not really from that particular city (i.e. Beijing, Shanghai).

Jan 31, 2017 - 3:45am

For what it's worth I speak 4 European languages so hopefully I can give some meaningful advice. Before picking a language to learn I think it's more important that you decide the use of that language:
-Are you interested in moving to Europe or Asia in the future? This probably sounds elementary but if you're trying to move to Germany say, nobody cares that you know English and French, two foreign languages aren't going to offset you not knowing the home mothertongue. The same applies to Asia.
-Are you just looking for a new hobby? if so I'd pick japanese hands down, there's so much more intrinsic culture that comes with the language that I don't think you can come close to with any other language. Tokyo is also one of the coolest cities I've ever been to so there's that.
-Are you just trying to pick up chicks at a bar? If that's the case then learn French and call it a day. Seriously, you could tell someone to go kick rocks in French and it would sound so beautiful his pants would probably drop to his ankles before he eventually goes to kick said rocks.

Jan 31, 2017 - 8:15am

I've had a lot of success with languages. I think it's a mistake to focus on the number of speakers, GDP as proxy for business opportunity, etc. People have "favorite languages" for all sorts of subjective reasons and dress them up with faux objective ones.

Learn the language that you think you'll become fluent in. With certain languages, like Arabic or Mandarin, you might get a lot of respect from a native speaker for having achieved, say, 30% fluency, because it's so hard to get above 0. But for it to truly positively impact your business career (beyond kudos), you need 100% fluency. And that's really hard to pull off. In other languages, such as French or Spanish, you won't get much credit for being able to babble a few sentences together. You get respect for fluency.

Language is a habit. You live it, you breathe it, you think in it, you read in it, you sing in it, you make love and war in it. Do that often enough and you'll get pretty fluent, and enjoy the process. You'll have to already find the language attractive to start with - in order to put in the requisite amount of effort.

The truth is you're the weak. And I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm tryin', Ringo. I'm tryin' real hard to be the shepherd.
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Jan 31, 2017 - 11:05am

I studied french for 6 years during school and didn't get very far with traditional language classes.

Early on in university I backpacked Costa Rica over christmas break and decided I wanted to learn Spanish. I started off by listening to the Pimsleur Spanish audio series, then following Spanish songs along with printed lyrics, followed by watching Telemundo telenovelas with Spanish subtitles and writing down words I didn't know (Telenovela method).

After about a year of daily study (~30-45 mins each morning of songs/telenovelas + Anki flash card app each day) I was at an intermediate level and decided to do an exchange in Spain. While there, I read the business newspaper La Expansion often (quite enjoyed it, with morning espresso), made an effort to speak with locals, and took more advanced grammar classes. In general the exchange was not as productive as I thought from a language progression perspective. The atmosphere is very inclined to foreigners who just want to party, which was fun socially, but I did not manage to immerse myself as much as I wanted. That being said, it was obviously better being there than in North America and I did improve.

After the exchange I could read the newspaper and speak quite well, though I was not what I now understand as "fluent". I came to understand what fluency was when I had left for a Latin America solo trip after graduation for 5 months. During the trip I immersed myself in the culture through homestay programs in various cities, and also rode a motorcycle for 2 months throughout random towns. There were often strings of days where I never spoke a word of English, as I was alone and only spoke to local Latinos at gas stations, motels, and restaurants (quite an eerie experience). Mid-way through my trip I was at a social event with all Spanish speakers and I realized that my mind did not need to "translate" anymore to understand. I finally began to think in Spanish after 3 years of study and practice. I attribute the months of immersion during that trip as what led to the final jump to true fluency.

It has been two years since that trip, and I have retained my fluency with minimal effort. I read the newspaper and listen to Podcasts now and then but not much more (I've been on the search for a Latina GF in my city but it's been hard to find). In spite of the lack of study the language has been wrapped up in experiences, emotions, and positive memories and has become a "part of me", so to speak. When you have so many experiences in another language such as meeting local women, media like TV/newspapers, deep conversations with locals etc. it is hard to forget it (not just words in a textbook). That being said, it does take time to "re-activate" the language again obviously as the tongue and mind gets rusty over time of lack of use.

I actually will be moving to a Latin city for a new role later on this year, a boutique advisory firm that helps LatAm companies raise money via North American IPO and/or PE investments. There is a lot of opportunity for business there as the markets are less competitive, evergrowing consumer needs as the economies grow, and a big need for capital (almost non existent capital markets apart from Brazil). The language skill and cultural understanding is integral to getting close with the wealthy business owners down there and gaining their trust. I have also been studying Portuguese on the side, and though the accent is very different, the grammar and words are quite similar and it is not a difficult jump to conversational fluency as a Spanish speaker.

Enriching your life by learning a language is a worthwhile process in my book. You may not get the most tangible ROI upfront, but it will expand your life's experience, and may even pay off in your business career like in my case.

"A real entrepreneur is someone who has no safety net underneath them." - Henry Kravis
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Jan 31, 2017 - 11:31am

Unless you look Chinese don't even bother with Mandarin. You'll never ever be in their club if you don't look the part even if you're 100% fluent. On the other hand Mexicans (in Mexico City at least) will just assume you're Mexican and keep speaking Spanish to you even after they discover you're not.

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Jan 31, 2017 - 2:10pm

I know Russian (intermediate), Japanese (intermediate) and some French (terrible- just terrible). Thinking about picking up Danish or Swedish soon. The most useful one has been Russian and that is only because I worked at a Russian bank for a few years. So I guess the takeaway is, if you have plans to work at a regional bank, then learn the language. I will say this, by the time I was on my third language, it was a lot easier to pick up because I knew how to study the language.

I am also strongly for learning a programming language or two, three etc.

********"Babies don't cost money, they MAKE money." - Jerri Blank********
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Jan 31, 2017 - 3:34pm

Fluent in three languages (including English). Definitely worth the effort. The process is challenging with a steep learning curve and it'll keep you engaged. A few hours each day will get you there if you can also practice with native speakers.

Feb 2, 2017 - 4:45am

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