The 5 Best Languages to Learn in College

University of Alabama Quad

A couple of weeks ago, a website called published a ranking of the Top 5 Languages to Learn in College. They wrote and asked me to post a link here to their list. Since I’m here in the leafy environs of Tuscaloosa now, this is an ideal time to blog about it. Alas, after reading the list put together, I wrote back and told them I didn’t agree with their reasoning. In the spirit of civil discourse on the ‘Net, I invited them to collaborate with me on a revised list. They said no, but said they didn’t care if I mentioned their list with my own point of view, so I’m guessing this is a case of “all publicity is good publicity”.

This then is the list of’s Top 5 Languages to Learn in College:

  1. French
  2. Mandarin Chinese
  3. Korean
  4. Arabic
  5. Spanish

First, bravo for for taking up the subject. Second, these five languages all have rich cultural and literary traditions and interesting applications. If I suggest some swaps, I mean no slight to one language or another. I’ll say up front, however, that naming the list as “the best languages to learn in college” necessarily frames the choice in terms of future employment or utility. I deeply “get” that college should provide more in the way of cognitive development, decision-making skills, citizenship, and the like than just job skills, but the cost of college is nose-bleed high right now so I think it’s rational to link college expenses, at least in part, with future job prospects.

I’m a Francophile American. I was in Paris just 3-4 days after 9/11, and the outpouring of solidarity and support from complete strangers—warm hugs, free drinks, houses draped with massive American flags—was unforgettable. The French were there for us, and I’ll never say “freedom fries”.

Speaking or reading French still confers a lot of cosmopolitan polish. Practically speaking, so much of English comes from French that learning French improves your English. The same can be said of Latin. It would make me happy if Louisiana would go beyond a superficial embrace of its French heritage and learn a little French. Even un peu.

In terms of utility, however, outside of metropolitan France and Quebec, French is of limited use. There’s a long list of Francophone countries, especially in West Africa, and if any of those places are where you intend to live or do business, French is an excellent choice. Otherwise, I’d keep French on the list, but not higher than #5.

There’s a boom in Korean culture and business now, Hallyu, which I blogged about last year. I’m a fan. Korean’s an intricate and complex language combined with a writing system that’s both elegant and practical. 1.7 million Americans identify as Korean-American. The Korean economy is humming along and has risen in size to #15 in the world. I’d love to see Korean keep growing. So I only write this with affection, but I don’t see Korean in the top 5 yet. If you have any plans to live or work in Korea or a Korean-speaking environment abroad, however, learn Korean now.

Arabic’s getting a lot of attention too. There’s so much ignorance about Arabic-speaking nations and cultures in the West, this can only be a good thing. And yet also, looking at utility as measured by the size of national economies, the World Bank listed four Arabic-speaking countries in the top 50 nations in terms of GDP in 2011: Algeria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Their combined GDP about equals that of Australia. I am 100% behind Arabic instruction. Arabic language and literature have deep riches to explore, and there are countless reasons to learn and enjoy Arabic. I just don’t see it in the Top 5 yet unless you have a specific personal or professional (business or diplomatic) interest.

Rounding out CollegeStat’s list were Mandarin and Spanish, and I agree that they belong there. Here’s my list:

  1. Mandarin Chinese
  2. Something relevant to YOU
  3. Spanish
  4. Japanese
  5. Pick one: Latin or French

With my #2, I try to inject something into the list that CollegeStats ignores, and that’s you. I don’t believe language learning is a one-size-fits-all thing. The cognitive benefits of learning any foreign language are the same, and I say people should choose the language they’ll go the furthest in. Yeah, I said that utility is important. Well, fluency can lead to job opportunities, but if you force yourself to study something you don’t connect with emotionally, you’ll never get to fluency. If you’re an Italian-American and have Italian-speaking relatives, learn Italian. If you eat dinner in an Ethiopian restaurant in your neighborhood every couple of weeks, and that’s your only exposure to a foreign language, dabble in some Amharic. If you’re a Chinese-American, but you feel passionately about Cantonese instead of Mandarin, learn that.

I’m putting Japanese on the list, and OK I speak Japanese, but Japan is still the world’s third largest economy. Japan has had a tough couple of decades, but you can’t ever count the Japanese out.

For my last, I’m suggesting that people pick between Latin and French. Both of these languages contributed so much to English that learning either will add clarity, nuance, and color to your native language. Some professions draw on one more than another. Going to cooking school? French. Law school? Latin.


A Brief Hiatus and a new intro to Vietnamese

Last week I wrote about some spring cleaning we were doing here at Tuttle’s Vermont office as we closed our warehouse and merged that part of our operation with Simon & Schuster. Another big change is that today is my last day here. I’m leaving to take a new job as the Director of Sales and Marketing at the University of Alabama Press.

I’m a native Alabaman. Citizens of the Yellowhammer State mostly prefer the demonym “Alabamian”, but there’s no reason of logic, tradition, or aesthetics to wedge an extra ‘i’ in before the last ‘a’. A native Muskogean word well-fit to the Anglo-Saxon rhythm of English, an Alabaman is what I’ll be next week.

I’m also a graduate of the University of Alabama. I did my BA there, and it was from there that I made my first trip over to Japan, studying at the Kansai University of Foreign Studies in Osaka. Later on, I did my first stint at Tuttle in our Tokyo office. I’ve enjoyed writing this blog and plan to continue, but I’m packing up my house this weekend and need to take the next couple of weeks off from writing. Wish me well, and I’ll look forward to re-starting the conversation soon.


The 3rd edition of Elementary Vietnamese by Harvard’s Binh Nhu Ngo includes a free audio disc.

Before I go, I’d like to raffle of our newly released 3rd edition of Elementary Vietnamese by Harvard’s Dr. Binh Nhu Ngo.

The largest of the Austroasiatic languages, Vietnamese is spoken by about 90 million people worldwide. It is related to Khmer (which rhymes not with “bear” but with “buy”) in neighboring Cambodia. It is not related to Chinese, but, like many languages on China’s cultural periphery, Vietnamese borrowed so many loanwords from China that early European linguists assumed it was.

Vietnamese is one of the few continental Asian languages written in a romanized script. Called Quốc Ngữ, which means “national language”, Vietnamese script uses roman letters to indicate the 12 vowels and 6 tones of the modern language.

Dr. Ngo’s book has been the definitive Vietnamese textbook on the market for some years. What the book lacked was the free audio disc that the volumes in Tuttle’s “Elementary” series usually include. And audio material is tough to do without, especially with tonal languages. Saying a book is “new and improved” is a dull cliche in publishing, but in this case the extremly high quality audio material recorded by the author at Harvard really makes this THE gold standard in Vietnamese language. Click here to email me and write “Vietnamese” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner soon.

Persian vs. Farsi

I’m still smarting a bit for having been taken to task at NCOLCTL (National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages) for asking a prominent professor of Persian: “How long have you been teaching Farsi?” His response was “Persian, not Farsi” and that the community is “sensitive about the subject”. Indeed!

What’s the difference between Persian and Farsi? Linguistically, nothing. They’re two names for the same thing. Why then would a person use one or the other?

Politics often intrude on language, and I thought that may be the key. Diaspora communities can have complex relationships with governments in their countries of origin. In the US, Cuban-Americans are hostile to Havana, and many Vietnamese-Americans feel the same way about Hanoi. If the same were true of Iranians, I’d expect those who fled the Iranian Revolution of 1979 to prefer “Persian” because the word evokes pre-Revolution Iran.

But that’s not what I’ve noticed. The Iranian I know best hates the revolution and says “Farsi”. Either politics isn’t in the picture or it’s in the picture for some Iranians and not others or it’s only part of the picture for everybody.

Another reason language names change is to reflect in English the name in the language itself. Clumsy anglicizations like Owhyhee, Chippewa, and Oordoo have over time become Hawaiian, Ojibwa, and Urdu. Swahili is inching towards Kiswahili. “Farsi” is the name of the language in Iran, so “authenticity” suggests that. On the other hand, so what? No one advocates français and nihongo over French and Japanese.

A scholar at NCOLCTL made the observation that “‘Persian’ is an English word, and ‘Farsi’ is a Persian word, so English-speakers should say ‘Persian’ when speaking English.” It was an odd experience to be told by a non-native speaker of English that I shouldn’t say “Farsi” because it’s “not English”. I’m in my 40s, and “Farsi” was the only thing I called the language until two weeks ago.

I’m a newcomer to Middle Eastern languages, so if a professor of the language wants me to say “Persian”, I’ll say it. In that conversation at least. There are Iranians who say “Farsi”, and if they say “Farsi” first, I’m going to too. I’ve known speakers of foreign languages who very gently tweaked my knowledge of what to call a language (Tagalog vs. Filipino vs. Pilipino) or how to say a language (Khmer rhymes with “buy” not “bear”). But I’ve never experienced quite so much passion on the subject without (so far at least) an obvious explanation of why.

If any of you are speakers or students of Persian/Farsi, please write in and tell us which you prefer.

If you’re interested in Persian/Farsi (or the nearly identical Dari), Tuttle has an introduction on the subject in the works now. Look for it next year.

Thanks for all the folks who wrote in about the Tuttle memorabilia. The winners were Fred in Michigan and Paul in Aomori Prefecture in northern Japan. After I wrote, I was curious to know what the lapel pins would have been called in Japanese. I looked on the cover this morning, and in handwritten letters it said: 社員バッヂ shain baddji, or “employee badges”, where baddji is a direct loan-word from English.