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.


Peranakan Culture

Ron Knapp and Mingmei Yip

Authors Ron Knapp and Mingmei Yip at the 2013 meeting of the Association of Asian Studies in San Diego.

Southeast Asia is home to some of the most interesting examples of cultural cross-pollination, having received and blended influences from many of the world’s major cultural matrices: China, India, the Middle East, and Europe.

In the area of Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore, for example, ancient animist religious traditions were first influenced by Hinduism and Buddhism brought by Indian traders. Today, many of the central narratives of Indonesia’s famous wayang kulit shadow-puppet plays are from India’s epic Mahabharata. The traditional writing systems of the region derive from the abugidas of India.

In the 12th century, Islam was introduced to the region and has gradually spread to become the most common faith of Malaysia and Indonesia. For a time, the Malay language was written in Arabic script. European colonizers in the 16th century brought Christianity, which did not put down deep roots, but also Roman letters, which did. Like the languages of the Philippines nearby, Malaysian and Indonesian are now written in Roman letters. When I visited Singapore, I sometimes saw public signs written in as many as four languages: Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English.

Most numerous among the many immigrants to the region were the Chinese, and they are often referred to now as Peranakan Chinese (accent on the second syllable, all the a’s pronounced ’ah’). The word peranakan itself is Malay. It comes from the word “anak” (child) and originally referred to children born to a local native and any immigrant, so that there are, for example, “Peranakan Indians” as well as “Peranakan Chinese”. This community was once referred to as the “Straits Chinese”, but the phrase referred to the UK’s colonial “Straits Settlements”, a geographic term that lost its relevance when the area gained independence.

Over the centuries, the blended Peranakan Chinese families created a culture that is a kaleidoscopic synthesis of local styles and traditional Chinese forms. And by no means static or ossified, the eclectic culture of the Peranakan Chinese continues to innovate and adapt new forms in a way that’s impossible to pigeon-hole and yet distinctively recognizable.

In the past year, one of our favorite authors, Ronald Knapp of SUNY New Paltz, has brought Peranakan Chinese culture into focus in two books. In 2011, he authored Chinese Houses of Southeast Asia, and this spring at the Association of Asian Studies we just published his new Peranakan Chinese Home: Art and Culture in Daily Life. Both books overflow with the masterful color photography of Chester Ong, and few writers match Ron’s combination of lively prose and nuanced scholarship.


Follow-up to his best-selling “Chinese Houses”, Ronald Knapp’s “Peranakan Chinese Home”.

For the armchair linguist or language-minded museum-goer or antiques collector, Ron also employs his considerable Chinese skills to enliven his text not only with English translations of Chinese objects, but frequent and detailed examples in pinyin and characters of the vocabulary of Peranakan Chinese material culture. Not stopping at a mere allusion to fengshui, for example, Ron explains the position of many Peranakan Chinese homes with the traditional maxim fù yīn bào yáng, bèi shān miàn shuĭ, 负阴抱阳,背山面水: “yin at one’s back and embraced by yang, with ridges to the back and facing water”.

Open this book on any page, and you’ll find a fascinating example of Peranakan Chinese culture, which, in the course of talking about, become starting points for Ron’s erudite insights about SE Asia, China, and cultural diversity in general. If you’d like to win this book, click here to email me and write “Peranakan” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner on Monday.

Chinese New Year’s 新年快乐!

On Sunday, we celebrate the traditional Chinese New Year, and I expected this blog to be about the words and customs and foods related to it. Only, when I started to write a quick paragraph about how New Year’s is calculated, I realized I had no idea. And it turns out to be pretty interesting.

snakeThe traditional Chinese calendar is a lunisolar hybrid, which combines observations of both the sun and moon. The ancient Chinese divided the heavens into 24 equal parts called 节气 (Trad. 節氣) jiéqì, usually translated in English as “terms”. The top part of 節’s traditional form is 竹—two bamboo shoots. Bamboo’s jointed canes suggest the meaning of “sections”. The second character is the oft-used 气 (Trad. 氣), whose Chinese (qì) and Japanese (chi) pronunciations have both been adopted by the Western New Age community as a vague sort of “life force”, but here just refers to the atmosphere or sky. So jiéqì refers to an arc of the sky. The solstices and equinoxes were the four cornerstones of this system of 24 jiéqì, and spaces between them were divided into 6 equal parts, all with evocative names like 惊蛰 (驚蟄) “waking of insects”, 大暑 “great heat”, and 白露 “white dew”. If you’re interested, a free publication titled “When is Chinese New Year?” by Helmer Aslaksen of the National University of Singapore’s math department spells this system out in excellent detail.

Adopted elsewhere in Asia, jiéqì is pronounced jeolgi in Korea (written phonetically 절기 in hangul), sekki in Japan (written 節気 with a tweak to the second character), and tiết khí in Vietnam.

The connection between this strictly solar calendar and “lunar New Year” is that the traditional new year was defined as the new moon closest to the jiéqì that marks the symbolic start of spring: 立春 (Chinese lìchūn, Korean 입춘 ipchun, Japanese risshun, and Vietnamese lập xuân). 立春 usually falls on February 4 (as it did this year), and this Sunday marks the new moon, so this Sunday is New Year’s Day.

Just one complication. In 1913, China adopted the Gregorian calendar and moved New Year’s Day to January 1. Strictly speaking, what we now celebrate on Sunday is not New Year’s, but the “Spring Festival” 春节 (Trad.春節) , chūnjié. It is, however, still considered by astrologers as New Year’s, and the title of this blog 新年快乐 (新年快樂) xīn nián kuài lè is still a typical wish for the day and its first two characters mean “new year”. This year is the Year of the Snake. 巳 (jǐ) is the character associated with this year, but the character for “snake” is 蛇, both of whose radicals, 虫 and它, are said to be pictograms of a cobra-like hooded serpent.


In neighboring Korea, both 立春 (as 입춘 or ipchun) and the lunar New Year are celebrated. The latter is called 설날, spelled seol-nal in hangul but pronounced seollal. Even Korean etymologists don’t agree on where the word “seollal” comes from, but on its own 날 nal means “day”. According to the National Folk Museum of Korea, 立春  is an occasion for agricultural rituals. The weather on 立春 was said to presage the coming season: a clear and windless day was auspicious for farming and the health. Snow and rain suggested bad luck. In this, Korea’s 立春 isn’t too different from an observance of our own on nearly the same day: Groundhog’s Day.

鬼は そと!

In modern Japan, the main remnant of Chinese New Year’s is one of my personal favorite Japanese customs, setsubun (節分). Setsubun is the day before 立春 (risshun), and on that day you purify your home for the beginning of the year. The way you do this is through the act of mamemaki (豆撒き). Mame is “beans” and maki is “scatter”, and tossing beans is the tried-and-true method for demon removal. This maki is from the verb maku (撒く), which means “distribute” or “scatter”. It sounds like but is different from the maki found on sushi menus. That maki comes from maku (巻く) or “roll”.

In mamemaki, you clean your house and then toss soybeans around while shouting “鬼は そと!” (Oni wa soto!, which is “Demons out!”). Customs vary from place to place. My neighbors in Tokyo insisted that the beans MUST be roasted in a frying pan. They also cautioned me to give the corners special attention; demons lurk in corners. The mother of one of my best Japanese friends was the very last word in elegance and gentility. But on Setsubun, true to her earthy Osaka roots, she’d scandalize the neighbors in their upscale high-rise condominium with bloodcurdling demon-chasing.


Tuttle’s best-selling Learning Chinese Characters

For the New Year, I’m raffling off one of the best-selling books in Asian languages, our Tuttle Learning Chinese Characters. A perennial favorite, this introduction includes the 800 characters included in Level A of the HSK Chinese-language proficiency exam. For each entry, the book gives the characters in Simplified and Traditional form, its radicals, stroke order, and stroke count, pinyin pronunciation, example words and combinations, suggested mnemonic tips for memorization, and an example sentence. If you’d like to win the book, click here to email me just put Characters in the subject line.