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.


Tuttle Memorabilia

Last weekend I got to visit one of the smaller but most interesting language conferences in North America: NCOLCTL. Pronounced “nickle-tickle”, it’s the National Council on Less-Commonly Taught Languages. The nomenclature isn’t entirely accurately any more. By any measure, languages like Latin, Italian, Portuguese and Russian are less-commonly taught. But European languages, however large or small, meet at ACTFL, the 5,000+ American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. It makes sense because many teaches of one European (often Romance) language, also teach a second.

Chinese and Japanese have moved from NCOLCTL to ACTFL, the Koreans have always met alone, and Arabic has one foot in each conference. Also at NCOLCTL are African languages (mostly Swahili and Yoruba), South Asian (Urdu), Central Asian, and Middle Eastern languages, like Persian, which I was told not to call “Farsi” on account that Farsi is Persian word, not an English one. At NCOLCTL, I shared a table with my friends from Georgetown University Press, whose excellent Pashto book I raffled off a few months ago. I brought back with me a copy of their great Tajiki, which I’m going to write up and give away next week.

Back here in Vermont, we’ve been doing some cleaning. Among the many changes shaking the traditional publishing industry is a consolidation in distribution. Last year, we closed our warehouse and starting working with Simon & Schuster for our warehousing and fulfillment. As we cleaned out the warehouse, we found a few nifty pieces of Tuttle memorabilia that I’d like to find new homes for.


Our coffee mugs feature our traditional torii-gate logo.

First, I’ve got a couple of mint-condition Tuttle coffee mugs. The mugs were never something we sold or gave away, but were rather the official office mug here in Vermont for many years. They say “Tuttle Publishing” on the front. On the reverse (see photo) is our traditional logo. The design dates back to the ’50s and is a Tuttle “T” behind the silhouette of a Japanese torii gate. An austere emblem of Japanese landscapes, torii (sort of pronounced like the word “tory”) is thought to come from 鳥居, which means simply “bird perch”. The torii logo stands on top of a open book. In an older version, the “T” was flanked by a “C” and an “E” as we were for many years the Charles E. Tuttle Company. We still sometimes use the old logo on books with wide spines, but have mostly now shifted to the simpler text-only logo at the top of our new website. I have two of these coffee mugs still in their original boxes. If you’d like to enjoy your morning java in a piece of Tuttle history, enter this week’s raffle to win.


A vintage, 1950s lapel pin from our Tokyo office. Enter the raffle to win a little piece of Tuttle history.

Second is a truly unique piece of Tuttle memorabilia and an artefact of post-War Japanese culture: the company lapel pin. Japan was most open to American culture in the immediate post-War ’50s, when American culture was at its most earnestly conformist. The high aspiration of millions of Japanese men was the rank of サラリーマン (sarariiman or “salary man”), whose badge of honor was an official company lapel pin.

A box of Tuttle, uhm, ephemera arrived from Tokyo a few months ago, and inside it we found a lost box of these Tuttle lapel pins featuring the torii logo. They’re still carefully counted, numbered, and boxed. By the time I worked in Tuttle’s Tokyo office in the early ’90s, lapel pins had gone out of fashion, but these are cool souvenirs of Tuttle’s Japanese roots that I’ve shared with some other Tuttle alums.


Tuttle’s 1977 New Year’s photo taken on January 5, 1977 in the doorway of our Tokyo office near Iidabashi Station. Fifth from the left in the beige coat is Florence Sakade, an editor at Tuttle for more than 40 years and author of “Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories” and “Guide to Reading & Writing Japanese”.

I’ve got two of each of these, and if you’d like to win a cup and a vintage Tuttle sarariiman pin, click here to email me and write “Memorabilia” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner next week. Thanks to Julie up in Orkney, Scotland who won last week’s copy of Adobo Road Cookbook, Marvin Gapultos’s introduction to Filipino cuisine along with a bamboo cooking set.

How to Say Ry- in Japanese or Korean

Friday’s focus on the Korean Wave hallyu 韩流 (Trad. 韓流, Hangul 한류, Hiragana はんりゅう) got me thinking that I might have paused on the linguistic footnote of how to pronounce 流 (Hangul 류, Hiragana りゅう, Roman ryu) in Korean or Japanese. The Chinese liú is pretty straightforward, except that the ‘u’ is pronounced ‘o’, but the ry- in Korean and Japanese can cause a little trouble.

To put things into perspective, it’s not a huge deal. It’s not an extremely common combination in either language. 流 appears, however, in things like schools of sporting traditions or arts, like kyūdō (archery), taekwondo, and tea ceremony. Every time I go to Home Depot, I see it in their line of power tools called “Ryobi”. And most travelers to Japan will stay in a form of traditional inn called a “ryokan”.

English-speakers usually look at ry- and pronounce it as in the name Ryan, as in Rye-Oh. Or maybe ree-oh, so that ryokan often comes out REE-o-kan. In Japanese, the trick is to pretend the ‘r’ is a soft sort of ‘d’ sound. 流 is pronounced close to “dew” or “due” if you pronounce the vowel “yoo” and not so that the word rhymes with “do”.

Full disclosure. I do NOT speak Korean, but in my exhaustive research for this blog, I looked for videos of people speaking Korean and using words with ry-. Interestingly, I heard several people say that you should just pronounce 류 as “yu”, but if you listen to native speakers, you can hear a soft “d” sound in there as well. Linguists have never established a relationship between Korean and Japanese, but, in this regard, to my ear at least, the phonology is quite similar.

Thanks to Ellie for entering the raffle for Friday’s copy of our 500 Basic Korean Verbs by Kyubyong Park. Thanks, Ellie!