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.


Korean Crisis Glossary

All eyes in Asia are on North Korea this month as the worst crisis, or the worst rhetoric at least, in many years has triggered a fresh round of sanctions by the UN, even this time with the support of North Korea’s one ally, the PRC. As we take time to ruminate on visions of Seoul and Austin, TX bathed in fire, I’d like to offer a run-down of the key words and phrases in the news:

38th Parallel
The 38th Parallel has generally been the dividing line between northern and southern halves of the country. In Korean the line is called 북위 38, the bugwi 38 do. In hanja (Chinese characters), that’s 北緯三十八度, which means “North Parallel 38 degree”. Japanese is a bit simpler with 38 度線 (38どせん) or “38-degree line”. Chinese is the simplest: 三八线 (Trad. 三八線), sānbāxiàn, or “38-line”.

The actual dividing line between North and South is the DMZ, an English acronym for “Demilitarized Zone”. The DMZ was established in the 1953 armistice signed by North Korea, the PRC, and the United Nations and South Korean forces. Its Korean name is 한반도 비무장지대, hanbando bimujang jidae, which comes from the hanja 韓半島非武裝地帶. A direct translation is: Korea Peninsula No-Military-Equipment Land-Belt. But you can just call it the “DMZ”.

“Peninsula” is interesting. The English word comes from the Latin paene (“almost”) + īnsula (“island”). In Asia, a peninsula is a bit less, just half in fact. 半島 (Mandarin bàndăo, Korean bando/반도, and Japanese hantō/はんとう) means “half-island”.

The North’s nonchalance towards total isolation comes from its founding father’s policy of “self-reliance”. Kim Il-sung called his philosophy 주체사상, juchesasang, (hanja 主體思想), meaning “self-reliant thought”. It’s usually shortened in English to its first two syllables juche.

Korean Central News Agency (KCNA)
The vitriolic rodomontade of the Kim dynasty is delivered to you by the hard-working cadres of the Korean Central News Agency, which continues into the 21st century the breezy, light touch and nuance of Pravda in its heyday. Its name in Korean is 조선중앙통신, romanized Joseon Jung’ang Tongsin. In hanja that’s 朝鮮中央通信, a literal translation of which would be Korea Central Communications. The characters for “communications” (通信) here mean “transmitting-trust”, and if we can all trust what the KCNA is broadcasting, we’re in trouble.

Korean People’s Army
If KCNA reports are to believed, Seoul, Washington, DC, and Austin, Texas will all soon be awash in radioactive fire thanks to the 조선인민군, Joseon Inmin’gun, or Korea People’s Army. In hanja, that’s 朝鮮人民軍.

The Appomattox of Korea, Panmunjom is written 판문점 in hangul. The more  modern romanized spelling would end in –jeom, but we still use the version current in ’53. In hanja, the name is written 板門店, which means board-gate-store.

Republic of Korea Army
On the south side of the DMZ is the 대한민국 육군, Daehanminguk Yuk-gun, or 大韓民國 陸軍, whose literal translation would be Great Korea People’s Country Land Force.

Sacred war
How an officially atheist state mounts a “sacred war” only makes sense in the linguistic logic of Pyongyang, but that’s what the North is threatening. The word is 성전, seongjeon, or 聖戰.

Sea of flames
The North’s standard go-to phrase for “we’re going to kick your ass” is a threat to turn your town into a 불바다, bulbada, from bul (fire, flames) + bada (sea). Call me crazy, but after I saw Park Chan-wook’s 2003 film Oldboy (올드보이, oldeuboi) where the protagonist (spoiler alert!) cuts out his own tongue with a pair of scissors, a clean death by incineration hasn’t fazed me much. The Chinese press translates “sea of flames” as 火的海. In Japanese, it’s 火の海.

South Korean puppets
Politicians of all persuasions enjoy swapping insults, but die-hard communists have never really pulled it off with much verve or hipness. When Khrushchev pounded the desk of the UN with his shoe, even his homies back in Moscow thought it was lame. The North doesn’t rely much on classic Marxist put-downs like “reactionary” or “bourgeois” anymore, but insults that remind us of Shari Lewis and Lambchop aren’t intimidating. The phrase is 남조선 괴뢰, namjeoson georeo, 南朝鮮傀儡 . Back in Mao’s day, the bon mot to call your imperialist enemy was 资本主义的走狗 (Trad. 資本主義的走狗) zībĕnzhŭyì de  zǒugǒu or “running dog of capitalism”.

US Imperialists
While our South Korean friends are “puppets”, citizens of the US are “US Imperialists”. This is an interesting little contraction. The North is using the word 미제, mije, where mi comes from the Chinese word for the US (美國), pronounced miguk in Korean. The –je is the first part of the word jeguk (帝國), which means “empire”. 帝國 in both Simplified characters and in Japanese 新字体 is 帝国. Frank Lloyd Wright’s magnum opus in Tokyo was the original Imperial Hotel, the 帝国ホテル (Teikoku Hoteru).

United States Forces Korea (USFK)
Opposite the Korean People’s Army (조선인민군) and alongside the ROK Army (대한민국 육군) is a force of about 28,000 US soldiers called the 주한 미군, Juhan Migun. That’s  駐韓美軍. Japanese speakers will recognize the first character 駐 from “parking lot” signs (駐車所), so the phrase sort of looks and feels like “American Soldiers Parked in Korea”.

Korean for Beginners

Don’t get stuck in a sea of flames without it.

Yālù River
The dividing line between North Korea and the PRC is the Yalu River. Yalu is the Chinese pronunciation of  鸭绿江 (Trad. 鴨綠江), which is duck + green + river, although the character here for “green” is used only for pronunciation.  In Korean, the hanja would match the Traditional Chinese, but now it’s written in hangul 압록강 and pronounced Amrok-gang. To the Japanese, it’s the Ōryokukō (おうりょくこう).

I want to thank our author Kyubyong Park for his help with this list, and my raffle prize this week is a copy of the excellent, best-selling introduction to Korean he penned with writing partner Hal Amen, titled Korean for Beginners. If you’d like to win this book and brush up on your Korean, click here to email me and write “Crisis” in the subject line. I’ll announce a winner next week.

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!