Want to Learn a Foreign Language?

Want to learn a foreign language?

Great!

But before selecting which language you would like to invest your time, effort and perhaps your money in and -- unless you have a specific reason for wanting to learn, say Saramaccan* or Papiamento** -- you may want to ask yourself, "For what purpose do I want to learn a new language?"

At least that is part of the advice in a great article by Rick Noack in the Washington Post a few days ago.

But first -- whether you are fluent in English or Spanish, or both -- you should be commended, first, for wanting to learn another language since, as Noack points out, English and Spanish are already amongst the most widely spoken languages on the planet and, second, because there is a decreasing interest in learning another language -- at least among American students.

Noack says that, according to research by the Modern Language Association, the number of American students who learned a language other than English "decreased by about 100,000 between 2009 and 2013."

OK, now that we have the kudos out of the way let's look at some good -- or perhaps not so good -- reasons to want to learn a specific language, after one important statistic:

In one of several outstanding charts and graphs, Noack points out that of the 7.2 billion people on earth, nearly two-thirds speak one of 12 languages as their native language.

Chinese (with all its dialects) comes in first with 1.39 billion speakers. Surprising to me, Hindi-Urdu is second at 588 million, English third with 527 million, Arabic fourth with 467 million speakers and Spanish fifth with 389 million speakers.

Bengali and Russian round out the top seven, with Portuguese, German, Japanese, French and Italian trailing in that order -- Italian at the bottom of the "top 12" with 67 million speakers.

Now to some of the reasons for wanting to learn a new language.

If you want to make money in growth markets, a U.K focused report "features languages spoken in the so-called BRIC countries -- Brazil, Russia, India, China -- that are usually perceived as the world's biggest emerging economies, as well as more niche growth markets..." Noack adds, "Spanish and Arabic score particularly highly on this indicator."

However, when one takes into account demographic trends until 2050 as laid out by the United Nations, the result is very different, says Noack:

Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and Indonesian will dominate much of the business world by 2050, followed by Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic and Russian. If you want to get the most money out of your language course, studying one of the languages listed above is probably a safe bet.

"Despite all that" (which includes the fact that some languages have many dialects and local versions, making it harder for foreigners to communicate), Noack point out that the linguistic direction the business world is moving in is "away from Europe and North America, and more toward Asia and the Middle East."

You want to speak to as many people as possible? Why not learn one of the three most spoken languages in the world?

Well, yes, Chinese would be one of them. However, German linguistic expert Ulrich Ammon cautions, "Although Chinese has three times more native speakers than English, it's still not as evenly spread over the world...Moreover, Chinese is only rarely used in sciences and difficult to read and write."

The other two? No, not Hindi, Urdu or Arabic.

Ammon recommends Spanish and French.

Ammon explains, "Spanish makes up for a lack of native speakers -- compared with China -- by being particularly popular as a second language, taught in schools around the world."

What if the purpose of learning another language is that you want to visit as many countries as possible?

Well, you are in luck. English is spoken in the most countries: 101 in total. Arabic, French, Chinese and Spanish are next. "But a word of caution: In many nations, a language might be spoken by some, but mastered by few," says Noack.

What if you are interested in learning another language for cultural reasons, such as for reading foreign language books?

It gets a little complicated.

Noack introduces the concept of "hub languages" and -- through the use of some fascinating, seemingly complex graphs -- explains how a book published in a smaller language, will usually be translated into a hub language and how those hub languages are especially significant culturally.

Noack traces, as an example, books in Azerbaijani that will nearly always be translated into its connecting hub language, Russian. From Russian, the books "will most likely be translated into English -- which is the world's premier hub language for written publications."

Other significant hub languages are French "as well as other European languages, such as Italian, German or Dutch."

Being partial to Dutch -- and partially Dutch -- the inclusion of "little" Dutch as a significant hub language got my interest.

For Dutch is only spoken by approximately 23 million people, including Flemish in Belgium and Dutch or Dutch derivatives in some of the former Dutch colonies.

That Dutch is a significant hub language speaks volumes for the historical importance and cultural influence of this very small country.

Still, the fact remains that Dutch is only spoken in very few places by very few people.

Thus, if one were to ask a Dutch man or woman why he or she would want to learn a foreign language, the answer is obvious.

Perhaps less obvious is the fact that approximately 90% of Dutch people speak English, 70% German and 25% French. (Estimates vary)

Of course there are many other very valid reasons for learning a foreign language, not the least perhaps having the peace of mind that your better half will not be able to understand you when you talk in your sleep.

Notes: • *Saramaccan, although connected to the Dutch hub language in one of the author's charts, is a Creole language spoken in Suriname, a former Dutch colony, and is based on English (50%) and Portuguese (35%) but contains some Dutch vocabulary.

• **Papiamento (also Papiamentu) is a delightful language derived mainly from Portuguese, Dutch, Spanish, and West African languages. I could not find it in the author's "bubble charts." Perhaps someone with better eyes can.

• Rick Noack writes about foreign affairs and is based in Europe.