Written by S.M. Audsley

In Christianity -- or so the Biblical story goes -- the Tower of Babel was built by people to reach the heavens and, at that time, everyone spoke one common language, working in harmony together. God, looking down on the tower being built saw the people’s hubris and made them confused and unable to communicate with each other. Thus, according to Biblical myth, the many languages of the world were born. Other cultures and religions also explain why there are so many different languages in the world, but the fact of the matter remains: today there are so many different languages, it’s basically impossible to learn them all! However, if you love learning languages and developing skills to communicate with strangers across different cultural backgrounds, then there are a few vital languages you may want to consider as a course of study.

First, let’s discuss the overall benefits of language learning. “Language skills can be a significant competitive advantage that sets you apart from your monolingual peers. They are among the top eight skills required of all occupations -- no matter your sector or skill level -- and the demand for bilingual professionals is rising exponentially,” reports The American Council on Teaching Foreign Languages (ACTFL). ACTFL adds, “People who speak more than one language have improved memory, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, enhanced concentration, ability to multitask, and better listening skills.” 

Studies show being well-versed in more than one language can set you up for success both personally and professionally, especially in such a dynamic, fast-paced, multicultural world we live in. Adjunct faculty Leonardo De Valoes explains, “The impact of multilingualism can be traced to even more fields. A doctor who can communicate with his or her patient in their native tongue is much more likely to have success at diagnosing them. A scientist or engineer capable of explaining his findings and ideas to his peers will be able to expedite and perfect their work.[...] Any hiring manager in any company in the world would tell you that the ability to speak a foreign language is a prized commodity.”

Aside from giving you a leg up in the job market, studies now show that language learning can be helpful and healthy for your brain. Hannah Cleese, reporting for AskHealthNews.com, writes, “Learning more than one language boosts the size of brain areas. A separate brain region known as the hippocampus is known for being responsible for learning. This part was known to grow as a result of learning more languages according to a study.” Cleese adds, “the lobes of the brain responsible for making new memories are developed through multilingualism. This eventually increases the density of gray matter and also makes the cortical thick.” Also, learning a language can be great personally, making it easier to find new friends -- and even love.

For example, this story of American Vanessa and German Dennis. They were both studying abroad in London when they met at a party. On their first date, they realized the challenges speaking two different languages can create. Dennis could speak English quite well, but still made various grammatical errors, while Vanessa did not speak any German. "There were a lot of funny, sweet moments," Vanessa says. For example, on the date they met for a coffee and Dennis asked Vanessa if she wanted a "crap"...when in fact he meant to ask if she wanted a French crepe! As their semester abroad came to an end, they want to continue their relationship, so Vanessa decided to move to Germany -- and learn German. She now speaks the language proficiently, having done a master's degree in statistics and being able to communicate with Dennis' family in German, while the two are very happy in the country (not least because they can now avoid awkward food/bathroom miscommunications!).

So is becoming a polyglot in your future? Intrigued? Picking a foreign language can be hard -- they are all so fun and unique in their own special ways! Maybe you should ask yourself what are the most important languages to learn? Which ones interest you the most, and would also help you achieve your career goals? Here are five of the top languages you can study -- and why.

1. English – the most spoken language

There is no doubt that English is one of the most important languages to know today. Highly prevalent and influential internationally, English is the language that dominates the business world and global markets. If you’re not on board, you might not be able to advance very far in your career. Experts in analyzing trends, Medium.com, reports that “English is the most influential language of academia and the business world, occupying the top in the field of languages, and spoken by over three-quarters of the world’s population. It is used in 94 countries by 339 million native speakers.” The numbers keep making the point that English is an essential language -- it holds the “number one spot as the most commonly used language by 53% of websites and internet users with 949 million users,” according to Medium.com. 

If you are not a native English speaker but are considering looking for a way to improve yourself both personally and professionally, then perhaps you might want to consider studying English. Regardless of what field you want to work in, English will be helpful, and set you apart in the competitive job market.

2. Spanish – most widely spoken second language in the US

The demographics in the United States are showing that Spanish is the most widely spoken second language -- so it’s a no brainer to learn Spanish! More and more businesses and companies are recognizing that their employees, and clients alike, converse and utilize Spanish, and it is often preferred over English. This is precipitating a rise in bilingual signage, training manuals, and investment in hiring Spanish speakers. Tanisha Love Ramirez and Roque Planas, writing for Huffpost.com, found that, “A rising number of employers prefer individuals who can speak Spanish fluently. A 2013 survey of high level managers and executives conducted by Strategy + Business found that 96 percent of respondents thought language skills are either ‘very important’ or ‘somewhat important’ for professional success in the current business environment.”

Even prominent foreign language teaching company The Rosetta Stone lists Spanish as the third most useful foreign language to learn in the United States. Spanish is becoming an essential skill in the workplace. It will help you go further in your career. It is definitely a top language to consider -- Spanish isn’t going anywhere, that’s for sure! It’s actually going to continue to grow in ubiquity... 

3. French – second most learned language in the world

One of the “Old World” languages, French is still an essential language to know and speak fluently today. Numbers from New Zealand’s French Embassy reveal more than 220 million people speak French, across five continents. French is a major language of international communication. It is the second most widely learned language after English and the sixth most widely spoken language in the world. French is also the second most widely taught language after English, and is taught on every continent. 

Do you want to speak “the language of love” and whisper sweet-nothings into your sweetheart’s ear? Then, French is the language for you! Of course, the French government professes that “learning French is the pleasure of learning this beautiful, rich, melodious language. However, French is also an analytical language that structures thought and develops critical thinking, which is a valuable skill for discussions and negotiations.” Imagine strolling along the Seine and walking around Paris at night with the Eiffel Tower lit up and shining...all while conversing with your friends in fluent French! Maybe you’re in Woody Allen’s movie “Midnight in Paris,” … this dream could become reality! 

4. Mandarin – most native speakers

With the world’s fastest growing population, China has the largest native speaker population for any one language in the world -- Mandarin. One of the most challenging -- but also most rewarding -- Mandarin is a language that is a tonal language, meaning intonation, and the inflection of the same word (five different ways!) can mean five different things. A beginner Mandarin learner will study the Arabic letter transliteration of the five tones, but will also have to contend with writing and memorizing the Chinese characters, each representing a word. Boston University’s language department explains, “Chinese has a relatively uncomplicated grammar. Unlike French, German or English, Chinese has no verb conjugation (no need to memorize verb tenses!) and no noun declension (e.g., gender and number distinctions).”

Mandarin will give you a leg up in the business world and make you an overall more attractive candidate in many other fields. Predicting big things for China -- frankly, it would be advantageous for you to start learning Mandarin now -- Medium.com reports that because of “the enormous economic shift that China has gone through in the past three decades, from national trade to international trade ties and cross-border treaties to huge leaps in the field of science and technology. And if this trend continues, analysts predict that China will become the world’s leading economy by 2050.” Get ahead of the game and enroll in a Mandarin class today.

5. Arabic – second most spoken in the world

One of the most important languages, Arabic is the second most spoken in the world. Surprised? Let’s break down the numbers: Arabic is the official language of over 20 countries and there are well over 375 million native speakers of the language. These speakers are largely concentrated in the Middle East, but there are minority groups of native speakers throughout the world. It is also an official language of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference, and the African Union. Data from Warwick University supports how highly recommended studying Arabic is, particularly in our fast-paced, dynamic global economy. 

The demand for Arabic language speakers will only grow. In the past, Arabic hasn’t been students’ first choice, but that’s one of the many, many reasons you should consider it. Stand out from the pack! Be different and learn about another culture, language, and get a leg up on your career, all in the process. The American Councils for International Education explains, “Given that less than 1 percent of US college students study Arabic just 32,000 out of 21 million total students Arabic language skills will separate you from the crowd, no matter your professional field.” The Arabic script is read from right to left and is written in beautiful curling letters from an entirely different alphabet which, it could be argued, makes Roman letters look a little stale. Learning Arabic will be an adventure and like opening a door into another world. 

Every language offers something new and different to boost not only your brain power, but also your level of cultural competency, and the ability to communicate with others. And whichever you choose you won’t be making a misstep. Language learning has replaced the Tower of Babel with a vibrant web of interconnected voices that strive to hear each other. Find the language that helps you connect with others. You’ll likely find that it also improves both your personal and professional life along the way, too...

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