NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Americans are notorious for their lack of fluency in other languages. Decades of business dominance created a degree of hubris. But times, they are a-changing. 9-11 and the Chinese economy were wake up calls. Learning a foreign language is a necessity in today's globalized environment.
Bloomberg Rankings compiled a list of the foreign languages those who want to do business in the global economy should know -- noting that the findings differ from the top foreign languages being studied American college students.
According to Bloomberg, Mandarin Chinese is the most useful language for business (excluding English). It is spoken by more than 800 million people, and China is the world's second-largest economy.
French came in number two. Arabic was listed number three. Spanish ranked number four, followed by Russian at fifth, Portuguese at sixth, Japanese at seventh, German at eight, Italian at ninth and Korean at ten.
American college students, on the other hand, favor studying Spanish, followed by French and German. Surprisingly, American Sign Language was the fourth most popular. Italian was number five. Japanese, which did not make it on Bloomberg's list at all, was sixth. Chinese was seventh, Arabic eighth, Latin nine and Russian tenth.
So which is correct -- studying based on its lucrative potential or personal interest? Determining the importance of a language is a little subjective. Dutch sociologist Abraam de Swaan classified languages in a system based on their large scale social utility. Essentially, he calculated how some languages facilitated links to other languages.
He called "supercentral languages" those that are widely spoken and can serve as links to other languages. He said Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi, Japanese, Malay, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Swahili were those.
By the way, the "hypercentral" language, the one that bonds the supercentral languages, is English. Anyone who has traveled overseas knows this.
So while Chinese may be spoken by more people than any other geographically, it is not widespread. It is only spoken in China, Singapore and Taiwan.
But,then again, these three are economic powerhouses. So it might be very useful for an American business school student to consider learning.
Dean Baim, chairman of the undergraduate business program at Pepperdine University, had his own opinion.
"Just sort of projecting where markets would be in the future, Chinese, Spanish, Korean, Arabic, would be useful," he said. "As far as German and French is concerned I am not sure. A lot of that will depend on how successful the European community becomes."
He explained Italy's representation among the Bloomberg rankings.
"There is a small but growing manufacturing sector in Italy," he said.
But he thinks the French language's presence on the list is an artifact from the time when France was a colonial power. He did acknowledge that it is widely spoken. But he said it is a major diplomatic language, not a business one.
Baim was also not impressed with the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries. Speaking those languages fluently may not be a guarantee of success in the business world he said.
"Russian, for example, may be more useful for diplomacy given the current climate," Baim quipped. "If energy producers lose their leverage, I am not sure what kind of influence Russia will have."
He also noted that Japanese, Chinese and Korean are very different in relation to one another -- more so than European languages are.
"If you know Japanese, it will not help you one bit when you get to China," he said.
Whatever the experts recommend, it seems that any fluency in a foreign language an American business student attains will be a resume enhancer given the dearth of foreign language speakers in America.
--Written by Michael P. Tremoglie for MainStreet