The 10 Most Useful Languages for The Global Marketplace


Most Useful Languages

The world is a big place and there’s way more languages about than you can hope to learn.

So how do you decide what to start with?

Sometimes you fall in love with a language; something about it just eats into your bones and buries itself deep inside you.

For some, though, which language to add to their bow can be a much more calculated and logical decision.

If that sounds like you, then keep on reading.

In this Idyoma article, Pauline Farris is looking at which languages are most useful in the global marketplace, for business and travel.

It’s a small world after all

In 1964, Disney featured a ride at the New York World’s Fair. That ride was titled, “It’s a Small World,” and a singing group, the Sherman Brothers, wrote a song of the same title to be played during the ride. Visitors got into boats and traveled through scenes of children from all over the world, animated and in native dress.

That was 1964, and the world was really not such a small place. Certainly, there was international trade and travel, but businesses remained headquartered in their native countries.

The world has indeed become “small,” as the song stated. Today, international business is as commonplace as white bread. Consider just the following:

  • American retail enterprises have factories all over the world that produce their products (e.g. Nike in China)

  • American car manufacturers have plants in several foreign countries, and Japan has assembly plants in the U.S.

  • Consumers use Internet shopping to purchase products from all over the planet. And companies that want to reach foreign consumer markets must market their products and services in those markets.

  • Large enterprises have staff placed in strategic locations/offices ion countries in which they have business interests.

  • Companies are involved in importing and exporting raw materials and products among any number of nations and must communicate and collaborate with suppliers, customers, and partners in those other countries.

  • Job seekers often look for positions in foreign countries and then take up residency or even apply for citizenship in those countries.

With all of these international associations and the need for clear and understandable communication, language obviously becomes a critical factor in business success.

With that in mind, it might be important to take a look at the most important languages that will dominate international business now and in the near future.

Our list of the most useful languages:

  1. Mandarin

  2. Russian

  3. German

  4. Hindi

  5. Arabic

  6. Spanish

  7. Japanese

  8. Portuguese

  9. French

  10. Korean

Most useful languages: 1. Mandarin

While there are many variations of the Chinese language, Mandarin is the most widely spoken (about a billion speakers).

And here is the important thing to remember about China: It has the second-largest economy in the world. Predictions are that it will surpass that of the U.S. in the not too distant future.

The Chinese have expanded their business reach throughout the world, and it will be a rare country that does not feel that reach.

Learning Mandarin would be a wise choice for those who wish to work within the Chinese market place. And as pointed out by The Word Point, a major translation agency, the demand for Chinese translators is growing at a far more rapid rate than for other language experts.

Many companies are now hiring full-time Chinese businessmen and women in key positions, in order to have a better and more productive relationship with Chinese companies with which they do or intend to do business.

The challenge, of course, is that Mandarin is one of the hardest languages to learn for those who are native to the romance languages. On the other hand, Western business-people who are able to speak it will certainly impress their Chinese counterparts.

Most useful languages: 2. Russian

Russia, and its earlier counterpart, The Soviet Union, has wielded great political and economic power throughout the world for a long time. And as the world’s largest producer of oil, it is a force to be reckoned with.

Beyond oil, Russia has economic and political interests all over the world and has business relationships with many major Western enterprises.

It is estimated that about 260 million people in the world speak Russian, including many in countries that became independent when the Soviet Union was broken up. And within these former parts of the Soviet Union (mainly Eastern Europe), there are a large number of business opportunities in the engineering and IT industries.

Russia is also a major market for the U.S. and other Western countries’ goods. Because trade and business dealings will only increase with Russia and other Russian-speaking countries, having good translators or key staff who are fluent in the language is important.

It is another language that is very challenging to learn.

Most useful languages: 3. German

This is, without doubt, a major language of business in Western Europe. Unlike American students, most who grow up in European schools learn a few languages. While English is certainly one of them, German is as well.

Germany also enjoys the best and largest economy among European nations, and it looks as if it will remain in that position for years to come. Any company that is or has plans to enter the German and, indeed, the European market would do well to have its own people fluent in the language. On the other hand, German is not that difficult a language to learn.

Most useful languages: 4. Hindi

If you’re based in America, it is probable that you do not know one student who is studying Hindi, or a high school that is offering it.

Hindi is now the fourth most spoken language in the world, a result of the huge and growing population in India.

While it is still considered a “developing” nation, it is still considered one of the world’s fastest developing economies, and recently surpassed the United Kingdom and France in terms of raw GDP. The numbers of young people earning degrees and entering the global workforce are rapidly growing, and these will be the business leaders of the near future in the country.

Learning Hindi is one thing. Understanding the cultural segments and nuances is quite another. For this reason, companies that do business in India will need not just fluent Hindi speakers but, as well, natives to the culture.

Most useful languages: 5. Arabic

With about 300 million speakers of this language, spanning 27 countries, this language is an obviously important one.

There are plenty of areas in which the U.S. and other Western enterprises have major holdings, business interests, and collaborations across the Middle East and, as such, there are many opportunities for native English speakers to work in the area.

Equally many wealthy Arabic-speaking businessmen have holdings and business interests in Western countries; buying up real estate and investing in major Western corporations.

The Middle East has become a major importer of Western goods as well. As those populations get younger and more modern, and as some of the more traditional cultural standards are being relaxed, the demand is increasing exponentially.

While Arabic is a difficult language with many dialects, companies who do business or who wish to do business either with Arabic language-based businesses or consumers, are well-advised to get great intermediaries or employ Arabic-speaking natives, if they intend to collaborate and/or market effectively.

Most useful languages: 6. Spanish

Not only is the Spanish-speaking population of Latin America growing, but increasingly Spanish-speaking consumers and businesses are moving throughout the Americas.

This language is so prolific in the United States, for example, that now most phone calls taken by American businesses provide the option for English or Spanish.

And there is an increasing Spanish-speaking population throughout Europe as well. Some predict that Spanish-speakers will make up a full 30% of the U.S. population by 2050, and it is currently the official language of some 20 countries.

The business potential in Central and South America has long been realized by any number of American and other Western businesses. It has been an area for manufacturing of goods sold by American companies. But as Latin America continues to develop, there are far more collaborative business opportunities on the horizon.

And Spanish is such an easy language to learn, for those whose native languages are romance. It just makes sense for business leaders to take the time to learn the language, or, barring that, employ a strong staff of native speakers.

If you want to read more on learning Spanish you can read our articles:

Most useful languages: 7. Japanese

Japan continues to be a key player on the international business stage.

Its prowess in the electronics and gaming sectors are almost unmatchable. But more recently, robotics has become a major economic sector. And given that robotics is virtually impacting every major industry worldwide, being a leader in this niche puts Japan at the top for international business. Wikipedia says that Japan currently employs well over a quarter of a million robotics workers and that figure is expected to rise to well over a million by 2025, with revenues upwards to $70 billion.

Japan is one of the world’s largest economies and though Abenomics has come under strain post-crash, the economy continues to increase in productivity and grow in size. Japan are a major world player and their cultural impact globally has increased significantly in recent decades.

While many Japanese business leaders do speak English to some extent, companies would do well to employ Japanese-speaking pros on their teams. It’s a difficult language to learn, but a very popular one at the moment as a surge of Western youth take up the challenge.

Most useful languages: 8. Portuguese

Most people think of Portuguese as a language spoken only in Portugal and Brazil.

Actually, there are about 250 million native speakers in these two countries, and it is the official language in seven more.

But by far the most opportune area of international business is in Brazil, with its population closing in on about 225 million alone. And because over 60% of Brazilians are under 30 and increasingly educated and establishing and/or taking over businesses, the potential for investments, collaborations, and partnerships with foreign enterprises is significant.

Given that Brazil is now by certain metrics the 7th largest economy in the world, a source for significant raw materials, as well as a country coming into its own in industrial sectors, it will greatly help foreign companies to be prepared to deal in the language.

Portuguese is very close to Spanish and is not a difficult language to learn, but getting native-speakers on board now will enhance a company’s ability to get a foothold in this growing economy.

Most useful languages: 9. French

At one point, French was considered the international language of business, but that time has long since passed.

Still, given its colonial history, French is spoken all over the world, on every continent. It is second only to German within the European mainland languages. In all, there are about 350 million French speakers throughout the world, and many businesses, especially in Africa, the Mediterranean and the former Indochina prefer to use it.

As a romance language, French is not terribly difficult for English-speakers to learn, and it is taught throughout high schools and colleges in the English-speaking world. Any business hoping to move into markets that are heavily French-speaking would be advised to get some French-speakers in key positions.

Most useful languages: 10. Korean

The Kia and the Hyundai – both manufactured in Korea. Samsung – another multinational enterprise based in Korea. Within the technology and automobile sectors, Korea is a major player. And it is continually seeking collaborations and partnerships with enterprises all over the world – as distributors, assemblers, etc.

The need for business cooperation between South Korea and enterprises in other countries is significant. And Korean cultural mores demand a personal relationship with any business partners. Having Korean-speaking natives on your team will go a long way to establishing those trustful relationships that are such a priority.

It doesn’t have as many Western learners as Japanese or Chinese languages, but interest is higher now than at any point before.

Isn’t English the most useful language?

While English is still the most widely-used language of business in large parts of the world (there are well over 300 million people who speak English as either their native or second language), things are evolving.

The good news is that businesses will be able to find English-speakers in almost any country into which they wish to expand. But speaking only English can result in disadvantages too. There are cultural relationships to build too, and having speakers of the target business language can break down lots of barriers.

English is incredibly useful and that bodes well for those of us who are native speakers, but we have a great deal to gain from being able to effectively communicate in another major world language.

The global marketplace is becoming increasingly competitive. Businesses that want to move or continue to move into foreign markets would do well to provide some manner to communicate with businesses in their native languages. It breaks the ice, fosters better relationships, and indicates that those organizations are valuable and respected.

What languages do you believe are most valuable in the global marketplace? What’s your plan for learning them? Let us know in the comments below!

This guest post was from Pauline Farris. Pauline speaks Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italian. She travelled the world to immerse herself in new cultures and learn languages. Today she is proud to be a voting member of the American Translators Association and an active participant of the Leadership Council of its Portuguese Language Division.