The number of American students who learned a language other than English decreased by about 100,000 between 2009 and 2013, according to research by the Modern Language Association. For many, taking a class in economics might seem more beneficial than a French course. But is it really?
The Chinese dialects combined already have more native speakers than any other language, followed by Hindi and Urdu, which have the same linguistic origins in northern India. English comes next with 527 million native speakers. Arabic is spoken by nearly 100 million more native speakers than Spanish, which has 389 million speakers.
Which languages will dominate the future? Predictions vary, depending on your location and purpose.
You want to make money in growth markets? These will be your languages.
In a recent U.K.-focused report, the British Council identified more than 20 growth markets and their main languages. The 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.
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.
Of course, demographic developments are hard to predict. Moreover, the British Council only included today's growth markets, which says little about the growth potential of other nations that are still fairly small today. Also, Arabic and Chinese, for instance, have many dialects and local versions, which could make it harder for foreigners to communicate.
Despite all that, the chart above gives a broad look into which linguistic direction the business world is developing: away from Europe and North America, and more toward Asia and the Middle East.
You want to speak to as many people as possible? How about Chinese, Spanish or French?
1. Chinese. 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.
2. Spanish. 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.
3. French. French has lost grounds in some regions and especially in Europe in the last decades. French, however, could gain influence again if west Africa where it is frequently spoken were to become more politically stable and economically attractive.