Photo courtesy of Amazing Travel Photos
Dear Marco Polo:
I am an American thinking of traveling abroad and perhaps living there as an expatriate. I’ve traveled overseas before and noticed that many Europeans speak four or five different languages. I am English-only. I did take a foreign-language in high school, but it didn’t stick. Which foreign language should I study?
Monoglot from Brooklyn
Sadly, many Americans speak only one language, English, and even that not so well. Fortunately, for Americans, English is the lingua franca of the world. For example, air traffic control is all in English. And if a traveling Japanese and Chinese want to converse, it will most likely be in English. Or if someone from Brazil (Portugese) is visiting Germany (Duetsch), they will probably hope to find someone that speaks English.
But still, many people you meet speak no English, so knowing the local language is always useful. Besides, it is fun and rewarding to learn another language. So which language to choose?
First of all, you should decide where you will be traveling and living abroad. If you are going to be living permanently in one country, that will probably determine your language. It may even be a requirement to study the local language. For example, if you emmigrate to Germany, you must study and learn to speak German.
Next consider what language you studied in high school or college, which ought to give you a head start in studying a foreign language. Also, consider your interest in a particular culture. Learning their language will greatly increase your knowledge and understanding of that culture.
Finally, consider the total number of speakers of that language in the world. The more native speakers, the more people you can talk to. Native speakers include the native population an also the diasporo around the world. For instance, you’ll find a lot of Russian speakers in Brooklyn, New York and Polish speakers in Chicago.
Most European languages are in the Indo European language family. Several hundred related languages and dialects fall under this family. Three of the major classifications are Germanic, Slavic and Romance languages. (There are other classifications as well, like Celtic languages and Indo-Iranian.)
The most common languages studied by Americans during high school, French, Italian and Spanish, are Romance languages. These languages all trace their ancestry to Latin, the language of the Roman Empire and the Roman Catholic Church.
|Spanish||329||390||Spain, Mexico, much of South America, USA|
|French||68||120||France, much of Africa, Haiti|
As far as the total number of speakers, Spanish wins hands down out of the Romance languages with 390 million total speakers. Spanish is also useful right here in the good old USA with many Spanish speakers from Mexico, Central and South America. On the other hand, if you wanted to converse with Don Corleone, Sicilian may not be a bad choice.
It may surprise you that English is classified as a Germanic language. In fact, sometimes you can translate to German just by speaking English with a German accent! Das ist gut!
|English||328||–||USA, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand|
|German||90||118||Germany, Austria, Switzerland|
|Dutch||22||32||Netherlands, South Africa|
As far as the total number of speakers, the best Germanic language to study is German. Swedish, Danish and Norwegian have too few speakers to make it worth your while, unless you plan on emmigrating to one of those countries. As far as learning Yiddish goes, if you have a lot chutzpah, goyim need only learn a few Yiddish words for it to be effective. Don’t be a shlemiel or a shlimazel. Oy veh! (Short for Oy vey iz mir which means Oh woe is to me.
Slavic languages are a group of languages that are mostly spoken in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and parts of Asia. They are all derived from Old Slavonic. There are three main branches of the Slavic languages. Eastern Slavic languages include Russian, Ukrianian and Belarusian. Western Slavik languages include Polish, Czech and Slovak. Sourthern Slavic languages include Bulgarian and Macedonian in the east, and Serbo-Croatian and Slovenian in the west.
Eastern Slavic languages use the Cyrillic alphabet and Western Slavic languages use the Latin alphabet.
|Russian||114||250||Russia, Ukraine, former USSR States|
|Polish||40||–||Poland, Chicago, Greenpoint|
|Serbo-Croatian||16||–||Serbia, Croatia, former Yugoslavia|
As far as the total number of speakers, the best Slavic language to study is Russian with 250 million speakers. Polish and Ukrainian are second with about 40 million speakers. There are many older Russian speakers in most former communist countries of Eastern Europe because they had to learn Russian back then. Younger people rarely know Russian. But if you speak Russian in places, you may not get treated politely. I was once refused service at a restaurant in Krakow, Poland for asking to see the menu in Russian! Some animosity lingers.
There are plenty of other languages besides the Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages. But you would need to have a special interest to study some of these languages. A language like Hungarian would be useful in Hungary and Transylvania (western Romania) but of little use elsewhere.
|Korean||Korean||66||–||South Korea, North Korea|
Mandarin Chinese is the most popular language in the world. Hindustani and Arabic also have many speakers. But both China and India have many other languages as well.
Six Official Languages of the United Nations
There are six languages that the U.N. has selected as their official languages. An argument can certainly be made for learning one of the official U.N. languages.
|Chinese (Mandarin)||845||1025||northern and southwest China|
|Spanish||329||390||Spain, Mexico, south and central America|
|Russian||144||250||Russia, former USSR|
|French||68||120||France, former French colonies|
Of the Official U.N. languages, Mandarin Chinese has the most native and total speakers with over one billion total speakers. Spanish and English tie for second with probably up to half a million speakers each. Then Arabic (452 million), Russian (250 million) and French (120 million). English is probably the most common second language.
It would behoove every citizen of the world to know at least one of the official U.N. languages. You are already fluent in one, English. But it could not hurt to know more than one of the official languages.
Therefore, my recommendation is to make your choice for foreign language study from one of the official U.N. languages based on the part of the world you will be traveling to. If you are going to Asia, study Mandarin Chinese; if Central or South America, study Spanish. Headed to the Middle East? Study Arabic. If Eastern Europe or the former Soviet countries are your destination, study Russian. France or Africa? study French.