World’s most useful language (after English)?

16 Aug

If you could learn any language, what would it be? Right now, I’m wishing that in addition to my Spanish, Slovene, and meager Italian, I could handle German and Russian, and, well, also French. The 100th anniversary of World War I is approaching, and there will be many issues of scholarly journals dedicated to the study of the war and to the literary texts it helped spawn. If only I could successfully  navigate all the texts I want to read–many of which are not available in translation–in time!

For my literary studies, the languages I need to learn are clear. It will be a life-long effort, but I hope one day to at least be able to read in seven languages (English, Spanish, Slovene, & Italian down; French, German, & Russian to go).

But what language is most useful to learn? Aside from English–the current lingua franca and perhaps the most universally spoken second language in the world–the answer, according to Robert Lane Greene of The Economist, is French:

But if I was asked what foreign language is the most useful, and given no more parameters (where? for what purpose?), my answer would be French. Whatever you think of France, the language is much less limited than many people realise… This [Francophone] club, bringing together all the countries with a French-speaking heritage, has 56 members, almost a third of the world’s countries.

Even though Chinese is spoken as a first language by many, he contends that the writing system is too complicated to be a viable second language for the majority of the world’s population. He predicts that Chinese will remain useful but not universally vital, as Japanese was in past decades, and he makes the same predictions for Arabic and Spanish, which he deems too regionally concentrated. So, even though French is only 16th on the list of languages spoken by native speakers, it still might be your  best bet. (Too bad it’s #7 on my list of seven languages to learn…)

Greene argues for his position:

If your interests span the globe, and you’ve read this far, you already know the most useful global language [English]. But if you want another truly global language, there are surprisingly few candidates, and for me French is unquestionably top of the list. It can enhance your enjoyment of art, history, literature and food, while giving you an important tool in business and a useful one in diplomacy.

I’ve always felt lucky (and oddly enough, guilty) that almost anywhere I go, I can find a translation of something, or some who can speak, in my native language. (I’ve also found that my voice becomes softer and more hesitant in English in foreign countries, at times, as I genuinely feel badly if I don’t know the national language. I’d rather be floundering–but making some effort toward a foreign language–than resorting to English). According to a recent article in the Scientific American, even my most feeble efforts are useful, as we are less emotional–and better decision makers, sometimes–in our second, third, fourth, etc., languages.

…A foreign language feels less emotional than the mother tongue. Consider the case of taboo words. For many multilinguals, swearing in a foreign language doesn’t evoke the same anxiety (or bring the same emotional release) as using a native language.

The article, penned by Catherine Caldwell-Harris, brings up expressions of love as an example. Does te quiero or ljubim te or ti amo (the Spanish, Slovene, and Italian, respectively) evoke quite the same emotion in me as a simple I love you?

But maybe I should be considering je t’aime instead. French, I will learn you: in approximately 10 – 12 years, if my calculations are right.

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