A New Survey Identifies the Most Successful Tongues

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Wéi, nĭ hăo, hallo, nihongo, ¡hola, bonjour, salut, dumela mma/rra, salaam aleikum, teanastellen, habari, jambo: how do you say hello? Depending on your family’s, spouse’s or children’s origin, where you live, and work dictates the proper way to greet someone formally or informally.

More importantly, how do you ask for a raise? In Spanish, it’s “Me gustaría tener un aumento de sueldo”. The problem is that your native tongue may not be among the world’s most commonly studied languages. And it may not be the preferred language in terms of career development or growth.

So what languages are more transferable than others? What makes a language essential in the international workplace? Is it the most widely spoken language or the one that has the best capacity to be translated? According to a new study, languages differ immensely in global prominence because of “historical, demographic, political, and technological forces”.

The following is an in-depth overview of which tongue is more valuable than others.

The Best Languages

In schools around the world, most children are taught English. In the U.S., however, most children are taught French or Spanish. (Note: I learned French in middle school; and it has been utterly useless.) According to a survey by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, languages like Mandarin, Japanese, and Arabic are increasingly being offered in U.S. high schools. Marty Abbott, the council’s director of education, told US News that relatively few American students study Chinese.

“Ten years ago, you would have found Chinese primarily on the West and East Coasts,” Abbott added. “We’re seeing [increases] happening in urban, suburban, and rural areas. We’re seeing increases in most states.”

The three-year survey that examined current U.S. foreign language enrollment, also found that over 70 percent of all U.S. public school students selected Spanish, while another 15 percent enrolled in French; but enrollment in Chinese nearly tripled between the 2004-05 school year and the 2007-08 school year, from a little over 20,000 to over 59,000. Enrollment in Japanese classes increased 17 percent; and remained the fifth most taught language, after Spanish, French, German, and Latin, according to the survey. So what’s the best language? Well, that depends on whom you want to influence.

“Speak or write in English, and the world will hear you,” said Michael Erard, a Science Magazine contributor. “Speak or write in Tamil or Portuguese, and you may have a harder time getting your message out.”

Erard discussed a new language study, “Listening to What the World Says: Bilingualism and Earnings in the United States,” that shows how information streams across the globe. It also shows “the best languages to spread ideas far and wide,” says Erard. The study, a joint project by Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, Northeastern University, and Aix-Marseille University, started by proving an overview of three worldwide language networks based on bilingual tweets, book translations, and multilingual Wikipedia edits.

“For example, the Hebrew book, translated from Hebrew into English and German, would be represented in lines pointing from a node of Hebrew to nodes of English and German,” said Erard. “That network is based on 2.2 million translations of printed books published in more than 1000 languages.”

As in all of the networks, the thickness of the lines symbolizes the amount of connections between nodes, Erard added. On Twitter, the authors of the study used over 500 million tweets by 17 million users in over 70 languages. So if a user posts a tweet in Hindi as well as in English, the two languages are connected.

“The network maps show what is already widely known: If you want to get your ideas out, you can reach a lot of people through the English language, “said Erard. “But the maps also show how speakers in disparate languages benefit from being indirectly linked through hub languages large and small.”

The authors of the study submitted their findings to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It shows that on all three networks, English has the most transmissions to and from other languages and is the most central hub. So what are the most diverse languages?

The Most Diverse Languages

Not all continents are uniform in terms of the amount of spoken languages, says The Washington Post. The Washington Post’s contributor, Rick Noack, and graphic editor Lazaro Gamio joined forces to develop seven maps and charts that will help you determine the different parts of the world in terms of spoken languages.

Asia is the frontrunner when it comes to the most languages with over 2,300 spoken. Africa trails closely behind with over 2,130 spoken languages. In the Pacific, there are approximately 1,300 languages, and in South and North America, there are about 1,064, according to The Washington Post. But the least amount of spoken languages can be found in Europe with only 286.

“If you randomly select two people in Cameroon, for instance, there is a 97 percent likelihood that they will have different mother tongues,” Noack added. “In the United States, there is only a 33 percent likelihood that this is going to happen.”

In other words, some language skills are more beneficial to career growth than others. If you are able to perfect German, you could earn over $120,000 more throughout your career, according to the language study as reported in The Washington Post.

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With this very informative statistic, there’s no doubt that you will be motivated to say, “Hallo” in German if you wish to help your career growth.

However, as already noted it is important to know English in order to communicate with the widest audience.

What languages do you know? Have they helped you advance your career or earn more money?

Quiz: Which foreign language should you learn?
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