What is the most useful language to learn besides English?

I’d definitely say Spanish, just because all the European people speak English. There are a lot of job opportunities for Spanish/English bilingual people now, and they aren’t going anywhere (as opposed to trying to “time the market” by learning Japanese in the 80’s or Chinese now.)

I’d also suggest Spanish as the common-sense alternatives are frankly hard. That means most people are more likely to stick with Spanish and become somewhat fluent. Otherwise I’d say Chinese, Arabic, or the rising star Hindi. (Stumbling blocks include the problem that Mandarin and Hindi will not take you everywhere, or even most places, in those countries.) So for most utility Arabic may be the way to go.

The problem with Mandarin is several-fold. The first off is that it is hard. I’ve known only a handful of foreigners who are truly fluent. And next to none who could, say, draft a piece of business correspondence. Hell, I know few who could write a grocery list. So to get to a useful level, it’s going to take years of work.

Another is that China is pumping out millions of English majors, all clamoring for employment. I live in China, and in my professional life I rarely speak Chinese because everyone I interact with at work is basically fluent in English. It hasn’t hit people outside of the most educated classes yet. But that doesn’t matter. Even a small percentage of Chinese people is a ton of people. There is going to be a glut of bilingual people coming to age soon, and they are going to command a lot lower salary than you can.

Learning Japanese wasn’t a terrible move or anything. But it’s more useful in some fields than others. And more relevantly, it wouldn’t be that useful for the people who simply learned it as a career move. An interest in Japanese culture is also a big part of it and you’d be screwed if you had no real interest in Japan.

But that is the point - there is more value as a US citizen looking for a career that will last understanding cultural nuances along with some language skills, as opposed to relying purely on language skills.

Trust me, translators make 8 cents a word for the most part if they are lucky. I love and respect translators for what they do, but they are modern age sweatshop workers of the first degree.

As I said earlier, becoming fluent in a language is not the path to an international career. Even Sven seems to be a good example of that.

And yes, the amount of trade between US and Japan is probably larger than any 2 countries in the world, even today. That is unlikely to change significantly in our lifetimes. Why wouldn’t becoming a Japanese specialist be a good idea if you want a long-lasting career again?

Huh? Is there a shortage of work or something? If you can do 5,000 words a day - which doesn’t seem hard at all - you’re making 6 figures.

That’s my only point. Learn something that interests you.

And, uh, I think my career is sufficiently international!

C++ ain’t bad.

Well, actually trade between the US and Canada is larger than that between the US and Japan. From the US Department of Commerce:

Emphasis added.

I like the answer that a poster gave above: the most important language is the client’s language. If your client speaks French, learn French. If your client speaks Japanese, learn Japanese. It seems to me that it’s not very helpful to learn, say, German if you’re always going to be dealing with Spanish-speakers.


I’m serious. As much as I hate to admit it, it really does improve your vocabulary and use of grammar. If you study it long enough to read Cicero, you get the perfect blueprint for speech-writing. Certain sentence structures are still widely used in lyrics to popular music, too.

(If you study it long enough, you learn to be very, very vulgar in it; that’s kind of fun.)

Ummm, wow, just noticed this. We also trade more with China and Mexico than we do with Japan, and those relationships are likely to get stronger in the foreseeable future.

Yes - you are generally working though 2-5 layers of wholesalers and you bid against all the other translators. There are no predefined quality standards by which to market yourself. After the wholesalers are done with the 8 cents, you will be lucky to see 2 depending on the language. Quality control, marketing, continuing education, and so on are going to be up to you. Oh and good luck collecting your bill from someone you never met halfway around the world.

Trust me, it sucks to be a run-of-the-mill translator, there are few jobs lower on the totem pole of their respective processes.

I don’t know enough about your career to say it matches the OP’s requirements, or that it is achievable for the OP in any case.

But I am intrigued enough by the outline to wonder what it is…
As an example of “you never know”, I once met a young woman (late 20s perhaps) who had risen from some generic administration function at Cisco to participate in managing their counter-piracy efforts in China. due to her age, her gender, and her race (white), no amount of language skills would have made her useful in the actual detective work she was overseeing from HQ.

Manage anti-piracy efforts for a US HQ? There is an international career with a future, language skills or not!

Hmm maybe.

But if you go all in on your preparations, you will be a citizen of the world and could work anywhere. I’d guess (and maybe I did above) that Japan has both a more varied, and more predictable, import/export economy, and also has much more going on closer to the cutting edge. Same for the US.

Maybe one could aim to become a mogul in produce imports from Mexico due to your superb Spanish skills for a career, but I doubt much if any Spanish is necessary, and you will have to find an in, and rise through the ranks in such an established industry anyway.

But in emerging economies, and with emerging tech, you can invent and reinvent yourself as needed over the course of a career. Something to consider.

Well, I am a Peace Corps volunteer teaching in China. I spent the last two years teaching in Cameroon. I speak French, a smattering of Fulfulde, and am making progress on my Sichuan Dialect Chinese. Nothing I could have done could have ever prepared me for where my life has ended up, and there is no real telling what I’ll need to know in the future.

Regarding Arabic - most Muslims can’t speak Arabic. The majority are non-Arab, and even though many can read the Koran, they don’t understand what it says.

Regarding Hindi - almost every educated Indian speaks English anyway.

Wow, that’s weird, somewhat disturbing, and not at all surprising at the same time.

I was gonna say . . . I don’t know this for sure (but I’m guessing someone else, oh, the very next poster, will know), but it seems like English might be more widely understood in India than Hindi is, considering all the different Indian languages.

I have many Muslim friends, and my sister in law is Muslim. Almost none of them can speak Arabic. The lack of Arabic knowledge is often used by people to corrupt the meaning of the Koran.

As for Hindi - there are parts of India which are very anti-Hindi for political and/or cultural reasons. If I meet an Indian person (my parents were from India) I always speak to them in English. English is all over India.

As an aside - how many Jews speak Hebrew? How many Christians speak Greek or Aramaic? Not many right…? Similar situation for Muslims.

The thing with Arabic is that the Arabic that is spoken differs hugely from place to place and it is also hugely different from the Arabic that is in the Koran. While learning English will allow to speak to most if not all people in pretty much all the anglophone countries, learning standard Arabic does not guarantee that you can actually speak to people living between Morocco and Yemen. This phenomenon creates big problems in a lot of these countries: the kids spend a lot of time learning ancient Arabic which is of no use to them in their daily lives other than for religious purposes. At the same time their command of the language they actually speak is not increased by going to school the way it is for English speaking people. Toss in that in some cases (Morocco, for instance) a whole lot of people speak French in addition to Arabic (again: poorly) and it becomes obvious that actually learning to speak and write their own language can be quite a hassle for Arabic speaking people.

Yeah, but they can read the Torah or the Bible in whatever language they speak. Isn’t the Koran only supposed to be read by Muslims in Arabic?

I don’t have a cite for this, but I had thought it was something to do with the caste system, English being less reviled by the more populous lower castes than Hindi. Can’t remember where I read it and if it’s wrong, I’d appreciate being taken to task over it :slight_smile:

Jokes aside, if you are an american or brazilian your best choice is spanish; for the rest of the world, english.
If you happen to live in Latin America you should know portuguese and spanish.