English is the universal language for most commerce and tourism. But once you have English down, which language gives you a competitive edge in business? Whether travel is a component of your job – or you want it to be – being bilingual puts you ahead of the curve.
Conversing in a foreign language helps you relate to international clients, colleagues, and partners. As you learn, you’ll read books, watch movies, and see cultural barriers disappear. When business is all about relationships, there’s no faster way to build trust and camaraderie than through language. So here’s are the most practical languages for business-minded learners.
Native speakers: 400 million+
Mexico is one of the US’s largest trading partners, and close to 30% of the US population is Hispanic. More than 40 countries globally use Spanish as their official language, or as a widely-spoken alternative. For all of these reasons, picking up Spanish can open international doors for your career.
In recent years, Spanish has been one of the most asked-for languages in US job postings. It is far and away the most useful language to speak in America, after English. Experts say it will continue to grow in importance, in order to facilitate communication with a growing number of native Spanish speakers in American companies.
If that isn’t enough to convince you, Spanish is also considered one of the easiest languages for native English speakers to learn (you probably even know more than one way to say "hello" in Spanish). With a similar alphabet and thousands of words with common origins, you already have a major head start!
Native speakers: 1 billion+
It’s the world’s most-spoken language, and China has the second-largest economy in the world. Many people learn Chinese because they want to learn the language of the future. As China grows into one of the world’s top economic powers, business transactions that involve Mandarin Chinese will only increase.
The silver lining of Mandarin being one of the most difficult languages to learn for English-speakers? It’s extremely impressive, once you get a handle on it. If you can learn Mandarin, you’re sure to stand apart for international hiring managers and prospective clients.
Native Speakers: 101+ million
While German isn’t one of the world’s most-spoken languages, it’s one of the most useful for business within Europe. As Europe’s largest economy, Germany leads several sectors in invention and innovation: automotive, pharmaceutical, and mobile, to name a few. It is the fourth largest economy in the world.
German and English both come from the same Germanic root, so as languages go, it’s one of the easiest for English-speakers to acquire. In wealthy, commerce-focused European countries like Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, and Austria, you'll find plenty of chances to use German.
Native speakers: 200 million+
Russian is one of the official languages of the United Nations. Russia is a political and economic powerhouse that in recent decades, has minted a significant portion of the world’s billionaires. Russia consistently ranks as one of the most important global trading partners for Eastern and Western countries. It is also a top global producer of oil and natural gas.
Unlike in other European countries, there are large swathes of Russia and former Soviet nations where English is not commonly-spoken or understood. If you plan to do business with these countries, it may be critical to understand Russian in order to travel and communicate effectively.
Native speakers: 420 million+
Arabic is the world’s fifth-most spoken language. Wealthy nations like Dubai count Arabic as their official native language. Governments, non-profits, and private corporations have seen an increased need for Arabic speakers within the past couple of decades. Across the Middle East and North Africa, knowing Arabic is critical in the construction and real estate industries. In addition, investments from the Arab world now power a critical portion of European and American markets.
Like Mandarin, Arabic is an extremely challenging language for native English speakers to learn. But that just means that once you become conversational, you'll stand apart from most other native English speakers.
Native speakers: 70 million+
French is the native language of more than 29 countries. It is the second-most spoken language within the European Union, and is one of the official languages of the UN. While French is no longer the dominant language globally that it used to be, many French-speaking countries prefer to do business exclusively with other French-speaking organizations.
Ready to test your skills in French, Russian, German, or another language? Take our free assessment to find out where you stand.