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Welcome to the David Victor Vector blog. This is blog that covers religious observances around the world international affairs and global business. This blog describes religious holidays for most major religions as well as raising issues dealing with globalization, international business ethics, cross-cultural business communication and political events affecting business in an integrated world economy. I look forward your discussion and commentary on these articles and subjects. Enjoy!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Which is the Best Language to Learn?"

"Which is the Best Language to Learn?"  In business, if the team on the other side of the table knows your language but you don’t know theirs, they almost certainly know more about you and your company than you do about them and theirs—a bad position to negotiate from. Many investors in China have made fatally stupid decisions about companies they could not understand. Diplomacy, war-waging and intelligence work are all weakened by a lack of capable linguists. Virtually any career, public or private, is given a boost with knowledge of a foreign language.

That is the question posed in the title of Robert Lane Greene recently posted an article in March/April 2012 issue of The Economist's More Intelligent Life online culture and lifestyle ezine  (http://moreintelligentlife.com/).  Greene himself is the author of You Are What You Speak (Delacorte Press: 2011), a fun little book on language usage.

Greene's short article "Which is the Best Language to Learn?" is a fun read raises a few good points about language learning in the English-speaker world.  You can read the article at:

Greene gives the usual compelling reasons for learning another language. The first reason he cites is that  
learning any foreign language helps you understand all language better—many  Anglophones first encounter the words “past participle” not in an English class, but in French.
Well, for me, this was in Latin class, but the point holds true regardless of the language.
Greene goes on to say that song lyrics and poetry lose much in translation. Song lyrics seems the more popular motivator (at least, for most people that I know, when compared to poetry). When someone is in his or her teens or twenties, knowing song lyrics is a driving force. This is good for learning English as a second language as much of the world's popular music continues to be in English. I know several people who speak at least in part in English popular song lyrics. When people of my generation who grew up in Germany or France here the word "yesterday" with a pause, they often seem tempted fill in "all my troubles seemed so far away" and so on.

Actually, this can work for English speakers as well. I have trouble hearing the French third person present verb "repose" without hearing in my head "Marilou repose sous le neige" from Serge Gainsbourg. I associate other phrases with Jacques Brel songs and so on.

Alexander Pushkin
As for poetry... well, I love poetry myself, yet I don't know for how many poetry provides the impetus to learn another language. Nonetheless, it was poetry far more than song lyrics that was a motivator for me to at least get a passable reading ability in several languages. I have never mastered Russian, yet virtually every Russian I have met (even those without higher education) seems to love Pushkin.
Joseph Brodsky

 Back in my college days, I had the great honor of sharing meals on several occasions with one of the greatest Russian poets of the last century, the late Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky.  When Brodsky began to wax eloquent on Pushkin, I shrugged and made a face. Let me say here that at the time my arrogance  (still a monster I must fight to keep in check today, and sadly not always successfully)  was beyond bearing. Even now, when I think back on the gall I had to smirk at what someone on Brodsky's level had to say about poetry at all, let alone RUSSIAN poetry, I am deeply embarassed.... but not then! When the great man glared at me and asked how I dared to denigrate a poet like Pushkin, I told him honestly that  I had read four different translations of selected works by Pushkin, none of which seem to did much for me. "That," Brodsky said with a thump on the table, "is because Pushkin is not Pushkin in any language but Russian." I then asked him whether that meant that poetry could not be read in translation at all... after all, Brodsky himself was one of the century's greatest translators of English into Russian. Brodsky answered that some poets could not be read apart from their own language, most poets could be experienced in another language in the hands of the right translator, and some poets work seemed to transcend translation. In the latter category, he suggested fell the Greek poet C. P. Cavafy. "Cavafy," he said, "was an empty pedestal." He did not go on to explain what that meant but it has been a metaphor that I have carried with me for decades. By the way, I don't speak Greek, but I DO love Cavafy's poetry in translation. I especially like the 1975 translation by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard that I bought and read after this memorable dinner.
In any case, for me at least, song lyrics and poetry WERE motivators just as Greene described.  I would add to that list of the literary and popular the realm of movies, humor and jokes as well.

Greene's last point is actually at the heart of the field to which I have dedicated my professional life: international business communication. Greene writes:
In business, if the team on the other side of the table knows your language but you don’t know theirs, they almost certainly know more about you and your company than you do about them and theirs—a bad position to negotiate from. Many investors in China have made fatally stupid decisions about companies they could not understand. Diplomacy, war-waging and intelligence work are all weakened by a lack of capable linguists. Virtually any career, public or private, is given a boost with knowledge of a foreign language.
A bit simplistically put, and yet still correct. Language usage is intimately interconnected to international business communication success. This is a major part of the book that I am currently working together with my two good friends and colleagues Bertha Du-Babcock and Richard Babcock. This is at the center of my two earlier books and dozens of presentatons and articles of mine and of many others as well. In short, I believe this very strongly indeed.

So up to here, Greene's article simply makes the case for WHY you should learn other languages. The problem is that the article goes on to try to answer "Which is the Best Language to Learn?" Despite my praise for the article up to this point, this is, in my opinion, the wrong question to ask.
In any event, there can be no ONE best language to learn for all people learning another language or even a best language to learn for all English speakers. In short, the BEST language is NOT -- as the article concludes -- French.

This is a question that I am asked often. Very often. In the International Business Program that I direct at Eastern Michigan University, we require a second language for graduation. As a result, students regularly ask me what "the best language to learn" is. I never answer this question for them... rather I lead them to find the answer that best fits what their purposes and goals would lead them to choose.

I frequently give talks ranging from business consulting to governmental advice to high school gatherings. In these settings, someone often asks the question with a set language in mind. "Isn't the best language to learn for business X?" they ask filling in Chinese or Spanish or Japanese or whatever they happen to be biased toward themselves. I always deflect the response and answer that ANY language can be the "best language" -- this is not a question with a right or wrong answer.
In fact, I am not being coy in these cases. The best language to learn is entirely up to the individual learning the language. No language is intrinsically more helpful in business at least as long as it is a spoken language somewhere (in short, I have reservations about Latin and Akkadian (although if your business happens to be dealing with archaeology or ancient writings, even this has its benefits for business).

Instead, I try to add the two-word phrase "FOR YOU" to the the question Greene asks of "What is the Best Language to Learn?"

So what IS the best language to learn FOR YOU? It may be that FOR YOU French COULD be French as it was for Robert Lane Green in writing this article. French would be the best language for you if that is the language that you believe you will keep using or that appeals to you for some particularly compelling reason whether that be the song lyrics of Gainsbourg or an interest in doing business in Canada. For that matter, it seems odd that the Greene's article concludes the choice of French without bringing up one the strongest arguments for French -- the need for French both politically and pragmatically in Canada.

Yet French is NOT universally the best language for English speakers to learn. No language in and of itself can ever be that. So how do I respond to the request for guidance in selecting a language?

Know that there is no ONE best choice. People (well, at least English-speaking students) then ask me what language is most USEFUL? I suppose that the answer I give here, if pressed, is the language that you will master and -- let's get to the heart of the semantics of USEful -- the language that you will actually USE.  

I don't much like the argument of how widespread a language is because how widespread a language is does not actually predict how useful it may be. By the "widespread" logic, one has to first determine issues of language reach (how many other people speak the language even if it is not their first language). For language reach, Greene's conclusion of French has much to commend it... but then again, so does Spanish or many other widely understood languages.

If language reach is left out of the equation, the "best" language could just as easily be Chinese for the most number of speakers. Several people who left comments following Greene's article argued just that.

One could argue for future markets and needs, choosing on this line perhaps Portuguese for the growing strength of both the populations and the economies of Brazil, Angola and Mozambique. Indeed, one could add to that East Timor if political upheaval are one's interests or, for that matter, Portugal itself if one's interests run to economic upheaval and concern for the Eurozone. Just to fill out the list, the other officially Portuguese-speaking countries are Guinea-Bissau, São Tomé and Príncipe and Cape Verde, all interesting in their own right for the right person. 

I often find that a language that is little spoken by other English speakers (or whatever your language is) places people who DO speak it in higher demand in business settings. Many people speak both English and Spanish (or Russian or French or German) relative to the number of people who speak fluent English relative to, say, Thai, Yet as Thailand grows in economic or political importance, Thai grows in demand giving you an edge for having a much-needed but less common qualification -- and that is quite aside from the appeal of Thai to those simply interested in Thailand or who have Thai friends! I had a Armenian-speaking student who said she wanted to learn a third language besides Armenian (and English) because she felt that "Armenian is a useless language." I am glad to say that I convinced her otherwise and we discussed wasy in which she could embrace the opportunities opened up by Armenian language skills.  Only after that did we discuss the possibility of learning a third language as well (she chose to study Spanish). 

So all of this is to say simply that ANY second language is a useful language and the language that is the BEST language is the one that is best for YOU.

I welcome your input and thoughts on this ramblings.

Clip Art Sources:

Image of French newspapers is from Robert Lane Green's article itself: http://moreintelligentlife.com/content/ideas/robert-lane-greene/which-best-language-learn

More Intelligent Life logo: http://torsionmobile.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/intelligent_life_logo.png

Marilou sous la neige album: http://beyondthenoize.blogspot.com/2010/12/marilou-sous-la-neige-ou-la-melancolie.html

Yesterday album: http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_q0ykZ7g_t1k/S8jp481IwYI/AAAAAAAAAAM/frURTDGPVbM/s1600/beatles.jpg

Brodsky: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Brodsky.jpg

Pushkin: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A.S.Pushkin.jpg

Languages image: http://www.thw.coventry.sch.uk/MFL/MFL.gif

Multicolor conversation image: http://www.learnthailanguage.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/08/conversation.jpg

Falamos Português: 


  1. I completely agree that "learning any foreign language helps you understand all language better". It wasn't clear at first to me, I simply think that I am learning English language only. However when I started taking Japanese, it was clear to me that I had advantage over some of my classmates who didn't study a second language before. It's probably because once you understand the grammar structures and components you can apply to different languages and compare them.
    For the question of "Which is the Best Language to learn", I think the author and EMU students in your example were thinking more of "Which language would be most helpful?". All college students have to think of job opportunity at some point, so I understand their question. I had a different approach,however, when deciding what language to take. I think it is most important to pick the language that you Want to learn, something that you can connect to. For me it is personal interest that I happen to like Japanese culture, including comics and cuisine, so I have motivation to learn. It is hard to tell what you will do or where you will be in the future, but your interests or relationships are most likely to stay the same.

  2. What would you say is the easiest way to learn a language, other than culture emersion (as cost of travel and stay is ridiculous)? I have been able to pick up vocabulary words through classes I took in high school from foreign language classes, but I was never able to pick it up sufficiently to be able to read articles, understand conversations, and converse. I am going to be starting to (try to) learn Finnish starting this summer, and any insights would be very helpful. Thanks!

  3. Language acquisition is not my expertise, Henry, so all that I can share with you is my own feelings. An expert in the field could probably give you a better answer. For me, aside from formal language immersion, I believe that a private tutor is probably the best way to pick up a language. At least this has been the case for me. Taking group classes would be next. Probably the least effective would be cd's and the like, although even here, such programs that allow a fair amount of interaction -- such as Mango Languages -- can work pretty well. I know that they offer Finnish by the way. The link to Mango Languages is http://www.mangolanguages.com/