One of the biggest debates for those of us in international business is which language, if any, is the most important to learn?
As Americans, we are fortunate to have our version of English be the overwhelmingly dominant lexicon of global commerce. We can slide by in most of Europe and get along real well in India.
Still, parts of Latin America can be challenging, as well as some of the Arab world, large portions of Africa, mainland China, and Japan.
Knowing that time is always short and learning a language does take time, what might bring the best ROI?
My thinking is Spanish first, Arabic second, and Chinese third.
As American ascendancy continues, Spanish-speaking folks are unquestionably becoming a bigger part of our Empire, both here at home and abroad. There is no reason to believe that this won't continue to be the case. A cool secret a lot of folks know is that a good command of Spanish makes it somewhat easy to get by in Brazil and, ultimately, learn Brazilian Portuguese.
The Arab Spring has unleashed a torrent of change, which will ultimately be accompanied by rising foreign investment, as new markets offer strong growth opportunities. Knowing Arabic could do nothing but help open new doors.
The rise of China has a lot of folks seeking to learn Chinese, or have their children do so. In a recent piece in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof described learning Chinese as a life-long endeavor, where instead Spanish can be done well in a few years and Arabic in a couple more.
My son, who is a very good Spanish speaker, is beginning to plan for his study-abroad semester in college. He is leaning towards Mendoza, or possibly Santiago; with Cairo and Ramallah very close behind.
It makes one glad to have lived this long!