No reputable international studies program allows graduates to wander out the door without acquiring some language skills. And good luck getting a job in the field without at least one additional language under your belt.
Serious foreign relations students usually pick up some skills in a few different foreign languages. These are sometimes dictated by the specialty of the degree you choose to pursue, but in other cases the decision can be left to matters of interest or ability.
In those cases, though, how do you make your choice?
We’re here to help! Below you can find the top ten languages to learn for success in the world of international relations.
You already know English is the lingua fraca in business and global affairs, but how about Tinglish? Chinglish? Inglish? Most English speakers in the world today aren’t native English speakers, and most of the people they speak English with aren’t native speakers either. This results in many situations where the variants of English they speak drift considerably from the native-speaking forms.
To learn English as it is spoken as a common global language, you have to learn to be explicit, avoid idiom, and alter your pronunciations and expectations. Functionality becomes more important than form and cultural neutrality is your goal. This won’t satisfy your master’s program language requirement, but there’s a good chance you’ll use it far more frequently than any fully recognized foreign language on the list.
We’re not just cribbing this from Looper. Chinese really is the language of the future. Although estimates vary on how many native Chinese speakers there are in the world today, all of them start north of a billion. That makes it the most commonly spoken language on the planet, and if it’s not widelyspoken yet, that day is coming.
Arabic is only about the fifth most commonly spoken language in the world, but it’s the most popular language in some of the most traditional hotspots drawing international attention today. The Middle East is a perpetual powder keg, and American soldiers and diplomats seem likely to be busy there for decades. There will be a steady stream of demand for Arab linguists in foreign relations circles for years to come.
France has had an outsized impact on the world stage that isn’t always reflected in the nation’s role today, but it is reflected in the presence of French as an official language in numerous international organizations including:
- The World Trade Organization
- The International Red Cross
- The International Olympic Committee
It’s also an official language in 29 countries and a common second language in dozens more.
Like Arabic, Russian isn’t important strictly based on the number of native speakers, but rather based on the hot button issues that exist in and among the former Soviet Republics. The Ukraine, Crimea, election interference in the U.S., assassination of former spies on British soil, and a host of other controversies continue to boil around the Russian periphery. As the largest nuclear power in the world, it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep jaw jawing rather than war waring, as Churchill put it, and a solid knowledge of Russian is going to be necessary to keep those jaws working.
Spanish may be the only language that can reliably claim to dominate an entire continent. If you plan to have any dealings with South America, and a vast chunk of Europe or even North America, Spanish is a reliable tool to have in your pocket.
India has 23 official languages and Hindi is foremost among them. With around 260 million native speakers dominating the Indian subcontinent, it’s a must-have language for India experts. As a country with perpetually up and coming industrial and digital bases, that makes Hindi a good choice for international business experts as well as government trade negotiators and diplomats.
Another one of India’s official languages is Punjabi, and that’s one reason to learn it… but the better reason is that it’s the primary language spoken in Pakistan, another nuclear power in a region that perpetually threatens to flare up into the global spotlight. As the global war on terror continues, American diplomats and soldiers can expect to spend a lot of time conversing with Pakistani counterparts in Punjabi.
Japan has had a few difficult decades with the pricking of the asset price bubble in 1991 leading to an extended recession, which was followed by the devastating Tōhoku earthquake and attendant nuclear disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant. Consequently, the country is sometimes underestimated today, at least compared to its powerhouse status in the 1980s. But it remains a major center of industry and innovation along the Pacific Rim, as well as a stalwart U.S. ally in dealings with China, Russia, and North Korea. Those strong diplomatic and business ties make Japanese a solid language investment for anyone interested in Asian foreign relations.
Portuguese is the only language that keeps Spanish from completely owning South America, but the two are similar enough that either one gets you some of the benefits of knowing the other. In the case of Portuguese, Portugal itself isn’t the reason to learn it. Instead, the more than 200 million citizens of Brazil, the 8thlargest economy in the world, are enough to make it a worthy subject of study.