The five best languages to learn for business in a changing world

Written by Andrew Henderson

The world is changing, and the days of speaking one language are over. As I travel the world, I frequently spend time in places where locals speak English perfectly… as well as several other languages.

Just the other day, I spoke to a girl in Kuala Lumpur who was learning Japanese — her seventh language — just for grins.

I believe anyone looking to be a global businessperson can benefit from speaking another language. So how do you decide the best language to learn for business? By studying international business trends and the emerging world, you can determine the best languages worthy of your time.

While residents of many countries do indeed speak English (and many emerging nations are pushing their youth to learn it), many countries also have official or unofficial second languages other than English, which can help you broaden your horizons.

Here, we examine the five best languages to learn for international business, finding opportunities overseas, or just improving your qualify of life while living overseas as an expat.

The five best languages to learn for business

Portuguese and the five best languages for business

Spoken in Brazil and parts of Europe and Africa, Portuguese is one of the best languages to learn for business.

5. Portuguese

While Portuguese may not seem like the next growth language, it is the official language of Brazil’s growing 200 million-strong population. Despite recent stumbles, Brazil still has some promise as an emerging market including its large domestic population.

Thanks to imperialism, Portuguese is also the official language in a number of African nations, some of which could be long-term frontier market plays (including some currently playing host to Chinese investment in Africa).

Portuguese is, of course, also the official language of Portugal, where investors can obtain a second residence through the country’s Golden Residence program for offshore real estate investment.

Where in the world is Portuguese spoken?

In Europe: Portugal, small communities in Spain, France, and Luxembourg

In Africa: Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Equatorial Guinea, Mozambique, São Tomé and Príncipe

In the Americas: Brazil

In Asia: East Timor and Macau

Russian language among the best language to learn in the world

Russian is one of the best languages in the world to learn for business.

4. Russian

While Russia isn’t exactly a fast-growing economic superpower (thank it’s very, very slow population growth), it does have a number of wealthy oligarchs who are spending big money around the world.

I have friends who have made a lot of money selling Western real estate to Russians by speaking their language and understanding how they do business. Speaking Russian is a first step to doing that, and it’s an easier language to learn than some others on this list.

The Russian language is also an important second language in a decent number of emerging and frontier economies in the CIS States and Eastern Europe.

Where in the world is Russian spoken?

Russia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, breakaway regions of Georgia; second language in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Serbia, Turkmenkistan, and Uzbekistan

Spanish and best languages for business

Spanish is one of the best languages to learn for international business or simple expat living.

3. Spanish

Long a popular language taught in North American schools, Spanish is the easiest language to learn on this list, and is useful for those wishing to live or do business in the growing Latin world. As countries like Mexico begin to turn the corner economically, Spanish will be more useful for doing business with rising nations.

Some South American nations are promising emerging markets, and countries like Paraguay and Ecuador offer cheap agricultural land for those seeking business opportunities or a self-reliant lifestyle. Both South and Central America offer great expat living at cheap prices.

Where in the world is Spanish spoken?

In Europe: Spain

In the Americas: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Uruguay and Venezuela; second language in much of the United States

In Africa: Equatorial Guinea

Arabic language is one of the best languages to learn

Arabic is the second best language to learn for future business growth.

2. Arabic

Arabic is the primary language of some of the world’s up-and-coming nations, wealth centers, and frontier markets. The Middle East is becoming a formidable player in global finance and investment, and those who can speak Arabic will have an advantage in this often insular market.

Areas like Dubai and Abu Dhabi have become emerging international financial centers, but wealthy Middle Easterners will also look to diversify their wealth outside of the region, creating opportunities for those who speak their language to tap into lucrative business deals.

Beyond wealthy oil states, Arabic is also the official language of ultra-frontier markets like Iraq and much of northern Africa. Countries like Tunisia are an example of more developed markets that speak Arabic.

Where in the world is the Arabic language spoken?

In the Middle East: Bahrain, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.

In Africa: Algeria, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Eritrea, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Somalia, Sudan, Tanzania, and Tunisia.

Chinese language is one of the best language to learn

Mandarin Chinese is the best language to learn for international business in a changing world.

1. (Mandarin) Chinese

It’s no secret that China is the world’s new dominant economy, with a growing influence from Africa to the Americas. We’ve written about the fact that barely ten million Chinese speak English — a small number when compared to the nearly 1.4 billion people in Mainland China. That’s why speaking Chinese can be helpful in business.

Chinese influence has expanded into Africa and beyond, and Chinese consumers are desperate for energy and other resources — all of which will require more communication with Chinese buyers and investors. While Chinese businessmen have been very pragmatic and have gone to great lengths to communicate in English, I believe they will be more demanding as their spending power grows. Those who speak their language will have a leg up on the competition.

Where in the world is Mandarin Chinese spoken?

Mainland China, second dialect in Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan.

Do you agree with these best languages to learn? Why do you want to learn a second language? Is there another language you feel is important? Leave a comment below!

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Jan 13, 2020 at 4:42PM

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23 Comments

  1. Matt

    Chinese is much too hard. I wouldn’t waste my time with it. Too hard to speak and too hard to read.

    I would learn Spanish, then Portuguese is half the effort. Then you can piggy-back into Italian and French.

    I’m learning German because I now live in Switzerland, but I would rather be learning Spanish.

    • Nomad Capitalist

      Thanks for the comment, Matt! Chinese is hard; I know more Russian I picked up as a kid than Chinese I was force fed a year ago.

      That said, I do think Chinese is a great language for someone with business aspirations to learn – or for parents to teach their children when it’s easier to learn. As the saying goes, “successful people do what unsuccessful people don’t”.

      But that also comes from my Asia bias, and so your thoughts on Spanish could be very helpful to someone more interested in the part of the world that speaks Spanish.

    • scottrose

      Auf deutsch, statt “It’s Greek to me” sagt man “Mir ist das spanisch.”

      • MonicaGodo

        Thank you for this information. I didn’t know that!

        • Andrew Henderson

          Thanks for your comment, Monica.

    • Anatoly Karlin

      Chinese is hard, but it is arguably easier than Japanese and Arabic, and not much more difficult than Russian.

      In particular, grammar is a (relative) cakewalk.

      In fact, I daresay attaining spoken coherence in Mandarin is fairly straightforwards and can be done quite quickly. (Written is a whole different kettle of fish, of course).

  2. Anna

    I`m actually not sure that Russian is easier then Chinese or another in this list. In fact, Russian language one of the hardest languages in the world because of the grammar and pronunciation.

    • Andrew Henderson

      You’re right; Russian isn’t easy. The lack of tones does make it seem more approachable for many westerners, though. Thanks for commenting!

    • Aleksey

      I’m not sure Russian is hard. I’m pretty fluent at it.

    • z0ltan

      Nonsense. A lot of people are put off by the cases and conjugation, and they find it difficult because they’re learning the rules by rote, instead of letting their brains absorb the rules naturally through practice (much as children do when learning their own mother tongues). The problem with Chinese/Japanese is not so much the spoken language, but the written one.

  3. LT

    Neat article! Portuguese is next on my list of languages to learn. I noticed a mistake in #3: Equatorial Guinea is in Africa, not the Americas.

    • Andrew Henderson

      Thanks, Lizzie, for your comment and for noticing that error. It was listed correctly under Portuguese.

  4. Julio

    Where does French fall in this conversation/list? Just curious. At the school where I teach we offer French, Latin, mandarin and Spanish.

    Thanks!

    • Andrew Henderson

      Unfortunately, I don’t see French as playing a role. I believe emerging languages – like emerging countries – are the future for any number of reasons.

    • Nomad Capitalist

      In all the places I go, French is what “the old people” speak. Youth much prefer English. Therefore, French is only good for living/doing business in France and a few other French speaking places. It may come in handy in parts of Africa if you’re doing business in ultra-frontier markets, but other than that, France is a place I would avoid like the plague for anything other than a casual business. The government is anti-business and the tax regime brings new meaning to the word “regime”.

  5. Ryan Roskey

    I am surprised german is not on here being the central EU economic power. And can lead in to dutch and other Germanic languages.

    • Nomad Capitalist

      I would suggest Dutch only if you want to work toward Belgian citizenship (which became harder about a year ago). The EU won’t be around forever, and the German police state will probably cause some regional incident again.

  6. Jazz

    Very helpful article. But i am confuse between French, Spanish and German because i want to get masters in a language which is very useful and most spoken language. Please guide me for the same.
    Thank you

  7. Amin

    i think Arabic is the easiest language to me and i really dont know all the people said its hard. i have learnt it around 4 month and now i am in advanced level

  8. z0ltan

    No. Indians themselves do not use Hindi for their business/commerce/education. English has trumped all Indian languages for good.

  9. z0ltan

    I already speak four languages (four mother tongues, if you can believe it), and I can understand (and speak with difficulty) another one. Here’s my bucket list for the languages that I plan to learn in the near future (in order):

    Russian, Spanish, Arabic (MSA and a dialect, probably Egyptian), Mandarin, and German. I’ll probably throw in Hungarian or Turkish in there after that, just for larks.

  10. Abel Caim

    I’ve been witness business growth through Americas and Asia towards language spoken and I realized Portuguese is not the language to invest. Go further French and German.