Over the past ten years I have had the joy and privilege to speak at more than 150 schools. These events are often the highlight of my working week. Nothing like an open, curious, young mind to get you going. I learn a lot every time.
In every talk I stress the importance of learning languages. I do not do it to please teachers, or because I come from a bilingual Finnish-Swedish background. I do it because I believe in the power of languages. The more languages you know, the more open the world becomes for study, work, travel, and more.
Against this background I was happy to come across a study by the World Economic Forum (WEF) about the world’s most powerful languages. There are about 6,000 languages in the world: 2,000 are spoken by fewer than 1,000 people. And the top 15 languages are spoken by half of the world’s population.
According to the study, languages provide us with five opportunities: geography, economy, communication, knowledge and media, and diplomacy. The ability to work within these realms by understanding and engaging takes the multilingual person much further than somebody who only speaks one language.
I agree with all of these claims. I am grateful that my parents always told me to study languages. I speak Finnish, Swedish, English, German, and French. They have been immensely helpful over the years, be it with studying, understanding, or diplomacy. My only regret is that I have not picked up more languages.
But which lingua francas are considered to be the most important? I actually think all languages are an important part of history, culture, and expression, but the WEF study makes a useful ranking based on 20 indicators. It argues that the ten most use-ful languages in the world are (in order of importance): English, Mandarin, French, Spanish, Arabic, Russian, German, Japanese, Portuguese, and Hindi.
Language matters for many reasons. One is its link to competitiveness, as eight of the world’s biggest financial centres function in English. London and New York are the largest, while Singapore and Hong Kong, which have English-language infrastructures, are bigger than Tokyo.
There is naturally an English- speaking bias among the global elite. Many of the countries with high GDP figures or relative wealth also show proficiency in English, either as a first or second language. The same goes for the Internet and many developments in information technology.
A more interesting question is to try to figure out what the language map will look like in 2050. The WEF study predicts that the order of importance will be as follows: English, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, German, Portuguese, Hindi, and Japanese.
Thus from my personal experience and the WEF study I would draw three conclusions for my next talk at a school: It pays to study languages; the more languages you know, the better; it’s time to learn Spanish or Mandarin.