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Advice to Students Choosing a Foreign Language: Go Asian

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Having been a college professor for more than three decades, I have come to expect that one or two students will ask—almost weekly—what language he or she should study in college and why.

First, I tell my students that studying a foreign language requires a considerable commitment of time and energy, and it should be viewed as a lifetime endeavor; thus, the choice deserves careful consideration. Then I tell them that to answer the question, one must ask: What languages are going to be the most important in the future?

Learning a language that is spoken by a large and/or an increasing number of people is obviously preferable. As August Compte once said, “Demographics is destiny.” Thus, I suggest studying a “big language”—meaning one that a lot of people speak.

One should, I suggest, also consider the languages of nations that are large economically and/or are growing and that are advanced in science and technology to be more important. Why is English such an important language when it is smaller in number of speakers than three other languages—Chinese, Hindi and Spanish—and the number of first-language English speakers has declined from 9.8 percent of the world’s population after World War II to a bit over 7 percent at the turn of the century? The answer is obvious: English is the language of business and of science.