Education About Asia: Online Archives

Choosing a Foreign Language for the Future: Or, the Need for American Students to Study an Asian Language in College

Download PDF

Thirty years of employment as a college professor have led me to anticipate weekly that one or two students will ask me what language is best to study in college and why.

The essence of this question is: What language will be most important in my future? Since studying a foreign language requires a considerable commitment in terms of time and energy and may even become a lifetime endeavor, this matter deserves careful consideration.

Learning a language spoken by a large and/or an increasing number of people is preferable in most ways. As August Compte once said: “Demographics is destiny.” Thus I suggest studying a “big language.”

One must also consider the languages of nations growing economically and those 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 two or three other languages (Chinese, Hindi, and perhaps Spanish) and the number of first-language English speakers is declining (from 9.8 percent of the world’s population after World War II to a bit over 7 percent now)? The answer is obvious: English is the language of science and business.

Finally, the supply and demand of people fluent in various foreign languages is a variable; after all, language is a marketable skill. There is a plethora of speakers of some foreign languages and too few of others.