How many languages are genuinely worth knowing?

Depending on a learner’s personal circumstances and interests, any language can be worth knowing. For example, If someone lives in Iceland and is about to marry a local woman, then learning Icelandic would make very good sense. If someone has a burning passion for Italian operas, then learning Italian would be a very good idea, etc, etc… (This goes without saying.)

But how many languages are useful in a completely general sense, such that they would truly justify the time and effort required to master them?

If we’re going to be honest, I reckon that the list is actually a pretty darned short one!

  1. English
  2. Mandarin
  3. Spanish

What else?

I can see an argument for Russian, Japanese and Portuguese. But apart from that, is there ANY other language out there that would really and honestly be worth all the effort of learning, unless the learner had some particular personal reason for doing so?

Are even languages like French or German still worth knowing, unless there is some strong personal motive?

(If not, how come they still dominate the curriculum in British schools!? :-0)

Define useful in the general sense, first.

Lol. Argument for Russian, japanese and portugese ?? O.K, obviously you aren’t Canadian. The advantages of knowing french here are very obvious.

French and German probably dominate in British schools because France and Germany and geographically much closer to Britain than, say, China. The language would therefore appear to be more practical (although whether this is in fact the case, I’m not sure).

I would agree with the previous poster that you would first need to define “general” to get a clearer answer, although I am assuming that you are referring to those languages that give you the greatest geographical and quantitative bang for your buck, in which case English, Spanish and Mandarin probably are the best choices, although Arabic and perhaps even Hindi (if you can put the ubiquity of English in India aside for a moment) could be considered. Certainly Arabic is a monster in terms of widespread usage and the number of speakers is far from low.

In any case, when we are talking about justifying the time and effort to learn a language, I really think one ought to have a more salient reason than “I’m learning this for the most general reasons possible”.

Any language a person is interested in, for whatever reason, is worth knowing. Period.

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We learn languages for ourselves, for our own reasons.

“languages that give you the greatest geographical and quantitative bang for your buck”

I have to re-read it several times. LOL

I don’t get the “argument for the Russian, Japanese and Portuguese”, why these languages?

“How many languages are useful in a completely general sense ?”

I think English is the only language worth knowing “in a completely general sense”.

The other ones depend on the professional, personal interests of the learner.

I work a lot with Vietnam and in my field of work not many speak English. The same goes for Russian, Korean and Japanese, Arabic and Turkish. I have had opportunities to have important discussions with experts from these countries but missed out as I could not speak the language.

French should feature on the list. People in my business and many other businesses who cannot speak French are at a disadvantage.

These are work reasons and work occupies 1/3 of our time. (but we sleep 1/3 of the time)

"I have to re-read it several times. LOL "

Haha, sorry about that. I was in a bit of a hurry when I wrote that, so…

The argument for Icelandic is just the same as the argument for English, Mandarin, and Spanish, only writ small–it all depends on how useful (or rewarding) the language will be for an individual. And really I’m w/ the crowd that says, “Learn what you want to learn!” Prescribing what is useful for somebody else, espec. in general, seldom works, particularly for such a major endeavor as learning another language.

But it’s an interesting question. IMHO if Spanish is in the list, then French should be–consider Africa and Canada. If Mandarin is, then the other CRIB country languages should be, too.

For me useful means I should just stick with English and not bother trying to learn anything else, but that could be said about a lot of things.
As I live in Canada I have never seen as practicle use for Russian, Spanish or Portuguese. Even French is really only spoken in a specific area and isn’t known by most of country. But I could see your point for Mandrine or Japanese in the world of business.

The point about Russian, Hindi (India), and Portuguese (Brazil) is that the countries in question are developing economically very quickly and are predicted to become leading economic powers in the next couple of decades. “Will India become the new China?” etc. The case would seem strongest for Portuguese. India already has English. Russia, although culturally and historically strong, and with huge reserves of oil and gas, could see its strength decline should the energy resources peter out or its population size continue to decline.

@Steve: “…Any language a person is interested in, for whatever reason, is worth knowing. Period.”

Obviously yes - as I very clearly say above. But this is actually missing the point.

Let’s think of it this way: there are (as we all know) countless thousands of people in the world today who are highly motivated to learn English - although many of them have absolutely zero interest in English literature, culture, etc.

The question, therefore, is how many other languages there are which are just “generally useful” as a widely spoken, widely used lingua franca?


@Ernie: “…The point about Russian, Hindi (India), and Portuguese (Brazil) is that the countries in question are developing economically very quickly and are predicted to become leading economic powers in the next couple of decades.”

Yes, that would certainly be the key argument for Russian and Portuguese. However in the case of Hindi, I would say things are somewhat complicated by the fact that a dialect of English is still very widely spoken by the elite in India. (And Hindi is very far from being the only widely spoken language in India, of course…)

BTW: This stuff is actually very important as regards public educational policy. Today the UK government will announce that all pupils in English state-funded schools will have to learn a foreign language from the age of 7. However given that there are limits to the number of languages one can offer on the school curriculum, there are questions as to WHICH languages these should be?

It would probably not be a great idea to have all English kids spend 9 years learning Faroese! This is obviously NOT the same as saying that nobody in England would have an excellent reason for learning Faroese. But policy has to be based on the needs of the many and not the few!

"BTW: This stuff is actually very important as regards public educational policy. (…) there are questions as to WHICH languages these should be? "

In this specific context, I would say German, French, Spanish and Chinese.

JayB - I think French continues to be the language most useful overall to Brits. It is a neighbouring country with a large economy. I guess that was the original reason for making it compulsory. Most British people go to France at some point in their lives and it is probably the country to which they travel the most were you to look at the statistics.

French as a language itself has a lot of great attributes and is not easily translated well.

German and French still have good positions in conservative areas of expertise, such as law (in civil law [continental legal system] countries). Latin is still somewhat prestigious for a legal specialist to know, but not really beneficial.