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Feature Photo: gopal1035 Bengali books, Photo: romana klee

Critical language” is a term used in the US to designate languages for which there is large demand for language professionals but little supply.

The list of which languages are considered critical changes over time as economic and political situations change and develop, but often these languages are radically different from English in grammatical structures, sound systems and writing systems.

While learning these languages can take considerable more time and effort than learning languages more closely related to English like French, Spanish or German, studying them can make you eligible for funding options like the Critical Language Scholarship or the National Security Education Program (NSEP) and open up travel and career opportunities you may have never considered.

Having studied three of the following languages myself (Arabic, Hindi and Urdu) in addition to advanced French and elementary Spanish, I can tell you that it does take determination and discipline to get started with a critical language. Not only do you need to learn a new way of moving your pen, a new way of reading and how to produce foreign sounds from places in your mouth you never knew existed, but you often need to learn to wrap your mind around a different way of thinking, a different worldview.

I was both boggled and fascinated by recognizing how the English system of family terms (mother, father, sister, brother, aunt, uncle, cousin) is so sparse compared to the Urdu’s dozens of terms differentiating each family member and giving them each a different status: mother’s sister, father’s sister, mother’s sister’s husband, older sister, younger sister, father’s older brother’s wife. I still can’t get them all straight.

As of 2010, the following 13 languages are listed as critical languages. If you’re thinking about studying a new language but haven’t decided which one, factors to consider include where the language is spoken, how many native speakers and second language speakers it has, and what types of jobs are available for professionals with knowledge of the language.

Arabic, Photo: Radar Communication

1. Arabic

While the term “Arabic” refers more to a language group with 30-odd distinct varieties within it, students who want to learn any dialect of Arabic start by mastering Modern Standard Arabic and then move on to specialize in a particular spoken dialect like Egyptian, Lebanese or Gulf Arabic. More than 221 million people speak some form of Arabic, and there is a demand for Arabic linguists in intelligence services, consular services, international NGOs, the airline industry, the military and business.

2. Azerbaijani

Spoken in Azerbaijan and in pockets of other Central Asian countries, Azerbaijani has 6 to 7 million mother-tongue speakers and about 8 million second-language speakers. It’s an Altaic language related to Turkish, so studying it would pair well with studying Turkish language and culture. It is written in both Cyrillic and Latin script, meaning that if you’re already literate in Russian it won’t be hard to get started with Azerbaijani. On the job front, opportunities are more limited than with more widely spoken languages like Arabic, but if you plan to live, work with an NGO or do business in Central Asia it would be a good language to study.

3. Bengali

Also known as Bangla, Bengali has more than 110 million native speakers and a further 140 million second-language speakers. It’s spoken not just in Bangladesh, India and Nepal but wherever Bengalis have migrated, so you can use Bengali language skills in the US, UK, Canada, Singapore and the UAE among other countries. As an Indo-European language, its structure is closer to English than many of the other critical languages, although to be literate you need to learn Bengali script. Bengali language skills would be particularly useful if you plan to work with NGOs or business in South Asia.

Japanese & Chinese, Photo: chinnian

4. Chinese (Mandarin)

As the official language of Chinese schools, in the year 2000 there were an estimated 840 million first-language speakers plus 178 million second-language speakers. While some varieties of the language are not mutually intelligible (meaning speakers can’t necessarily understand each other), more and more Chinese young people are now only being taught the standard variety rather than regional dialects. Considering roughly 1 out 6 people in the world speak Chinese and China is a huge market for economic growth, career opportunities for Chinese linguists can be found in almost any field.

5. Hindi

Hindi is spoken as a native language throughout northern India and is used as a trade language in much of the rest of the country. It is mutually intelligible with Urdu, Pakistan’s national language, although while Urdu uses the Arabic-style script Hindi uses Devanagari script. There are over 180 million mother-tongue speakers in South Asia and many more in countries with large Indian immigrant populations like Canada, Uganda, Fiji, the US and the UK.

6. Indonesian

Known as Bahasa, this Indonesian language has about 23 million speakers in the country and among Indonesian immigrant communities in the Netherlands, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Singapore and the US. It’s written in both Arabic and Latin script and its vocabulary is highly similar (an 80% cognate rate) with standard Malay. If you can already read and write in Arabic script or speak Malay, you’ll have an advantage picking up Bahasa Indonesian.

7. Japanese

Spoken by 122 million people, Japanese is written with a syllabary, a system of symbols that represent syllables rather than individual sounds. Although it’s not related to Chinese, it is heavily influenced by it, and in order to be proficient in Japanese you will also need to learn a large number of Chinese characters that are used as loan words in Japanese. If you want to use your Japanese outside of Japan, consider academic jobs, translation, international business, language tutoring for students of Japanese or serving as a guide for Japanese tourists.

8. Korean

Classed as a language isolate, the Korean language does not share a lineage with any other known language. It is spoken by 66 million people and written in Hangul script, a system of syllabic blocks. Within the US government, there is a high demand for Arabic, Chinese and Korean speakers.

Russian, Photo: A Journey Round My Skull

9. Persian / Farsi

An Indo-European language, Farsi is spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Qatar and some areas of Uzbekistan. Written in Arabic script, it has about 23 million speakers throughout the region. Due to the tense political relationship between the US and Iran, Americans who study Farsi can look for jobs in the government sector, intelligence services, journalism, political analysis (“think tanks”), and the military.

10. Punjabi

Punjabi is a good choice if you enjoy learning different alphabets, as Western Punjabi is written in Arabic script (like Urdu) while Eastern Punjabi is written in both Devanagari (like Hindi) script and Gurumkhi script. In India, many of the 28 million Eastern Punjabi speakers are Sikhs, while in Pakistan the majority of the 62 million Western Punjabi speakers are Muslim. Punjabi learners will need to master different greetings and terms of respect for interacting with different religious communities.

11. Russian

Although the Cold War days are long behind us, Russian is still deemed a critical language. There are over 143 million Russian speakers in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, and Russian is a useful trade language in these regions. It is a Slavic language and written in Cyrillic script.

12. Turkish

Good news for Turkish language learners is that since the late 1920s the language has been written in Latin script. Turkish is spoken by more than 50 million people in Turkey, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Azerbaijan and Iran. The majority of Turkish speakers Muslim and there are some Arabic loan words used in Turkish.

13. Urdu

While only about 10% of Pakistan’s population speaks Urdu as a native-language, it is used as one of the official languages in education is spoken as a trade language throughout the country. Urdu has over 104 million speakers in Pakistan, India and in Pakistani immigrant communities throughout the world. Studying Urdu pairs well with studying Hindi, as on a conversational level there are only minor differences. Urdu is written in Arabic Nastaliq script.

Community Connection

Which of these critical languages would you be most interested in studying? Let us know which one(s) and why in the comment section.

Language Learning


About The Author

Heather Carreiro

Heather is a secondary English teacher, travel writer and editor who has lived in Morocco and Pakistan. She enjoys jamming on the bass, haggling over saris in dusty markets and cross-country jumping on horseback. Currently she's a grad student attempting to wrap her tongue around Middle English, analyze South Asian literature and eat enough to make her Portuguese mother-in-law happy. Learn more on her blog at

  • Eleonora

    Japanese and Chinese are indeed related, as they share part of the kanji system :)

    • Aquaria

      Good grief, you’re a complete moron. They’re not kanji systems but CHINESE.

      Worse, Vietnam and Korea adopted the system long before Japan.

      So it’s utterly stupid to say it’s a kanji system–when Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean most definitely are NOT kanji at all.


      • Dom A Oben

        Actually, YOU are the moron. Kanji (in japanese) also known as hanzi (in Chinese) are the characters that all Chinese scripts consist of. Japan uses hanzi but calls them Kanji, and Korea uses them but calls them Hanja. Vietnam no longer uses Chinese characters. Kanji are of the 3 writing systems used in Japanese along with hiragana and katakana. So yes, you could call it a system. You should not correct others when you yourself are wrong.

  • soultravelers3

    It is difficult to be deeply fluent ( talking, reading and writing like a native) so I think it is important to put the time into a language or languages that will be most useful to one’s life.

    We are monolinguals raising a very fluent triligual/triliterate from birth and we picked Mandarin Chinese and Spanish to add to her dominant mother tongue English. She also speaks some of many languages.

    I think it is important to expose children to other languages and we started that in the womb even before we started traveling the world as a family. The brain is just more geared to learning languages then, although one can add them at any age.

    My thinking is once she has 3 dominant ( and quite different) languages down well it will be easier to add other languages later if she wants. I think it is useful to look at demographic trends when picking a language and how useful it will be in the future.

    • Heather Carreiro

      What you’re doing as a family is SO exciting. My husband and I have already talked about doing something similar with our future children. His first language is Portuguese so our goal is to try the one-person/one-language strategy with me speaking English and him speaking Portuguese, and then choose a third language to expose them to as early as possible based on where we’re living, although it will probably be Arabic or Hindi-Urdu. Thanks for the inspiration!

  • ricky

    Hey. I’m from Indonesia and of course I speak Indonesian as my mother tongue. A critic: Indonesian isn’t written in Arabic script. Yes, we have several words from Arabic. For example we also say Assalamualaikum when we greet someone. But it is never written in Arabic. It is always written in Latin script. And the dialects in Indonesia such as Javanese or Balinese are also never written in Arabic. The scripts are closer to Sanskirt or Hindi.

    Indonesian also has many words orginated from Dutch because Indonesia was colonialized by the Netherlands for about 350 years. So, I guess it would be easier to learn this language if you could speak Dutch.

    • Heather Carreiro

      Thanks for sharing Ricky! I’ve never studied Indonesian myself so I was relying on the Ethnologue report which just lists “Arabic script. Latin script” without any explanation, so it’s great to hear from a native speaker who can set the situation straight.

  • Hannah

    I was so happy to see Turkish on this list! It’s my first ‘non-traditional’ language and your article made me feel like there might be some hope in getting financial support to continue studying.

    I’ve also been quite surprised by the way some of these languages denote specifics when referring to family members, and how that extends to outside the family in the entire culture. In Hindi-speaking India everyone seems to be an ‘auntie’ or an ‘uncle’ and most young people refer to slightly-older friends as ‘older brother’ or ‘older sister’ in Turkish.

  • Jed Worthen

    They all sound interesting! I wonder which of these languages would be the easiest for a monoliguinal English speaker to obtain 80-90% spoken fluency in. Would be great if some fellow Matador writers with expertise in languages could explain the different tests or other ways of measuring a persons level of fluency in a given non native language.

    • aelle

      @ Jed: Indonesian/Malaysian is probably the easiest – both at beginner stage and towards fluency. It’s written in a phonetic manner – no issues with spelling – , the grammar is very simple and it has many loan words from European languages. Indonesian tends to have more loan words and a phonetic spelling borrowed from Dutch while Malaysian borrows more from English, but the 2 languages are fairly similar (about as similar, I would say, as metropolitan French and Québecois).

      I have to say I am much more familiar with languages from Eastern Asia and South East Asia than those from the Near East, Middle East and Indian subcontinent so someone else might want to chime in!

    • Heather Carreiro

      Studying an Indo-European language and one that uses a Latin script would make things faster, although I think it’s possible to obtain fluency in any of these languages with the right training and exposure. You need both language input (chance to listen to the language from native speakers / read the language) and language output (chance to speak while being corrected / chance to write), so I think the success would be based on finding the language classes, programs and tutors that can help you do both. For example, if you choose Azerbaijani, it will be a lot harder to find materials, organized classes and tutors than it would be for Arabic or Chinese.

      I’m a kinesthetic learner, and I like to have formal group language classes for the beginner level of a new language and then move into an immersion experience where I’m living in the culture and I’m forced to use the language to communicate. Before figuring out what language to study, it would be good to think about your learning style (primarily visual, audio or kinesthetic) and then consider the study options available in the different languages you’re interested in.

  • Abbie

    I would study Urdu – I find it a fascinating language, and have experienced a few families in my school district whose first language is Urdu, but (I think) we only have Spanish translators…

  • Matt H

    I’m so glad I decided to pick one of these up in college. Also, not to be “that guy” but the photo that’s with the Chinese section is in Japanese. It’s about learning Chinese though.

    • Heather Carreiro

      Woops! I can’t read either Chinese or Japanese so I was relying on the Flickr captions. Thanks for pointing that out – will fix the caption.

  • Ibrahim

    I just wanted to correct a wrong information you mentioned in your article that would be offensive to some people.

    you said Farsi is a spoken language in a number of countries and among them you said Qatar. I am positive that people in Qatar speak arabic and only arabic since the majority of the Qatar population belong to the Bedwin arabic tripes and they take so much pride in their language.

    I speak two languages now and i’m working on the third whenever i get the chance

    • Heather Carreiro

      Hey Ibrahim,

      According to a 1993 survey there were about 73,000 Farsi speakers in Qatar, and since at that time the entire population of Qatar was about 504,000, Farsi speakers are a pretty significant community in the country. Qatar’s national language is Arabic, but there is a large Iranian immigrant/worker population there, so it’s also a country where Farsi would came in handy.

  • Jed Worthen

    Thanks for the response/replies Heather & aelle!

  • Malaika Serrano

    Great topic, Heather! As you mentioned in your article, the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program offers intensive, overseas summer language institutes in thirteen critical need foreign languages. We currently have 575 students study abroad in 15 countries (including Morocco).

    The CLS Program is sponsored by the United States Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the selection process is administered by the Council of American Overseas Research Centers (CAORC). The CLS Program is administered by CAORC and the American Councils for International Education.

    To learn more, please visit

    Malaika Marable Serrano
    Outreach and Alumni Officer
    Council of American Overseas Research Centers

  • Leonardo

    Very good article. What about portuguese ?

    • Heather Carreiro

      Portuguese is certainly a ‘useful’ language in terms of travel. Aside from Portugal you can use it in Brazil, Angola, Mozambique, parts of Hong Kong, Goa and former Portuguese colonial outposts all over the world. It’s not considered a critical language simply because the demand for specialists does not outweigh the supply.

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  • amna

    I loved ur article, and was really considering studying french further. I was giving it a second thought but now i think ill really go for it:).
    But just a quick question you’ve been to Pakistan right?…apart for my passion for the language would there be any possible job oppurtunities here?

    • Heather Carreiro

      Hi Amna,

      There are definitely job opportunities in many sectors in Pakistan – what’s your background? If you’re not from Pakistan, it can be difficult to find a job that offers a work visa, so you’d probably have to visit and do some on the ground job hunting. You can learn more about expat life and jobs in Pakistan here.


  • Sabreena Leya

    I am a native Bengali speaker and I would like to tell you that Bengali is quite closer to written and conversational Hindi. I did not learn Hindi, but I can speak and read Hindi fluently. Just watching a couple of Hindi movies can help a native Bengali speaker learn the language.

  • Sabreena Leya

    one more thing I would like to add. Most Bangladeshis are quite proficient in conversational Hindi and some people even speak Urdu. Well I have no difficulty understanding Urdu. Bangla, Hindi and Urdu are quite similar. If u can catch up with one, you can easily learn all 3.

  • Melissa

    I’m still somewhat kicking myself for poor choices in college, the biggest one was not beginning my Japanese earlier and not continuing with it. I’ve always wanted to learn Japanese, since I was a wee child, and I wanted to take it my first year in college but I was encouraged by my advisor to finish up my French sequence just for the credits (you know – being required to take four years of college-level language. I placed into the fourth semester.) So I only took one semester of Japanese in college during my second year, got discouraged when I found out that most of the Japanese study abroad programs I wanted required 2 years of the language (I got such BAD ADVICE from that advisor!) and stopped taking it. I regret it so much!! I wish I had started my first year and kept studying, and I wish I had taken that year off between college and grad school to do the JET programme and develop my language skills. *sigh*

    Anyway, if I was going to learn a critical language it would be either Japanese or Korean!

  • dsparkman

    I’m a 25-year-old ESL Instructor with a B.A. in French/Anthropology.  After spending almost three years in the francophone world becoming nearly fluent I’ve spent fourteen months in the US trying to find a decent job using my cultural/linguistic experiences.  So far I’ve not had much luck.  So I’ve decided to start learning Modern Standard Arabic as the first step on my path of realizing a dream –  a job in International Affairs (either diplomacy or intelligence).  I’ve started practicing the alphabet (so far it’s a major task) and I’ve begun an oral Arabic (Iraqi Arabic offered by the school I work for) class which is once a week.  Obviously this is not enough, but I am considering pursuing a Master’s Degree in International Affairs which has a language requirement.  Also, I’m searching for ESL positions within the Arabic-speaking world, the Peace Corps or the Military – all of which would give me abroad experience to enhance my language skills.  Given the current economic situation and lack of hiring within the government I’m a bit discouraged about taking out loans for a Master’s Degree.  However, I don’t see many other options.

    So that’s basically the summary of me and where I’m at.  I found this blog when I was searching for a list of “critical languages.”  I found it to be pretty helpful.  Thanks!

  • Narges 905

    I’m a native Persian speakers and as I know more than 110 million people speak Persian/Farsi not 23 million.

  • Heather Foster

    I love your article and that your name is Heather too. :) I stumbled across this article while looking for funding for language training and also some VERY helpful information to help me make a final decision. You helped on both counts, I believe.I am American and have been studying Turkish language and culture for awhile now. However,it has been so difficult just to find a class, let alone funding in my area (I live in Jackson, MS). I began learning Turkish when I chose to pack up and leave for Istanbul, but on my return (severely underfunded and with no serious work stint to prove at that time that my gusto was worth anything). However, next year I will be competing in the Turkish Olympiad in Houston and will be representing my state in language and cooking skills. I hope that I will be successful.
    However, I am so antsy to get my second language fluency, that I had thought of going ahead and committing a full year to Spanish or French language immersion, since I already have some linguistic abilities in both languages. What are your or anyone’s thoughts on that? What about funding for that or for language training in general? You know, outside of Fullbright and Boren funding…

  • Bethany Godfrey

    I am doing French and Spanish at the moment, but of these langauges I think Persian (Farsi), Russian and Punjabi. I think Iran is fascinating and little understood, Russian is still an important language and Punjabi is both an important language in India, Pakistan and abroad. Plus I think these cultures are really interesting.

    • Ewa Skibińska

      I’m reading very interesting book about India’s culture by polish jurnalist. Asia is more fascinating for me than Africa.

    • Bethany Godfrey

      Yes I agree. Africa has Egypt and the pyramids but apart from that I am not interested in the rest. When you think about ancient civilzations like China, India and the middle east it really is fascinating isn’t it? I am thinking what to do at university I might do geography with a european language like French or Spanish and a smaller module as an asian language.

  • Anne Marie Cádiz

    Awesome. I am a native spanish speaker & my second language is english. I am trying to decide which language will be better for me to learn & also for my future. Now in the order that I saw in the article its 1.Hindi 2.Korean 3. Turkish I would love to learn Korean because its the language that I had been exposed while watching Dramas but I am also highly interested in Hindi & Turkish. Any comments? Thank you :)

  • Adrian

    The article is very interesting and informative—thank you Heather! Thank you also for including personal information about yourself. (It makes one appreciate the article more). I have a question for you to help me research. What do you know about the Romanian language’s critical status? I mean, obviously, it is not on this short list of 13; however, I have seen it appear on other, more extended listings of languages short on supply and higher on demand. I look forward to your knowledgeable response—thank you again.

  • Ben

    Hi, I’d be interested to share a little further – I’m in similar situation!

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