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