Best Languages to Learn to Get Ahead in Your Career
In this increasingly global economy, learning a new language, especially one less-studied by your competitors in the job market, can greatly boost your chances of landing lucrative work.
In this increasingly global economy, learning a new language, especially one less-studied by your competitors in the job market, can greatly boost your chances of landing lucrative work. In 2014 alone, nearly half a million job postings in the U.S. specifically requested foreign-language proficiency. Many more hiring managers will look favorably upon bilingual candidates. After all, recent studies suggest that bilingual brains process information more efficiently than their monolingual counterparts.
To build our ranking, we began with a list of the 23 languages with the most native speakers, ranging from Mandarin Chinese to Farsi, the Persian language of Iran. With the help of Burning Glass Technologies, a job-market analytics firm, we ranked the languages according to their value in the job market—both in the U.S. and in other English-speaking countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and the United Kingdom. We also spoke to labor experts to project growth in demand for each language.
Take a look at the 10 best languages for your career.
1. Mandarin Chinese
- Native speakers: 848 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 21,770; total, English-speaking countries: 72,597
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $43,680; English-speaking total (in U.S. dollars): $30,637
More jobs require Chinese than any other foreign language except Spanish. And Mandarin is only the seventh-most-popular language studied by American undergrads, according to a recent report by the Modern Language Association of America. That means less competition for jobs requiring Mandarin, which range from retail and sales openings to personal financial advisers, who make a median salary of $148,750 a year, according to Burning Glass.
The State Department, in its description of Mandarin as a "critical language" for Americans, cites a high demand for Chinese speakers in booming Asian economies, including China, Malaysia, Singapore and Taiwan.
If you decide to learn this top language for your career, prepare to study hard. The tonal language is consistently ranked as one of the most difficult for English speakers to pick up.
- Native speakers: 78.1 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 6,818; total: 52,841
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $52,000; total: $39,634
- The median U.S. salary for jobs requiring German is higher than for any other language on our list. Some popular, lucrative jobs requiring German include marketing manager (median salary: $117,500), sales manager ($103,750) and computer systems analyst ($137,500), one of Kiplinger’s best jobs for the future.
The German language has a reputation for being among the hardest European languages to learn. American writer Mark Twain wrote, “Surely there is not another language that is so slipshod and systemless, and so slippery and elusive to the grasp.” Ultimately, your proficiency in German may help you to capture something even more elusive: a lucrative job. German multinationals such as Bayer, Deutsche Bank and Siemens abound in the U.S., and many value German fluency in potential employees.
“Given the longstanding strength of German-speaking countries in science, technology and industry, German remains a major language of international trade and investment,” says Jan Eckendorf, deputy head of the cultural section of the German Embassy. “Only about 500,000 Americans are learning German—so what better way to stand out from the crowd?”
- Native speakers: 203 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 9,769; total: 15,353
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $42,500; total: $40,626
Portuguese is the fourth-most-popular language sought in U.S. job openings, behind only Mandarin, Spanish and French. Sure, there are 32 times more U.S. job listings for Spanish speakers than for people fluent in Portuguese. But consider this: More than 60 times more undergrads are learning Spanish than Portuguese, according to the Modern Language Association. That gives Portuguese-speaking job seekers a competitive edge. Some of the most in-demand, lucrative jobs requiring Portuguese are sales manager (median salary: $104,000) and marketing manager ($110,000).
Portuguese is the main language of Brazil, the eighth-largest economy in the world and host to the 2016 Summer Olympics. Brazil has been struggling recently; inflation is high, the country’s gross domestic product is contracting, and some doubt Brazil can hold its place among the world’s other large economies. Nevertheless, natural resources abound in the large developing country. John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, calls the Brazilian economy “the Germany of South America.”
- Native speakers: 128 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 9,069; total: 18,644
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $44,138; total: $39,314
Knowing Japanese grants you access to Japan’s high-tech economy, the third-largest in the world and consistently ranked as one of the most innovative. Japanese multinationals such as Sony, Toshiba and Toyota maintain U.S. offices, and many value Japanese proficiency in their potential employees. “Japanese people, [even if they] have learned English . . . have a strong language barrier when communicating with foreigners,” says Masahiko Seto, senior lecturer of Japanese at Yale University. “Learning Japanese is tremendously beneficial to doing business.”
U.S. jobs for Japanese speakers fall mainly in the sales and technology sectors. Top jobs include sales representative (median salary: $50,000), software developer ($72,500) and product manager ($75,000).
- Native speakers: 399 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 314,981; total: 331,490
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $36,502; total: $36,544
You don’t have to travel far to use your Spanish skills; Spanish is widely spoken throughout the southern hemisphere and is the second-most-popular language in the U.S. Employers demand Spanish more often than all other languages on this list combined.
So why is it relatively low in our rankings? Two reasons: the lowest median salary among all languages on our list and an abundance of Spanish speakers in the job marketplace. Spanish is by far the most widely studied language in American colleges and universities, according to a 2013 report by the Modern Language Association of America. Plus, you will be competing with millions of Americans for whom Spanish is a first language.
Still, there’s growth potential in sectors such as health care, banking and retail, which will serve growing immigrant populations from Latin America, says Nicole Smith of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Two jobs that most commonly request Spanish fluency, health services manager and registered nurse, are on our list of best jobs for the future.
- Native speakers: 77.2 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 6,018; total: 8,478
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $44,720; total: $41,655
Korean is useful for far more than deciphering the next K-pop hit (remember “Gangnam Style”?). South Korea’s vibrant tech-based economy includes multinational companies such as Samsung, Hyundai, Kia and LG, as well as a thriving start-up scene.
“It’s important for Koreans to personally know their business partners, so even a little bit of Korean language can go a long way toward cementing that trust,” says Adam Wojciechowicz, who works at the Korean Cultural Center with the Embassy of the Republic of Korea.
A word of caution if you seek to add multiple languages to your résumé: Learning Korean isn’t likely to help your study of others on this list. That’s because Korean is a language isolate, which is a language with no clear relationship to any other language.
- Native speakers: 75.9 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 14,749; total: 63,536
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $38,480; total: $38,851
Although French has a history as an official language of the United Nations, NATO and the Olympic Committee, these days Arabic or Farsi may give you a better shot at a diplomatic career. The three most in-demand professions requiring French are customer service representative, sales rep and school teacher.
Still, French and Belgian imperialism have left their mark on the world, and French remains the language of some rapidly developing countries, especially in Africa. Kiplinger forecasts a bright future for many African economies, including French-speaking Mauritius and Ivory Coast. “The global presence of the French language, especially in fast-growing African economies, will make French one of the most important languages of the future,” affirms Katarzyna Pieprzak, head of the French department at Williams College.
The language is the second-most-studied (behind only Spanish) in American classrooms, according to the Modern Language Association. French is relatively similar to English, and thus easier to learn, than many of the other languages listed here.
- Native speakers: 242 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 3,582; total: 7,801
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $37,440; total: $39,118
Arabic is the fifth-most-spoken language in the world, and growing U.S. interests abroad are heightening the importance of this language to employers public and private. Arabic and its dialects are found mostly in North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula and the Middle East.
“Demand for Arabic speakers will always be high,” says Challenger, of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, “partly because Arab countries still represent an area with business potential, particularly in the area of gas and energy, which will always be a vital part of the U.S. economy.”
Many job openings, especially in the government, look for fluency in Modern Standard Arabic. The State Department, in its description of Arabic, confirms, “Whether you're studying economics, anthropology, public health or history, there is a great demand for proficient Arabic speakers.” An intelligence analyst, one of the jobs most commonly requesting Arabic fluency, earns a median salary of $97,500. Most common, however, are openings for interpreters and translators, who make a median salary of $33,280.
- Native speakers: 260 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 645; total: 1,554
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $41,600; total: $36,304
- A bonus for those who learn Hindi: The Urdu language, with one of the highest median salaries ($60,000 in the U.S.) of the languages we examined, is easy for Hindi speakers to pick up; the two languages differ mostly in script.
India, where Hindi is the most widely spoken language, has consistently ranked among the fastest-growing economies in the world; some analysts expect it to overtake many developed economies in the coming years. The State Department writes, “As India's profile continues to skyrocket, proficiency in Hindi and the nuanced cultural knowledge gained through Hindi language study will be in high demand.”
Despite tremendous growth, Hindi, the fourth-most-spoken language in the world, is not popular among American students. The Modern Language Association found more students studying Hawaiian.
- Native speakers: 166 million
- Number of job postings in 2014: U.S.: 3,422; total: 11,341
- Median annual salary: U.S.: $41,600; total: $37,811
The language of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is increasingly becoming the language of oil and natural gas, two of Russia’s biggest products. Russia also continues to exert a strong influence over its former Soviet republics and large swaths of Asia, and it is looking to expand its economy even further.
The State Department writes, “Russian continues to be one of the most in-demand languages among employers in both the public and private sectors due to its international relevance and unique versatility.” In the U.S., however, most job openings for Russian speakers are customer service representatives (median annual salary: $29,640) and interpreters and translators ($31,200). Several labor experts we interviewed predicted a dimmer future for Russian than most other languages.