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In the course of my Chinese adventures, all other languages started to seem a lot easier. So needless to say that Esperanto, one of the easiest of them all, looks like just a walk in the park now. In particular, I’m interested in what the glossophiles here think about it, i.e. yalensis and Lazy Glossophiliac. Here are my rambling thoughts on it:

* It is easy. VERY easy. I have been studying it for three days, and I can already say many phrases: e.g. the one in the title (“Esperanto is the easiest language in the world”). Its vocabulary is about 60% Latinic, 30% Anglic-Germanic and 10% Slavic; its grammar is simplified Latinic; its morphology and semantics are largely Slavonic. Being a natural language, everything is very logical, it is entirely phonetic and there are no exceptions. Root words can be easily transformed from verbs (add in “i) to adjectives (add an “e), an adjective (add an “a), a place where it is done (add “ej”), a professional who does it (add “ist”), a female version (add “ino”), a diminished version (add “et”), a magnified version (add “eg”), etc. For people with some familiarity with European languages, the vocabulary is a piece of cake. It will be a lot tougher for Asians, but nonetheless even for them it will still be an order of magnitude easier than starting from a natural language.

* Despite its easiness, I’m discovering Esperanto is very flexible. In a sense, even more so than languages like English or Chinese, which are largely bound by the Subject-Verb-Object structure. Though I may change my mind as I get more advanced, so far it seems to me to be as flexible as Russian, which is amazing considering its grammar is orders of magnitude simpler. Quite frankly, of the languages I’ve looked at it in any detail, it is my favorite by far (the full rankings: Esperanto; Spanish; Russian; Latin; Chinese; English; French; German).

* Why learn it? First, there are studies showing that students who spent a year learning Esperanto were able to assimilate French and other languages quicker thereafter, eventually overtaking the control groups that didn’t study Esperanto. Only about one year max is needed for Esperanto fluency. But there are accounts of some people accomplishing it in days. There are monthly meetings of Esperantists in the Bay Area. I’m planning to attend the next one, and I already feel I won’t be embarrassed to open my mouth. By then I will probably be far better at it than at Chinese, which I’m studying for the fourth month now; a depressing thought, that.

This brings us to the second reason why Esperanto is awesome – it would make for an excellent global lingua franca. That was the original intention of Zamenhof, its late 19th century inventor, who growing up as a Jew in Russian Poland envisioned language uniting people. Knowing Polish, Russian, German, French, Hebrew, Yiddish, English, Latin, Ancient Greek and a few others, he was eminently qualified for the advancing his vision, and Esperanto today is by far the most popular “artificial” language. It is also the only one with a truly global culture, with strong communities throughout East-Central Europe, and in Russia, China, Japan, and California.

Third, the members of this community are almost invariably going to be more interesting than the average person (them having taken the trouble to study an artificial language for what are mostly intellectual or idealistic purposes). It has strong historical associations with movements for world peace, socialism, environmentalism, anti-imperialism, civil rights, and other progressive causes. And most of the maniacs of the 20th century like Hitler, Stalin, and imperial Japan hated it, which I guess is also a recommendation of sorts.

In today’s world, it would behove the Rest to adopt it to undermine the ideological hegemony of the West, which seeks to dictate its values to the rest of mankind. For instance, consider India, where English is kind of like French was in 18th century Russia. A way for the Indian comprador elites to rub in their social dominance by association with a “superior” foreign culture into the faces of the peasants and workers. The solution is people’s struggle and an end to linguistic imperialism, which can be achieved by making Hindi the sole official language, providing support for local languages, and teaching Esperanto as a medium for communication with the outside world.

* There are many criticisms of Esperanto. Many of them are unwarranted. For instance, some people say that its grammar is still too hard. I disagree. If you make it simpler, the language will begin to lose a lot of its current expressiveness and flexibility. It will make it even simpler for learners, thought it’s already extremely simple, but at what I perceive to be great linguistic expense.

I will focus on two valid criticisms. First, the number of speakers is very low. Of those who are truly fluent, there are no more than one million in the world; perhaps another ten million can speak it somewhat (whom I joined in the past week). There are several reasons for this. The biggest one is that nationalism has always fatally gotten in the way of its widespread adaptation.

Back in the 1920′s, the French vetoed a League of Nations initiative to make Esperanto the international language of diplomacy. Their logic was that French was a uniquely perfect language and good enough for everybody. Then it got displaced by English after 1945, and no doubt the French are now ruing their choice. Is anyone in any doubt whatsoever that the French would much rather now be speaking Esperanto than English?

But the Americans now have the same attitude of linguistic chauvinism. They assume they will be at the top forever, and so will their language. China will beg to differ. And if the gap between them gets big enough, Chinese will become the new lingua franca, despite its difficulty. And then it will be the Anglo-Saxons seething at the cosmic injustice of it all.

At least Esperanto is based on European languages, so it makes all the more sense for the West to promote its use.

The second reason for the low numbers of speakers constitutes a classic chicken and egg problem. You can’t have many people who want to learn it before you have a large number of speakers. The only way for this to be resolved is for the government of a large and important country to expend substantial resources on teaching Esperanto, but why bother when no-one else has? In this respect, it’s like global action on climate change – benefits are magnified only when everybody else does it. But just like cutting carbon emissions which leads to greater energy efficiency and less dependence on oil supplies, however, teaching Esperanto also provides net benefits – as mentioned above, it makes the acquisition of other languages easier, as students who master Esperanto feel more confident and linguistically aware. Once a critical mass of Esperanto speakers is reached, its spread should become self-perpetuating – for instance, if just two of the BRIC’s countries, like Brazil and India, were to implement it, many people elsewhere would learn it just for the business and travel opportunities. Recently, a plan to free schools to teach Esperanto was passed in the Brazilian parliament.


Third third reason is that there have been a number of “dissident” minorities from Esperanto who have pushed through their own reforms. One of them resulted in the language Ido, with a simplified grammar. But these movements are not sustainable, because they in turn will beget their own sectarians, resulting in numerous warring factions that negate the entire purpose of having a World Language in the first place. The lesson is that for international success, petty grievances and annoyances with the language as it currently exist must not be allowed to undermine the united front of the Esperanto movement. In other words, Esperantists who regard their language as something greater than just their personal intellectual plaything must act on the basis of democratic centralism – they can feel free to debate policy and direction, but they must respect the majority will. This isn’t my own ideological quirk. J.R.R. Tolkien, a conservative, recognized the same thing back in 1932.

* The second big problem as I see it is that the default gender of a noun is masculine, which although uncontroversial in Zamenhof’s days even among progressives, is becoming increasingly politically incorrect today. For instance, a “patro” is a father, unless specified to be a mother by making the word into “patrino”.

One stopgap solution is to just treat the current masculine gender as a neutral, and have the reader specify its sex from the context. But this is too awkward. One suggestion for reform, implemented in places but as yet unsupported by the central Esperanto authorities, is to reclassify all nouns ending in -o as neutral, while designating -oĉo as a masculine suffix in line with -ino as the feminine. There are several other possible solutions, but I prefer this one the most. My own addition would be to also add female-specific words for common terms like mother (“patrino” to “matro”) and sister (“fratrino” to “sororo”).

Implemented under democratic centralism, I do not see this becoming a divisive issue. All languages evolve in tandem with social progress, leaving behind “archaic” remanents. Why should Esperanto be any different?

* In Chinese, Esperanto is literally “World Language” (世界语).

* Books I use include Esperanto – Learning and Using the International Language, by David RICHARDSON, and I am soon getting Being Colloquial in Esperanto: A Reference Guide by David K. JORDON. Practice can be acquired through meetups with local Esperantists. This is a good dictionary.

* Because it is still a fairly marginal language, there are few original novels or films in Esperanto. It is up to Esperantists to maintain hope – that is, after all, what the very name of the language is derived from – and to work to change this state of affairs.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
• Tags: Languages, Learning 
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So today I finished my intensive Chinese class, which I celebrated by drinking lots of 啤酒 (and silently toasting the heroic oppositionistas struggling against UK bourgeois state tyranny). Here is my third set of observations.

1. Most other languages now look really easy, especially Spanish which I’ve long planned to learn but never really found myself sufficiently motivated to do so. The time it takes to memorize one Hanzi is probably sufficient to memorize 5-10 Spanish words.

2. Speaking of Hanzi, this test estimates that I know about 700-800 of them. This puts me about half-way to becoming a barely literate Chinese peasant. Or, in foreign language acquisition terms, either a high Low Intermediate or a very low High Intermediate.

3. There’s an extremely useful I found called Remembering the Hanzi. As I already figured out for myself, the most effective way to do so is to memorize stories specific to Hanzi (the more graphic, funny and/or obscene the better). This book provides stories and templates for stories for the 1500 most frequent Hanzi. Now that formal classes have ended I’ll probably be systematically working through it.

4. THAT SAID, its not as bad as that. As I’ve taken care to emphasize throughout there are many mitigating factors to Chinese that make it far easier than what it’s sometimes held out to be. For instance… On the one hand, remembering Hanzi is hard, and the fact that 99%+ of the words have no connection to the Indo-European makes vocab difficult for European language speakers. BUT! As words are based on syllables, often just one, two, or at at most three of them (anything above three is very rare) means there are far less components to memorize for each word; furthermore, and this is VERY IMPORTANT, every syllable stands for an idea that very often connects deeply with the meaning of the word it is used to create. So, for example, an office is 办公室 – the first character means to handle or manage; the second means public; and the third means institution. All very logical.

Place names and people names are all different, by virtue of the fact that exact or near-exact transliteration from Western languages into Chinese is impossible by dint of the latter’s limited set of syllable sounds. This is very frustrating, because to truly master Chinese, one has to also master the Chinese perceptions of all other world cultures. To take an example, if we want to talk about Vladimir Putin, we can be fairly sure that his name will be more or less the same across all European languages, with some minor variations like “Wladimir” (De.) or “Poutine” (Fr.). Not so in Chinese, where his name would be pronounced Fúlājīmǐ’ěr Pǔjīng. If you don’t know that and just say his Russian name, I would imagine most Chinese wouldn’t know what you’re talking about.

PS. My own Chinese name is 林安德 / Lín’āndé.

PSS. Speaking of Putin, my congratulations on his recent discovery of Atlantis off Russia’s Black Sea coast. He is truly a god among men.

5. About half the Hanzi are the same in both Traditional and Simplified script, plus in many cases the changes are pretty minor. However, they are more complex, and small changes may confuse more than they help, so learning both sets is – I would estimate – perhaps 50% more work. Reading older texts and getting a deeper appreciation for the language required some knowledge of Traditional, so I’ll be doing that.

One silver lining to the cloud is that Traditional Hanzi are the same as Japanese kanji. This massively simplified the process of learning Japanese to someone who knows Chinese. Perhaps I’ll diversify into Japanese once I move from Low Intermediate to Advanced in Chinese. No, Scowspi, not because my Sino-Triumphalism is waning. ;)

6. A linguistic gem from the third best site on the Internet ( is first, this one is second), Cracked: Chinese Words Don’t Sound Cool in English.

Unfortunately, while Japanese names look pretty cool written in English (Akira, Kamiko, Yakuza, Chicken Katsu Bento), Chinese names sound pretty lame (Yun-Fat, Chee Hwa, Haier, Egg Foo Young). My own Chinese name is Porchin, which using the modern pinyin system, still comes out to an unglamorous Buoqing. You want to name yourself “great king”? Have fun being “da wang.” Sometimes immigrants get lucky when their last names transliterate into something cool, like, “Fang,” but more often than not, they will end up like our family friends, the Poons.

The pinyin system really doesn’t help the coolness factor by introducing all those Q’s and X’s. (Pro tip: They’re pretty much just “ch” and “sh” respectively.) Instead of sounding exotic and mysterious, I sound like a really desperate Scrabble cheater.

But another reason to study Japanese! ;) Will no doubt provide a wealth of good names for the fantasy series I will write in my glorious literary future.

7. Speculations on lingua franca. Many people believe that English will remain the world’s lingua franca long past the time the US cedes economic primacy to China (of course, many people deny even that will happen… but by this point such thinking can only be described as delusional). I was long in agreement with this, on the basis that:

  1. Chinese is really hard.
  2. Authoritarianism doesn’t go well with soft power.
  3. Inertia: it will take ages to change. See Latin in post-medieval Europe, or the lingering influence of French.
  4. The Anglo-Saxon cultural bloc, by which I mean the US, Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and a few minor others has a population of 450mn; a population that per capita will remain richer than China’s for the foreseeable future.

I still think these are valid factors, but several qualifiers need to be mentioned. First, the hardness element is overrated. Hanzi are hard. Writing in pinyin (with the option of automatic Hanzi conversion); reading pinyin, or even Hanzi (with the help of instant translation software on cell phones); and speaking, are quantitatively no more difficult to master than fairly simple European languages. In fact, typical “Business Chinese” courses focus only on the speaking and pinyin parts, foregoing the Hanzi element entirely. I think that at least in this sphere Chinese has a chance of becoming a global (and not only a regional) lingua franca by the 2040′s or so.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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It’s been a few weeks since my last post on learning Chinese, so here is new info for anyone interested.

1. In case you missed a late update to the original post: “Because of the simplicity of the grammar, Chinese often feels like slang to speakers used to more formalized languages; i.e. slang such as ebonics. A good example is Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn (好久不见), which literally means “Long time no see.” Apparently it made its way into Anglo slang through Chinese immigrants in San Francisco…”

2. Many Chinese province names are amazingly literal. For instance, Shandong (山东) means “east of the mountains”; Hebei (河北) and Henan (河南) mean north and south of the river, respectively, while Hubei (湖北) and Hunan (湖南) mean north and south of the lake; Guangxi (广西) and Guangdong (广东) refer to west and east widths, respectively; Yunnan (云南) has connotations of south clouds; and the island province of Hainan (海南) means south sea. Likewise for cities. Xi’an (西安) is the western peace; Shanghai 上海 means “on the sea” (sort of like Приморье?); and, of course, the various jing’s denote capitals. So Beijing (北京) is the north capital, Nanjing (南京) is the south capital, and Dongjing (东京) – otherwise known as Tokyo – is the east capital. The very name of the country is literally the “Middle Kingdom” (中国).

3. A friend (and 同学) recently told me that when he was traveling in China this past year, he came across a group of schoolchildren on the train out on a school excursion. They were eager to practice their English and they spoke surprisingly well. This wasn’t Beijing or Shanghai, but a relatively rural backwater. This anecdote supports the contention made on this blog that human capital in the youngest Chinese generations is at least as rich if not more so than in the West – what percentage of Americans can fluently speak a second language? – and as such this guarantees the country’s rapid future development.

It is a very studious and test-based culture. You can see this on a recent BBC series on the Chinese school system. Many foreign critics, as well as many Chinese themselves, argue that the focus on group and rote learning undermines individual creativity and stunts individual development. (That is partly why so many aspire to send their children to Western universities like Oxford or Princeton). To an extent they have a point; certainly, given the rapidly diminishing returns to studying more than an hour or two per day (as the brain can only absorb so much), spending all day in the classroom or library is very ineffective, almost idiotic even. That said I would argue that even that system is still superior to what passes for education in many schools in Latin America, where it seems little gets done or taught (see PISA scores); and increasingly, in many Western countries (where the focus on individual creativity and self-esteem has reached such ridiculous levels that they directly get in the way of learning basic facts and skills).

4. Western (and Russian) conceptions of time envisage it as going from left to right. The Chinese envisage it going from top to bottom; for instance, next week is literally “below” or “downwards” week. This is more accurate, reflecting the law of increasing entropy.

5. Just for yalensis. ;) This poem is a good illustration of why alphabetising the language really is a bad idea.


Shíshì shīshì Shī Shì, shì shī, shì shí shí shī.
Shì shíshí shì shì shì shī.
Shí shí, shì shí shī shì shì.
Shì shí, shì Shī Shì shì shì.
Shì shì shì shí shī, shì shǐ shì, shǐ shì shí shī shìshì.
Shì shí shì shí shī shī, shì shíshì.
Shíshì shī, Shì shǐ shì shì shíshì.
Shíshì shì, Shì shǐ shì shí shì shí shī.
Shí shí, shǐ shí shì shí shī, shí shí shí shī shī.
Shì shì shì shì.

6. At least in the US, many Chinese restaurants have different names in English and Chinese. For instance, the “Great China” restaurant in Berkeley is actually called “Bountiful Harvest Year” (丰年) in Chinese. Westerners and legal documents know it as “Great China”; the local Chinese community knows it by its Chinese name.

According to street wisdom, in some cases this discrepancy arises out of the desire to avoid paying taxes. Competition is stiff, profit margins are low, and any advantage helps. Once the IRS latches on to a restaurant, it changes its English name and reconstitutes, while its Chinese-name “brand” remains intact. (Obviously, in no sense am I implying that “Great China”, which is a famous and long-established institution, engages in this practice. It is mostly small eateries in America’s Chinatowns).

7. Just as Westerners think of the Confucian cultures as “Asian”, “The East”, “East Asia”, with little accounting for differences between Vietnamese and Koreans – let alone Fujianese and Manchurians – so do many Chinese bracket in Italians and Americans and Swedes as belonging to a monolithic “West.” This can come across in language. For instance, the entirety of what we think of as “modern” medicine is known as “Western medicine” (西医) whereas traditional Chinese remedies relying more on acupuncture, herbs, etc. is “central medicine” (中医).

8. The Chinese name for San Francisco is literally Old Gold Mountain (旧金山).

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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li-river Seeing as I’m known as a “Sino-triumphalist” anyway why not go the full nine yards and learn the language? That is what I’m doing (c. 300-500 汉字 to date) and here are my thoughts so far.

1. Tones. In stark contrast to every major European language, Chinese pronunciation is based on tones. Four of them: one that stays high, one that rises high, one that dips then rises high, and one that falls sharply (there’s also a neutral tone). Very confusing at first, though I’m sure Vietnamese is worse.

2. Hanzi. The written language is based on hieroglyphs, each of which represent an idea or concept that can either stand alone or be combined to form a word. Some of these can be pretty inventive, e.g. a computer 电脑 is composed of the characters for electricity and brain; or to take an older example, a conscience 良心 is literally a “good heart.” A panda is a “big bear-cat” (大熊猫).

The characters themselves can be full of meaning. E.g. the heart (心) plays a big role in many related concepts, such as interesting, lit. “has meaning” (有意思) or “read aloud” presumably with ‘all your heart’ (念).

Or to give a fundamental example take “your honorable name” (贵姓). The first symbol, honorable, has a conchie shell in the bottom half; in ancient times, they were used as currency, and seeing as “honorable people” were those with many conchie shells, hence the character (this association of wealth with honor is intrinsic to all cultures; consider, for instance, богатый (rich person) and a богатырь (hero)). The second symbol, name, combines the characters for woman (女) and the interrelated concepts of life, birth, and livelihood (生); one possible explanation put forth is that ancient China was matrimonial, and names passed down the mother’s side. The Hanzi “to rule” (治) is intimately connected with the idea of managing water, as indicated by the radical for water at the left. These examples can be multiplied indefinitely; suffice to say, the etymology is fascinating.

In the vast majority of cases, the meanings aren’t clear and you have to invent your own if you want to stand a chance of remembering the Hanzi. Random example – the character for Korea (韩国). Being the geopolitics freak that I am, I remembered the first symbol by imagining the top as the North and the bottom as the South. On the left side of 韩, the two sides are separated by a minefield; on the right side, the curl on the southern side indicates that South Korea is the stronger of the two. Of course, after this remembering the symbol for the game of go, or wéiqí (围棋) as it is known in Chinese, became much easier; the left symbol represented a battleground, e.g. like that of the Korean peninsula, but confined to a square board.

I might be weird that way but associating hanzi with something edgy or mildly degenerate can be more effective. E.g., take the character for “want” (要); the lower half can be associated with “wanting” a woman (女). This in turn can make the first character for “pretty” (漂亮) much easier to remember, as the top part of 要 is the same as the top part of 漂. It also has a water radical, so you imagine that woman as a water nymph. The “measure word” (more on that later) for class periods is 节; the symbol at the top of it stands for grass, and can be memorized by thinking about how much you’d rather be smoking it than going to class.

3. Grammar. Is very easy. Almost baby speak. No real past or future tense; perfectly valid to say “Next Thursday I go to play pool.” No gender; even “he” and “she” sound the same, though the Hanzi are slightly different (他, 她). No dative or genitive or objective or those other cases they torture you with in German or Latin (or Russian, for that matter, though never having had a formal Russian education I was lucky enough to escape that). That said usage of the element that indicates completion (了) can get quite tricky when forming complicated sentences. Also, though there are no plurals, when you want to specify a quantity of something, you have to add what is called a “measure word”, so, for example, if you want to say three pens you say 三枝笔, which is the character for three (三), followed by the measure word (枝), followed by pen (笔). There are different measure words for different objects; in this case, 枝 is the general measure word for long and inflexible objects. This can make life difficult, though thankfully in most cases the measure word 个 is standard and will suffice. Nonetheless, grammar is probably an order of magnitude easier than English (let alone Russian or Japanese). It is an incredibly direct and straightforward language.

4. I largely agree with David Moser’s Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard, but I think that he exaggerates a lot. In particular, in today’s technological society there are a lot of IT tools that easen the problems he identifies.

  • Pleco is an app for the iPhone (and coming soon for Droid – can’t wait) that is really, really cool. You point you phone’s camera at a character, be it on paper or on a computer screen, and it translates it for you and gives it to you in pinyin. A must have if you go to China.
  • Perapera-kun (Mozilla) and Zhongwen (Chrome) are popup dictionaries; hover your mouse over a character in your browser, and pinyin and definitions come up. As David correctly points out using a paper dictionary is very frustrating.
  • Our bustest bud Google Translate.
  • You have to pay a small monthly fee for it, but Skritter is really useful for assembling lists of Hanzi and studying them. There is an option in the aforementioned Zhongwen program to automatically add words that you look up with it to Skritter with a single press of a key button.
  • You should, obviously, install a program that converts pinyin (the Latinized script) into Hanzi. Windows has it as an add-on.
  • IN ADDITION: Commentator Glossy below also recommends Zhongwen etymology dictionary and Anki flash cards.

5. There is a big debate on the efficacy of Simplified vs. Traditional characters. I’m a firm supporter of Simplified because it is much easier, shorter, and – Traditionalist propaganda to the contrary – in many cases simply more logical. Granted, there are a few changes in Simplified that were idiotic and destructive. For instance, the character for love is 爱, missing out the heart radical that is in the Traditional 愛. This kind of removes the whole point. And 電, with its rain symbol at the top (i.e. associated with thunder, lightning) is a better character for electricity than the Simplified 电. But a few cases like this aside, Simplified is better.

6. Some weird cultural quirks. The word for comrade (同志) has gone from being a standard form of address in the 1950′s to only being used by a few elderly stalwarts and formal Communist Party rhetoric… and the country’s emerging LGBT community! Mao wouldn’t be happy. Apparently, a “red book” (红书) now denotes pornography; I don’t if that has any Maoist connotations. For a man “to eat tofu” is to take advantage of his female friends, so guys, don’t run around being cheesy.

EDIT 7/7: An additional observation. Because of the simplicity of the grammar, Chinese often feels like slang to speakers used to more formalized languages; i.e. slang such as ebonics. A good example is Hǎo jiǔ bù jiàn (好久不见), which literally means “Long time no see.” Apparently it made its way into Anglo slang through Chinese immigrants in San Francisco…

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
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Knowing a second language is a highly desirable trait in today’s world, especially if your work or hobbies have an international focus. But for most people, learning languages is an arduous undertaking, constituting a big investment of intellectual resources. The best advice is to learn something you enjoy or gives you meaning, as by far the biggest challenge in learning any language is maintaining the motivation to keep studying and improving month after month. But if you’re one of those who have difficulties choosing, perhaps this list will help. I rank the languages based on their global importance (demography; economic & political influence), ease of learning, and personal usefulness (e.g. good tourist destinations; are in demand).

1. English is first, without competition. It is the world’s lingua franca, with people from different non-Anglophone countries frequently using it to communicate among themselves. About a third of the world’s population understands it to some extent. Almost all international business, academic, and diplomatic discourse is held in the language of Shakespeare. In many European countries, it is now hard to hold down high-paying professional jobs without some command of this language. Fortunately, English is relatively easy to learn.

2. Español is arguably the second most desirable language, at least for Americans. It will facilitate communications with Spanish-speaking citizens (especially in the south), as well as enrich travels in Latin America or Spain. It is a UN language. But best of all, the language of Cervantes, Borges, and 700 million other people is by far the easiest to learn on this list.

3. 中文 is the language of the country that is trending to become the next global superpower. China has 1.3 billion people, the world’s biggest industrial economy, and a multi-millennial cultural heritage. It is a UN language. Out of the Chinese languages, I unreservedly recommend Mandarin, as it’s both the official language and dominant in most of the country (and is now displacing Cantonese in the south). Speaking Chinese is relatively easy, once you get over the tones – though that is quite important, seeing as getting the pitch wrong could make you confuse your mother for a horse. The grammar is very simple. But the writing system, based on hieroglyphs (or characters), is fiendishly complex, to the extent that even many Chinese themselves never fully master it. See Why Chinese Is So Damn Hard by David Moser.

4. Русский is spoken by about 250 million people in Eurasia, as well as many older people in East-Central Europe. The Russian language also boasts the world’s second largest repository of scientific and technical literature. One can indulge in the literary achievements of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, or benefit from Russia’s (re)emergence as a major energy and business power. It is a UN language. It is a relatively hard language, with a grammar that is complex, but logical and consistent; it is probably the easiest of the “hard” languages.

5. العربية is the language of the Arab world, with perhaps 400 million speakers, and is the holy language of the Koran. In recent years, the importance of Arabic to the global discourse on energy and security has become very significant. Speakers are now in demand and well compensated, though whether this will last is another question. Most of the culture of Classical Europe was preserved in Arabic texts, as were the theories of many medieval philosophers, such as Averroes and Ibn Khaldun. It is a UN language. Featuring a hard writing system and very complex grammar, Arabic is a very difficult language to learn, probably the third most difficult (after Chinese and Japanese) on this list. Adding to your woes, Arabic dialects vary substantially.

6. Français plays a major historical role, as it was the European lingua franca prior to English. It remains the second international language, with 130 million native or bilingual speakers. About half of those are in France, and another half is spread out across West Africa and the Maghreb. French is also a hugely influential language in the European Union, which has its capital in francophone Brussels. In the North American continent, it is spoken in Quebec and parts of the American South. That said, unless you’re a diplomat, EU bureaucrat, or existentialist philosopher, knowing French is far less useful than it was fifty years ago. It is relatively easy, similar to English.

7. Português is fast becoming an increasingly attractive choice because of the emergence of Brazil as a major economic and resource power. Learning it will differentiate you from the multitudes who learn Spanish. Spoken by 200 million people. It’s trickier than Spanish, but no harder than English or French.

8. 日本語 is the language of Japan, which remains a major economic power (if one that is being steadily eclipsed). Spoken by 130 million people. Very hard language, with complex grammar and a panoply of honorifics that change based on gender, situation, and social status. Fun anecdote from Japanese acquaintance: since Japanese girls are attracted to white foreign males who are studying the language there, those “unfortunates” end up speaking like girls. Arguably, harder than Chinese. See Learning Curves: Chinese vs. Japanese by John Pasden.

9. Türkçe is the language of the foremost Middle East power, with similar dialects spoken across Turkic Central Asia. Spoken by about 100 million people, it is perhaps easier than commonly thought (hence the reason it makes the list).

10. Deutsch is the language of Mitteleuropa, and a useful one to know for Europeans and aficionados of 20th century history. It is also a solid business language, due to German exports and economic prominence in the Eurozone. Since most young Germans know English, and with the Vaterland in demographic decline, the German language is likely to continue falling in prominence. Spoken by 100 million people. It is similar to English in ease of learning, with a harder grammar, but more logical structure.

The major contenders that didn’t make the list include:

  • Korean is relatively important, but has limited potential for further growth in global influence, not to mention being almost as hard as Japanese or Chinese. Has only 70 million speakers.
  • Italian and Polish are two other major European countries, but don’t have any special international significance.
  • Hindi would have made the list, as the official language of India, except for the fact that in practice Indians mostly use local languages or English to communicate among themselves.
  • Farsi is a cool language to know for Middle East specialists.

Rating Languages

Since I have a bit of a mania for quantizing things… In the following table, I rate each language for:

  • Influence / 10 – Approximately, what kind of economic, demographic, cultural, historical, and prospective influence does said language have at the global level?
  • Usefulness / 10 – How useful is said language for getting jobs, standing out of the crowd, exploiting new economic opportunities, having fun in cool touristy places, etc? Note that having a large number of English speakers actually undermines a country’s rating here (because then it’s not as important to know their language), which is one of several reasons why, say, French scores higher than German.
  • Hardness / 4 – Rough estimation. For the “1″ languages, it takes about one year to become fully fluent; about 2-3 years for the “2″ languages”; about 5 years for the “3″ languages; and 10 or more years for the “4″ languages (many foreigners never manage to achieve native level mastery).

The Language Utility Index (LUI) is calculated by Influence * Usefulness / Hardness.

Language Influence Useful? Hardness LUI
English 10 10 2 50
Spanish 4 6 1 24
Chinese 6 8 4 12
Russian 6 4 3 8
Arabic 4 4 4 4
Portuguese 3 3 2 4.5
French 4 4 2 8
Japanese 3 3 4 2.25
Turkish 2 2 3 1.33
German 3 2 2 3

Additional links of possible interest

Robert Lindsay’s series: What’s The Hardest Language To Learn?, More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Indo-European Languages, More On The Hardest Languages To Learn – Non-Indo-European Languages. BTW, Robert is an intriguing and counter-intuitive thinker in general, with many interesting thoughts on fields as diverse as Marxism, linguistics, the Jews, and race and IQ.

How to Learn Any Language in 3 Months by Tim Ferriss, and Simple guide to speaking foreign languages by Zen Habits.

Fluent in 3 months is a blog dedicated to the science of learning languages fast.

The Lazy Glossophiliac has an unscientific comparison of Russian, English, German, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Chinese.

Fluent Historian is a new blog by Natalie (previously at Birdbrain) with many personal anecdotes about learning Russian. Zsuzsi’s Playground is a blog in a similar vein.

(Republished from Sublime Oblivion by permission of author or representative)
Anatoly Karlin
About Anatoly Karlin

I am a blogger, thinker, and businessman in the SF Bay Area. I’m originally from Russia, spent many years in Britain, and studied at U.C. Berkeley.

One of my tenets is that ideologies tend to suck. As such, I hesitate about attaching labels to myself. That said, if it’s really necessary, I suppose “liberal-conservative neoreactionary” would be close enough.

Though I consider myself part of the Orthodox Church, my philosophy and spiritual views are more influenced by digital physics, Gnosticism, and Russian cosmism than anything specifically Judeo-Christian.