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November 2018

Which are the world’s most powerful languages?

Languages with the most influence in 2018

INSEAD, a private business school with locations across Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, recently released its 2018 list of world’s most powerful languages, seen here shared by a tweet from the Spectator Index. The languages are ranked as follows:

World's most powerful languages, 2018

  1. English
  2. French
  3. Mandarin
  4. Spanish
  5. Russian
  6. Arabic
  7. German
  8. Japanese
  9. Portuguese
  10. Hindi

It comes as no surprise that English tops the list, as it’s the de facto lingua franca of the world. The top six languages are also, not coincidentally, the official languages of the United Nations.

Immediately after sharing this list, Twitter users began responding critically, asking what makes one language more “powerful” than another, or, more specifically, why Spanish, which is spoken in numerous countries around the world, is ranked after French.

While INSEAD has yet to publish a summary of their 2018 findings, we can take a look at their 2017 study for more insight. Even more interesting is looking at how the list has changed over the year.

But what makes a language “powerful”? Is it the number of speakers who use the language that makes it strong? Or is influence deemed by how many countries speak said language?

What makes a language powerful?

Looking at the summary for the 2017 INSEAD study, authored by Dr. Kai L. Chan of Montreal, we get an immediate response to our primary question of what “powerful” entails:

  1. The ability to travel widely
  2. The ability to earn a livelihood
  3. The ability to communicate with others
  4. The ability to acquire knowledge and consume media
  5. The ability to engage in diplomacy

He additionally expands on his thought experiment with the simple premise: "If an alien were to land on Earth, what language would serve it best?" In other words, language power is deemed not solely by the number of its speakers, nor is it based on the number of countries using the language officially and how diplomatically powerful they are, but rather as a combination of all of these factors.

“The PLI (Power Language Index) compares the efficacy of more than one hundred languages in these five domains. It does so by mapping to languages a set of 20 indicators, such as GDP per capita, tourist flows and number of speakers, in a coherent and robust way. Each language is ranked for the doors it opens in each domain (labelled ‘geography’, ‘economy’, ‘communication’, ‘knowledge & media’ and ‘diplomacy’). An overall score is derived from these five sub-ranks, with diplomacy given less weight than the first four.”

How has the list changed over the year?

Mandarin has often been touted as the language to learn for the future, so it should come as a surprise to see it slipping a slot in this list. Note the differences from the 2017 list:

World's most powerful languages, 2017

  1. English
  2. Mandarin
  3. French
  4. Spanish
  5. Arabic
  6. Russian
  7. German
  8. Japanese
  9. Portuguese
  10. Hindi

(An interesting note added: "If all Chinese dialects/languages (Mandarin being the largest) are considered as one it would not change the rank ordering. However, if Urdu and Hindi—and all the Hindi dialects—are taken as one it would vault it past Portuguese and Japanese.”)

Between 2017 and 2018, we can see French surpassing Mandarin and Russian surpassing Arabic. This comes as a surprise to many as China continues to grow as an economic powerhouse, and companies like Huawei continue to push into foreign markets. Current political events may have some play on this change. To be certain, we’ll have to wait for the summary of the 2018 findings.

So which language should you learn?

Learning a language isn’t necessarily about power; it’s about fulfilling a cultural and personal desire. If you’re looking to be more useful in the workforce, it will come down to which language suits your industry the best. If you’re hoping to become a diplomat, then this list may be more relevant to you.

Dr. Chan closes with a reminder that learning a new language helps develop critical thinking skills, so any language you choose will ultimately be a good choice indeed.

Do you agree with the INSEAD list? What languages do you think are missing? Let us know your thoughts on our Facebook Page, and be sure to “like” TELC English for more articles on language and culture!