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What is the most valuable language to learn?

If you weren’t one of the 21% of Australians who grew up speaking a language other than English at home, maybe you’re thinking about how you can catch up.

Being able to speak a foreign language is an easily-overlooked skill that can provide boundless rewards, for both your career and personal life. Unfortunately, it’s a declining focus in Australia: those who learn a language in year 12 now make up less than 10% of total students. In the 1960s, the figure was closer to 40%.

A multitude of research suggests becoming bilingual is hugely beneficial for improving your cognitive abilities and cultural awareness. You’ll stand out from the pack and become more employable, both at home and around the world. Not to mention the perks of being able to communicate when you travel!

But which language should you choose? It’s a straightforward question, without a straightforward answer. To start, think about your situation: what industry are you looking to work in? Where can you see yourself living in the future? How much time and effort are you willing to dedicate to language learning?

Rebecca Fanany, Associate Professor in Indonesian at Deakin University, points out: ‘Value depends on what a person wants to do and the level of mastery they manage to achieve in the language in question. That is, poor knowledge of a “better” language is much less useful than better mastery of a “less popular” language.’

Every language has its pros and cons – and these will have different implications for different students. So we asked four experts to make the case for their language. We’ll leave it to you to decide which is best for you!

Arabic

Featured expert: Hakeem Kasem, Associate Professor of Arabic, Deakin University

How many speakers of Arabic exist worldwide?

‘More than 320 million people, making it the fifth most spoken language in the world. In addition, Arabic is the sacred language of over 1.2 billion muslims around the world.’

In which countries is Arabic spoken?

‘In more than 22 countries and over two continents. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, the Arab League, the Organisation of Islamic Conference and the African Union.’

What are the greatest career opportunities available to speakers of Arabic?

‘Learning MSA gives students access to the rich employment prospects in business or trade, health or education, IT or engineering, diplomacy or security. Many Deakin graduates with Arabic language and culture skills have secured full-time employment in key government and business corporations, both domestically and internationally.’

What are the most difficult aspects of learning Arabic for English speakers?

‘Some of the main challenges are in the pronunciation of some Arabic sounds, the writing system, and practicing MSA outside the confines of the classroom.

‘In order to address these challenges, Deakin pioneered an innovative and national award-winning online Arabic language program. Students are able to learn and practice Arabic beyond the confines of the classroom and gain fluency by developing skills in pronunciation, vocabulary, sentence structures, reading and writing.’

Why do you believe more people should learn Arabic?

‘The Arab world has a long history and an intellectual tradition that informed the basis of contemporary Western civilisation. Today, the Middle East is an area of tremendous growth and opportunity. Australia enjoys strong relationships with the Arabic-speaking countries through familial ties, trade, and education.’

Want to know more about studying Arabic?

Indonesian

Featured expert: Rebecca Fanany, Associate Professor of Indonesian and Course Director, Diploma of Language

How many speakers of Indonesian exist worldwide?

‘At least 250 million in Indonesia alone. If Malay is counted, the figure is over 300 million.’

In which countries is Indonesian spoken?

‘Indonesian is the national language of Indonesia. In a linguistic sense, it is considered to be a dialect of Malay. Malay is the national or official language of Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei Darussalam.’

What are the greatest career opportunities available to speakers of Indonesian? 

‘Opportunities exist in the fields of tourism, security, l telecommunications and media. Business in Indonesia is conducted mostly in English but some knowledge of the language is useful. High levels of Indonesian mastery are in great demand in the fields of intelligence, law enforcement, security and counter-terrorism.’

What are some challenges for English speakers when learning Indonesian? 

‘The structure and linguistic systems of Indonesian are very different from English. While this facilitates study at the most elementary level, the language can be very difficult because of its flexibility and lack of elements English speakers rely on, such as tense, number and gender. Many English speakers feel that Indonesian does not allow for the level of precision they are used because of these factors as well as the high dependency on context.’

Why do you believe more people should learn Indonesian?

‘The fact that Indonesia is so close to Australia geographically means that there are many issues that affect both countries. Indonesia has a very different type of society from Australia that includes elements that are important to Australia but that are very hard to understand without significant understanding of the language and culture.

‘The relationship between the two countries is not going to decrease in importance in the future because of their physical proximity, and it is important that more Australians have an expert knowledge of Indonesia that goes beyond the superficial impressions associated with tourism to Bali and the kinds of events that make news headlines.’

Want to know more about studying Indonesian?

'Value depends on what a person wants to do and the level of mastery they manage to achieve in the language in question. That is, poor knowledge of a “better” language is much less useful than better mastery of a “less popular” language.'

Assoc. Prof. Rebecca Fanany,
School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Mandarin Chinese

Featured expert: Guo-Qiang Liu, Associate Professor of Chinese, Deakin University

How many speakers of Mandarin Chinese exist worldwide?

‘Native: 873 million. As a second language: 178 million. Total: 1.051 billion.’

In which countries is Mandarin Chinese spoken?

‘Official language: Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore, Taiwan. In daily life: in every continent among the Chinese diaspora.’

What are the greatest career opportunities available to speakers of Mandarin Chinese? 

‘China has been a driving force in global economic development, and it is Australia’s largest trading partner. There is a great demand for people who can speak Mandarin, particularly in the business, law, tourism, education and banking industries.

‘Mandarin is also the second most important language in the business world, only after English. The ability to speak Mandarin will make you stand out in the employment market, because of the demand for Mandarin speakers and because being able to speak this difficult language is considered an exceptional achievement.’

What are some challenges for English speakers when learning Mandarin Chinese?

‘The writing system – Chinese characters which are pictographically based rather than alphabetically/phonetically based, which is what English speakers are used to.

‘Tones – Mandarin Chinese is a tonal language. In order to differentiate meaning, the same syllable can be pronounced with different tones.

‘Grammar, sentence structure and word ordering – they are to some degree different from those of English, so English speakers need to learn a new grammatical system.’

Why do you believe more people should learn Mandarin Chinese?

‘Chinese is the most spoken first language in the world and it is widely used throughout the world. Learning Chinese allows you to communicate with a large number of people and understand their culture, which has about 5000 years of history.’

Want to know more about studying Mandarin Chinese?

Spanish

Featured expert: Eugenia Demuro, Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies, Deakin University

How many speakers of Spanish exist worldwide?

‘Spanish is a major international language with more than 400 million speakers on five continents.’

In which countries is Spanish spoken?

‘It is the national or official language of more than 20 countries throughout the Americas and in Europe: Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela. Although not an official language, Spanish is also spoken in the United States, Belize, Andorra and Gibraltar.

‘Spanish is the third most widely spoken language in the world (after Mandarin and English).’

What are the greatest career opportunities available to speakers of Spanish?

‘Spanish language skills are strategic to Australia’s growing interests in Latin America, and are important across a range of international arenas in diplomacy, defence, security, and trade-related fields.

‘Spanish can also be an important asset in many careers, with graduates finding employment across a range of sectors in education, international relations and international studies, development and aid, and commerce.

‘Studying Spanish can complement discipline-studies, and can open doors to career paths not accessible without a knowledge of the language and culture, for example in arts, literature, translation and interpreting, publishing, sports, film, television or media in the Spanish-speaking world.’

What are some challenges for English speakers when learning Spanish?

‘The biggest challenge for English speakers is understanding points of difference in grammar, and in particular, learning to correctly conjugate verbs and to use and master the subjunctive.

‘Spanish is relatively easy and accessible to English speakers, as it shares both an alphabet and hundreds if not thousands of cognate words (words that are relatively the same in both languages). As Spanish is a phonetic language, it is also relatively easy to learn to pronounce words correctly and to make oneself understood.’

Why do you believe more people should learn Spanish?

‘Spanish is a global language. In addition to the over 400 million native speakers, millions of people speak Spanish as a second-language.

‘For English speakers it is relatively easy to learn (when compared to languages that have a different alphabet and script). Spanish, opens up so much of the world and can be a field of study and discipline in its own right, or complement any other discipline or career path.’

Want to know more about studying Spanish?

Ready to become bilingual or multilingual? Find out more about the opportunities to study humanities, social sciences and languages at Deakin.

this. featured experts
Hakeem Kasem
Hakeem Kasem

Associate Professor of Arabic, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

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Rebecca Fanany
Rebecca Fanany

Associate Professor of Indonesian and Course Director, Diploma of Language, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Read more

Guo-Qiang Liu
Guo-Qiang Liu

Associate Professor of Chinese, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

Read more

Eugenia Demuro
Eugenia Demuro

Senior Lecturer in Spanish and Latin American Studies, School of Humanities and Social Sciences, Deakin University

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