Which Language to Take?

Posted by at 10:56PM

Cool thing about Stanford is you can take tons of languages.  Question is: which one it?

A sketchy EE grad student friend of mine (who’s from Greece, by the way, which makes this whole thing pretty impartial) and I set out to rank languages.  We used the following formula:

Value=Number of Speakers*Per Capita GDP of Speakers*(1-Percent of Speakers Who Speak English)

This approach balances economic opportunity and English penetration.  It returns the GDP that you can access once you have learned the language.   For instance, Germany may be home to BMW, Bosch and Q-Cells.  But with 56% of the country that speaks English, you probably can get by without burning 15 units to become conversant.  And you’d certainly surprise some people in North Korea if you started speaking in Korean.  But with a per capita GDP of $1,900, do you really want to do business there?  Plus, you know, the whole personality cult thing.

Of course, this doesn’t take into account opportunities to explore Florentine culture, examine Lenin’s letters or to have that Parisian love affair you always dreamed of having (as the New York Times’ Frugal Traveler apparently did).  But a quick scan might give you some insight.

Good thing they made you sing Frere Jacques back in second grade...

By the way, if you want to check our math, check out this spreadsheet.

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7 Responses to “Which Language to Take?”

  1. Alex says:

    As somebody who’s visited both France and Japan, I have a few observations.

    While I do admit that I have a little French, and zero Japanese, I found being in Japan a LOT harder not being conversant. They do not make any accommodation for non-Japanese speakers.

    Being a recent grad, I was doing business in Japan with a small multinational Japanese company. Of the 10 people who I was trying to work there, only two spoke English.

    I am sure people have had the opposite experience as me, but being in Japan was an eye-opener to how non-English speakers must feel in the US. Like Japan, it seems to me that we don’t make it easy for non-English speakers.

  2. Charlie says:

    you definitely need a factor for how many Americans speak the language. An American who speaks Swahili is certainly more rare than one who speaks French, which, although meaning there are probably fewer jobs for Swahili speakers than French speakers, means that you have less competition for those jobs.

  3. Nicolas says:

    There are so many things to take into account ! But that’s a good start.
    Two comments though :
    1) I think that the huge advantage to chinese languages is misleading: the people who do not speak english there are those in the middle of nowhere who have nothing to offer, whereas in big cities where the job market is, most business people speak english.
    2) One should take into account difficulty of the language ! Spending 2 years learning spanish might make almost a fluent speaker our of you, but 5 years learning chinese will barely teach you how to ask your way !

    Btw, I am french living in the US, and I confirm, the American don’t make it easy for non-english speakers at all !!! That’s the problem with native english speakers: they just think everyone does so!

  4. Kathy says:

    What about Polish?

  5. Andrew says:

    Can you please put in Polish in also, I’m curious.
    Thx

  6. Andrew says:

    I kinda doubt the 26707$ per capita GDP of the 500 million french speakers. That seems excesively high. Which countries except for France and Belgium did u count in?

  7. Zeek says:

    Makes sense that China would have the highest value. Their economy is growing like crazy.

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