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Best Languages to Learn (According to the U.S. Government)

Anita enjoys writing about foreign languages and the intersection of language and cultural identity.

Thinking about learning a second language? Choose wisely.

Thinking about learning a second language? Choose wisely.

Critical Languages: What Are the Most In-Demand Languages for Government Jobs?

It's no secret that the U.S. government values employees who can speak more than one language. From providing scholarships for students to study "critical" languages to offering incentive programs and bonuses for employees fluent in certain valuable languages, the government has shown its preference for Americans willing to commit to learning (or maintaining their knowledge of) a foreign language.

The military, Department of Defense, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, and a host of other government agencies offer a multitude of positions for American polyglots, from working at a foreign embassy to clandestine work in foreign countries. In this article, you'll find information about:

  • The U.S. Department of State's Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program
  • The U.S. Department of State Qualifying Languages
  • The CIA Foreign Language Incentive Program

You'll also learn information about why these languages are considered valuable by the U.S. government, how to study them and how long it takes to gain proficiency in them.

The U.S. Department of State offers American students scholarships to study abroad and learn critical languages.

The U.S. Department of State offers American students scholarships to study abroad and learn critical languages.

The U.S. Department of State's Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) Program

The U.S. Department of State gives out scholarships through the CLS program to students to study what, in their opinion, are the best languages to learn. They have chosen 15 languages deemed crucial to national security and economic competitiveness.

The list is as follows:

  • Arabic
  • Azerbaijani
  • Bangla
  • Chinese
  • Hindi
  • Indonesian
  • Japanese
  • Korean
  • Persian
  • Portuguese
  • Punjabi
  • Russian
  • Swahili
  • Turkish
  • Urdu

Let's take an in-depth look at this list, shall we?

Critical Language List

  • Arabic: Arabic is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and is spoken in more than 20 countries, including countries like Lebanon and Jordan. Learning Arabic also offers an opportunity to gain insight into the Muslim religion, as some of the language is rooted in religious traditions. There is a shortage of Arabic speakers that the U.S. government and intelligence agencies can draw upon.
  • Azerbaijani: Azerbaijani is one of the most commonly spoken languages in Iran and is also spoken in parts of Iraq, Syria, and Turkey. It's relatively similar to Turkish and other Turkic languages, making it a valuable language.
  • Bangla: Bangla is the official language of Bangladesh and the second most widely spoken language in India. It's estimated that more than 330 million people worldwide speak the language. It's not a very commonly studied language in the West, but it's in the top 10 most commonly spoken languages in the world.
  • Chinese: China is one of the world's largest economies, and it holds the most U.S. debt while also being a major target for U.S. investors and the major source of U.S. imports. China will play a significant role in world affairs and is the most populous nation in the world.
  • Hindi: Hindi is the official language of India, which is a BRIC country (Brazil, Russia, India, China) with over 1 billion people, the world's largest democracy, a nuclear power, relatively peaceful, and has a lot of call centers and U.S. links.
  • Indonesian: Learning Indonesian provides a strong foundation for other Austronesian languages, such as Malay. It is the largest Muslim country in the world and has a fairly robust, growing economy.
  • Japanese: Japan is one of the largest economies in the world, and it is significantly tied to China as well as a major investor. In fact, a lot of what we might consider Chinese companies are really Japanese-owned.
  • Korean: Korea has had ties with the U.S. since the Korean War, and South Korea is a booming, solid, high-tech economy. North Korea, on the other hand, is an unstable country where lots of intelligence is needed.
  • Persian: Persian is spoken in the Middle East, including in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan. It is the official language of Iran, where it is referred to as Farsi. Persian has some similarities with Urdu and Turkish and is another Islamic language (like Arabic) that was instrumental in the spread of the Muslim faith.
  • Portuguese: Portuguese is the official language of Brazil, a tourist and economic hub. Brazil is the largest country in South America and one of the most populous countries in the world. Despite its emerging economic prowess, it remains impeded by corruption and crime.
  • Punjabi: Punjabi is spoken in northwestern India and also in Pakistan. It's also spoken by many in the U.K., the U.S., and Canada.
  • Russian: Russia is a BRIC country, and the U.S. still has lingering antagonism toward it since the 19th century. With the Cold War, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the actions of Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, leading up to and including the Russo-Ukrainian War, Russian remains a highly in-demand language.
  • Swahili: Swahili is spoken as a first language by many in Eastern African countries and as a second language in other countries throughout Africa. It is the official language of Kenya, one of the largest economies in East Africa.
  • Turkish: Turkey is a large economy, a NATO member, a moderate Muslim country, a democracy, and once was the center of the Muslim world.
  • Urdu: Urdu is the official language of Pakistan and is spoken throughout South Asia and the Middle East. It is among the most commonly spoken languages in the world.
The U.S. government provides monetary incentives for employees with proficiency in foreign languages.

The U.S. government provides monetary incentives for employees with proficiency in foreign languages.

Does the Government Reward Proficiency in a Foreign Language?

The U.S. Department of State and other government agencies offer bonuses for proficiency in certain foreign languages. The tables below highlight the languages that the U.S. Department of State offers .17 bonus points for proficiency in, as well as the more complex and in-demand languages for which proficiency provides additional points.

U.S. Department of State Qualifying Languages (.17 Bonus Points for Proficiency)

Source: https://careers.state.gov/faq-items/language-bonus-points/

Albanian

Amharic

Armenian - East

Azerbaijani

Bengali

Bulgarian

Burmese

Cambodian - Khmer

Chinese Cantonese

Czech

Danish

Dutch/Flemish

Estonian

Finnish

French

Georgian

German

Greek

Haitian Creole

Hausa

Hebrew

Hungarian

Icelandic

Indonesian

Italian

Japanese

Kazakh

Kinyarwanda/Rwanda

Kyrgyz

Lao

Latvian

Lithuanian

Macedonian

Malay

Mongolian

Nepali/Nepalese

Norwegian

Panjabi/Punjabi

Persian - Tajiki

Philipino/Tagalog

Polish

Portuguese

Romanian

Russian

Serbo-Croatian (All variants)

Singhalese

Slovak

Slovenian

Somali

Spanish

Swahili/Kiswahili

Swedish

Tamil

Telugu

Thai

Tibetan

Turkish

Turkmen

Ukrainian

Uzbek

Vietnamese - Std.

U.S. Department of State Qualifying Languages (Additional Bonus Points for Proficiency)

Source: https://careers.state.gov/faq-items/language-bonus-points/

Arabic - any variety

Chinese - Mandarin

Hindi

Korean

Pashto

Persian - Afghan (Dari)

Persian - Iranian (Farsi)

Urdu

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Read More From Owlcation

The CIA offers incentives in the form of bonuses for those willing to learn and maintain in-demand foreign languages.

The CIA offers incentives in the form of bonuses for those willing to learn and maintain in-demand foreign languages.

The CIA Foreign Language Incentive Program

The CIA offers incentives for employees who are proficient in a foreign language, including hiring bonuses and regular bonuses for participating in the Agency's Language Maintenance Program and the Language Use Program.

The CIA maintains a list of in-demand languages for which employees can receive higher hiring bonuses ($5,000 per language). The qualifying languages are listed in the table below.

Qualifying Languages: CIA Foreign Language Incentive Program

Source: https://www.cia.gov/careers/language-opportunities/foreign-language-incentive-program/

Afrikaans

Albanian

Amharic

Arabic

Armenian

Azerbaijani

Baluchi

Bengali

Bosnian

Bulgarian

Burmese

Cambodian (Khmer)

Cebuano

Chechen

Chinese

Croatian

Czech

Danish

Dari

Dutch

Estonian

Ewe

Finnish

Flemish

French

Georgian

Greek

Gujarati

Haitian Creole

Hausa

Hebrew

Hindi

Hungarian

Igbo (Ibo)

Indonesian

Italian

Japanese

Javanese

Kazakh

Kirghiz

Korean

Kurdish

Lao

Latvian (Lettish)

Lingala

Lithuanian

Macedonian

Malay

Malayalam

Marathi

Mongolian

Napali

Norwegian

Panjabi (Punjabi)

Pashto

Persian

Polish

Portuguese

Romanian

Russian

Serbian

Sindhi

Slovak

Slovenian

Somali

Spanish

Swahili (Kiswahili)

Swedish

Tagalog

Tajik

Tamil

Tausug

Telugu

Thai

Tibetan

Tigrinya

Turkish

Turkmen

Uygur

Ukrainian

Urdu

Uzbek

Vietnamese

Yoruba

Zulu

A traditional classroom setting isn't the only way to learn a new language.

A traditional classroom setting isn't the only way to learn a new language.

How Can I Learn a Foreign Language?

Most American public schools, including secondary schools, colleges, and universities, offer foreign language programs for languages such as Spanish, French, Latin, German, Chinese, Japanese, and American Sign Language. It may be more of a challenge to find learning resources for other languages on these lists, such as Indonesian, Slovak, and Azerbaijani. Here are a few ideas.

Online Learning Resources

You can find plenty of language-learning resources on your computer or smartphone. Websites like Live Lingua connect users with university-educated live tutors available to teach languages online for a fee. There are also tons of free resources available, including websites with lesson plans or YouTube channels dedicated to foreign language lessons.

Language Learning Apps

Smartphone apps such as Duolingo offer a digitized learning experience for a multitude of languages, mixing auditory learning with visual learning elements. Duolingo offers in-demand languages like Russian, Chinese, Hindi, Arabic, Indonesian, Ukrainian, and more.

Consume Media in Your Target Language(s)

Watching movies and listening to podcasts or radio shows in your target language can aid in learning a foreign language, although you'll still need to find a way to learn the grammar and mechanics.

Make Friends Who Speak the Language

Speaking a language is one of the best ways to learn quickly and retain your new skills. Making friends with a native speaker of your target language or joining a group dedicated to speaking the language or learning about the culture is a great way to learn a new language.

Join the Peace Corps or Move to a Foreign Country

Peace Corps volunteers serve in more than 60 countries around the world, including Indonesia, Armenia, Rwanda, and the Dominican Republic. Peace Corps volunteers serve for two years, so it's a great opportunity to get immersed in the culture and learn the language while volunteering to assist with education or community development.

You can also move to a country with a high volume of native speakers of your target language to get direct exposure to the language, including cultural references and slang that you may not learn in a classroom or online. Immersion is a great way to learn a new language, although moving to a foreign country with no knowledge of the language or customs (especially if the country has a tumultuous political climate) can be quite difficult.

How Long Does It Take to Learn a Foreign Language?

Languages are separated by the U.S. Department of State into four categories depending on the level of difficulty in gaining professional working proficiency for a native English speaker. These categories and numbers are based on the State Department's own foreign language training statistics for U.S. diplomats.

  • Category I: 24–30 weeks (Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, and Swedish take approx. 24 weeks; French takes approx. 30 weeks)
  • Category II: Approx. 36 weeks (German, Haitian Creole, Indonesian, Malay, and Swahili)
  • Category III: Approx. 44 weeks (Albanian, Hindi, Polish, Russian, Tagalog, Urdu, and more)
  • Category IV: Approx. 88 weeks (Arabic, Cantonese, Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean)

These numbers assume roughly 25 hours per week of instruction. These numbers can vary greatly depending on prior knowledge and educational ability. Achieving a higher level of proficiency would take a great deal longer.

Sources and Further Reading

Comments

peasant on April 08, 2018:

The reason the government doesn't want Spanish or German is because we already have a lot of people who speak those here (the second due to cold war deployments). This is stated on th Strategic Language List and I had been personally told so by a US Major who is serving as an attaché abroad.

Latin America has also always been getting a "sideline" treatment. The frontiers of our defensive line are Eastern Europe and The far east, Latin America is seen as our own backyard (and not much indicates they're going to progress into a real threat- although our adversaries are making investments there and they could be valuable allies).

You also point out a few languages like Indonesian and Punjabi as seemingly unimportant. Not only is there a lack in speakers, but these are areas vital to keeping the Chinese in check.

Turkey isn't considered free by the freedom house index and is sort of an "inbetweener". It joined NATO in order to deter the Soviets but with world politics shifting their relationship with the West is deteriorating (plus we need people who are able to communicate with allies).

Ad for languages like French, France can check the terror there. Diplomatically, Europe is now English based.

Abdul on October 02, 2017:

Azerbaijan, turkish, uzbek, krygiz, kazakh, tatar and some others are similar structured.

Mare Turbulentum on November 07, 2013:

The principal danger for USA is his neighbour from the south, Mexico, because Mexico plans to invade all USA in the future, and there are a lot of mexicans who go to USA every year. It is an invasion. They must to learn principally, Spanish.

The languages of the future are: Spanish, Portugues, Russian, Arabic, Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, Urdu, Turkish and French.

Anita Rai (author) on August 19, 2013:

I have recently read some pieces comparing and contrasting the status of women in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Iran, and the historical connections and divergences are fascinating.

Anita Rai (author) on August 19, 2013:

@Rafiq, I think you should be able to get a great job in the US State Department then! And rise to a pretty high level!

Anita Rai (author) on August 19, 2013:

@trenton rich I actually wrote an article looking at the political neutrality of Esperanto here: http://www.squidoo.com/politics-and-the-english-la...

I am somewhat sceptical about the more extreme claims about the neutrality of Esperanto, but I do find it an interesting phenomenon.

trenton rich on August 18, 2013:

I think we, as well as other countries, should be learning Esperanto as a neutral language.

Rafiq on August 12, 2013:

Lol , I can speak 6 of those and write in 4 and actually make sense of one.

Burak Bilgin from Genk, Belgium on July 21, 2013:

I agree with the comments that probably the US Government has a shortage of employees who speak these languages. Therefore, people who speak one of these languages will probably have higher chances to find a job in the US Government.

Here is a tip if you have difficulties to decide on one of them: if you speak Turkish, you can understand Azerbaijani to a certain extent.

KKX on July 16, 2013:

US need not give scholarship to French and German learners since these languages are popular languages and possibly a couple millions of Americans know these. Portuguese probably is too, or maybe because Portuguese is "mutually intelligible" to Spanish, which is has abundant speakers in the US.

Me on June 23, 2013:

Hmmm... Some of these languages I really question on this list...

Anita Rai (author) on May 21, 2013:

@Brittany, thanks for your comments and sharing your experience.

I understand what you are saying, but my question is more like: if you are dealing with terrorism, why Bangla over Pushto (the ethnic/tribal base of the Taliban), for example? Why is Somali not there?

And if you are dealing with the economic future, Portuguese should be there because of Brazil. I may be wrong, but my impression is that there are not many Americans studying Portuguese as a foreign language.

So I am kind of nitpicking, really. It is the particular choices that have me puzzled. I believe there are other more important lesser-known languages that are better for economics and security.

Brittany on May 21, 2013:

The reason many of the European languages were left out is because there are already a plethora of United States citizens who speak those languages fluently or currently study them. The list is comprised of languages in which there is a deficit of individuals that the government can use for security, intelligence, and communication purposes. I know from personal experience working on government language contracts that it is very difficult to get good tranlators or interpreters for those languages that are also capable of obtaining a government security clearance.

Lindsey on May 08, 2013:

I agree with you on Portuguese, I would think that would be an important one given the Brazilian economy as well. Most German speakers speak such good English (better than many native speakers!) that it probably doesn't make a lot of sense for us to focus on that language. Our time is probably better spent on languages of regions where English is not as widely spoken.

mikielikie from Texas on May 05, 2013:

Very interesting!!

Anita Rai (author) on May 04, 2013:

@Paul Kuehn, your insights are much appreciated. I knew I would be "stepping in it" once I gave my opinion, because of course the people in the US State Department aren't dummies (even if one may disagree with particular judgements from time to time). I do find it surprising that these are the top 13 languages identified. It might be also that the existing numbers are low, and there is a critical need to expand the amount of Americans who can speak those languages.

Vinaya Ghimire from Nepal on May 04, 2013:

This is quite an interesting hub. I was not aware about this condition. Maybe I should try to make my Hindi better. LOL

Paul Richard Kuehn from Udorn City, Thailand on May 04, 2013:

Secondlanguage,

I find this list very interesting due to my past experience working for the State Department. I agree that all of the languages included on the State Department list are the best languages to learn in the interests of the U.S. government. Arabic, Punjabi, Urdu, Indonesian/Malaysian, and even Dari have been on the government's list since at least 2001 and that's because of terrorism and Al Quedda. In talking about Chinese, we are referring to Chinese Mandarin, the national language. It wouldn't be surprising if the study of the Cantonese and Minnan (Hokkien) dialects are also included. When I started learning Chinese in the late 60s with the Navy, the study of Portuguese, German, and Vietnamese was encouraged by the government. Voted up and sharing.

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