Best Languages to Learn According to the US Government: They'll Even Fund Your Study

Korean Scholarship Winner, 2013

Winner of 2013 CLS Scholarship to study the Korean language
Winner of 2013 CLS Scholarship to study the Korean language | Source

Scholarships to study "Critical Languages"

The US Department of State is giving out scholarships to students to study what, in their opinion, are the best languages to learn. They have chosen 13 languages which are deemed crucial to U.S. national security and economic competitiveness.

The list is as follows:

Arabic, Azerbaijani, Bangla, Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Indonesian, Japanese, Persian, Punjabi, Russian, Turkish or Urdu.

While some are perfectly understandable, others are curious to say the least. Let's go down the list, shall we?

Arabic: This is understandable because of terrorism, and there is a shortage of Arabic speakers that the US Government and intelligence agencies can draw upon.

Azerbaijani: What? The only reason I can think of is the gas pipelines that are now going through Central Asia, trying to bypass both Iran and Russia to friendly states, that recently had dubious "democratic coloured revolutions".

Bangla: Again, WTF? Bangladesh is a poor country with few ties to the US as far as I am aware. Maybe it is the terrorism angle, since it is a Muslim country?

Chinese: OK. That is expected. It is expected to be the world's largest economy soon, and it holds the most US debt, while also being a major target for US investors, and the major source of US imports (sometimes from companies owned by the same US investors!).

Hindi: Not suprising. It is a BRIC country (Brazil, Russia, India, China), with over 1 billion people, the world's largest democracy, a nuclear power, relatively peaceful, a lot of call centres and US links (two US Governors currently are Indian-born, even). OK, fine.

Korean: Not surprising at all. Long ties with the US since the Korean war, and South Korea is a booming, solid, high tech economy. North Korea on the other hand is a crazy country where lots of intelligence is needed. The US has a strong military presence there, etc. OK, understandable.

Indonesian: Hmmmm. It is the largest Muslim country in the world, and has a fairly robust economy. But is it so crucial to US interests?

Japanese: Definitely. 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 as Chinese companies are really Japanese owned.

Persian: Iran is seen as a major antagonist against the US, so that is understandable.

Punjabi: Really? Punjab is not even a country. It is spoken in Northwestern India, and also in Pakistan. I guess the terrorism aspect is the angle?

Russian: Sure. It is a BRIC country, and the US still has some lingering antagonism toward it ever since the 19th century.

Turkish: Interesting. It is a large economy, NATO member, moderate Muslim country, a democracy, and once was the centre of the Muslim world. OK, I get it.

Urdu: Pakistan again? More spies and intelligence agents, I suppose. Al-Qaeda is still big there, I suppose.

Dancing with Russians, while also gathering critical information on them, of course
Dancing with Russians, while also gathering critical information on them, of course | Source

What About the Languages that are NOT included?

What is most interesting about the list is what is left out. Portuguese is not there. What about Brazil? Isn't the Brazilian economy one of the world's major ones? And how many people know that there are more Portuguese speakers in Latin America than Spanish speakers?

No European languages are included either. I would think German would be strategic, as the economic core of the European Union. Even French, as the diplomatic and cultural centre of Europe. These places also have large, potentially radical Muslim populations. (I await the criticisms...)

Well, in any case, one wonders how bureaucrats come up with these ideas sometimes. I may be an idiot, I suppose. But I really do question their list.

Do You Agree with the US Government's List of Critical Languages?

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Comments 16 comments

Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 3 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand


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.

Vinaya Ghimire profile image

Vinaya Ghimire 3 years ago from Nepal

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

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago Author

@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.

mikielikie profile image

mikielikie 3 years ago from Texas

Very interesting!!

Lindsey 3 years ago

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.

Brittany 3 years ago

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.

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago Author

@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.

Me 3 years ago

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

KKX 3 years ago

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.

bilgin profile image

bilgin 3 years ago from Genk, Belgium

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.

Rafiq 3 years ago

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

trenton rich 3 years ago

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

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago Author

@trenton rich I actually wrote an article looking at the political neutrality of Esperanto here:

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

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago Author

@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!

Second Language profile image

Second Language 3 years ago Author

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.

Mare Turbulentum 3 years ago

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.

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