Which language should you learn next?
How to become a global citizen
There’s no right answer to this question. To connect with your Navajo-speaking grandmother: learn Navajo. If you want to settle in Luxembourg, Luxembourgish may be useful.
For me, learning a language means discovering a new culture. And I think that cultural intelligence is becoming more important in our polarized world. Cultural intelligence is the ability to interact and work effectively across cultures, for instance, in a culturally diverse workplace or with business partners from different cultures.
There’s a strong link between language and culture. Many cultures are based on a literary tradition. Learning a language gives you access to this tradition in its original language, which is especially useful if books aren’t translated into your own language. Psychology also teaches that the structure of a language affects its speakers' worldview and cognition. This is known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis or linguistic relativity. There is strong empirical evidence for the weak version of the hypothesis, which says that people's thoughts and decisions are influenced by their spoken language. Common idioms and proverbs in a language are also often characteristic of a culture. When you speak a language, you can interact with its speakers and discover their culture directly.
Of course, you could just rely on a lingua franca such as English to interact with people from other cultures. But as Nelson Mandela famously never said:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.”
You don’t need to be fluent in a language to understand a culture better. With just the basics, you can get better access to people. Because when you spend some time learning a language, you prove to the other person that you respect their culture and are interested in it (“proof-of-work”). Even though you may then switch to a common language such as English or French to make the conversation easier for both of you.
Thousands of languages are spoken around the world. But most scholars consider that there are just a few major cultural groups.
The Inglehart–Welzel cultural map of the world plots societies along two dimensions: traditional versus “secular-rational” values and survival versus self-expression values. Countries are grouped into clusters, shown here in the 2008 version of the map:
The 2017 version of the map is slightly different:
[Update: 2020 edition of the map]
Samuel Huntington’s map from his book the “Clash of Civilizations” is another example, even though his theory of a civilization clash has been largely criticized:
The GLOBE (Global Leadership and Organizational Behavior Effectiveness Research) project analyzed 62 of the world's cultures and identified the following 10 clusters:
The map of writing systems also highlights cultural areas:
Maps of language families and religions are also relevant.
Based on these maps, I identified the following 9 major cultural clusters (in no particular order):
East Asian cultural sphere, also called Confucian world or Sinosphere:
Total population: ~1.6B people
Total GDP: ~$23T
Largest country by population and GDP: China 🇨🇳 (1.4B people, $15T GDP)
Largest urban areas: Tokyo-Yokohama 🇯🇵 (39M), Seoul 🇰🇷 (23M), Shanghai 🇨🇳 (22M)
Most spoken language: Mandarin Chinese, written in simplified Chinese characters (speakers: 900M native, 1.1B total)
Former written lingua franca: Classical Chinese, written in traditional Chinese characters
Common belief systems and authoritative sources: Confucianism (Four Books and Five Classics), Mahayana Buddhism (Chinese Buddhist canon), and Taoism (Tao Te Ching).
Largest diaspora: Chinese diaspora
Anglosphere, also called the English-speaking world:
Total population: ~460M people
Total GDP: ~$28T
Largest country by population and GDP: USA 🇺🇸 (330M people, $21T GDP)
Largest urban area: New York City 🇺🇸 (21M) and Los Angeles 🇺🇸 (15M)
Most spoken language: English
Common belief system and authoritative source: Protestantism (Bible)
Total population: ~130M people
Total GDP: ~$7T
Largest country by population and GDP: Germany 🇩🇪 (83M people, $4T GDP)
Largest urban area: Essen-Dusseldorf 🇩🇪 (6M)
Most spoken native language: German (speakers: 80M native, 135M total)
Common belief system and authoritative source: Protestantism (Bible)
Total population: ~240M people
Total GDP: ~$7T
Largest country by population and GDP: France 🇫🇷 (67M people, $2.5T GDP)
Largest urban area: Paris 🇫🇷 (11M)
Most spoken native language: French (also a lingua franca and a prestige language, competing with English)
Common belief system and authoritative source: Catholicism (Bible)
Largest diaspora:? (Italian? Polish?)
Russian world, also called Orthodox, ex-Communist or post-Soviet world:
Total population: ~290M people
Total GDP: ~$2.3T
Largest country by population and GDP: Russia 🇷🇺 (158M people, $1.5T GDP)
Largest urban area: Moscow 🇷🇺 (18M)
Most spoken language and lingua franca: Russian, written in Cyrillic script (speakers: 150M native, 260M total)
Common belief system and authoritative source: Eastern Orthodox Christianity (Bible), see also the former ideological doctrine of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality”
Largest diaspora: Russian diaspora
Indian cultural sphere, also called Greater India or Indosphere, or South Asia:
Indonesia 🇮🇩, Pakistan 🇵🇰, and Bangladesh 🇧🇩 are Muslim-majority countries classified as “South Asia” in one of the above maps, given the previous linguistic and cultural influence of India there, I used the same simplified classification.
Total population: ~2B people
Total GDP: ~$4.7T
Largest country by population and GDP: India 🇮🇳 (1.4B people, $2.6T GDP)
Largest urban areas: Jakarta 🇮🇩 (35M), Delhi 🇮🇳 (32M), Mumbai 🇮🇳 (22M)
Most spoken native language: Hindi, Sanskritised Hindustani written in Devanagari (speakers: 340M native, 600M total). 230M people (inc. 69M native speakers) also speak Urdu, a Persianised Hindustani written in Perso-Arabic script (Nastaliq).
Most spoken languages and lingua franca: English and Modern Standard Hindi
Common belief systems and authoritative sources: Hinduism (Vedas, Upanishads, Agamas, and Bhagavad Gita), Theravada Buddhism (Pāli Canon), and Islam (Quran)
Largest diaspora: Indian diaspora
Islamic world, or Greater Middle East or MENA:
In addition to Indonesia 🇮🇩, Pakistan 🇵🇰, and Bangladesh 🇧🇩 (included in South Asia), I also excluded Muslim-majority countries from Central Asia (such as Kazakhstan 🇰🇿, part of the Russian world) and Sub-Saharan Africa (such as Somalia 🇸🇴, Mali 🇲🇱, and Niger 🇳🇪).
Total population: ~600M people
Total GDP: ~$2.8T
Largest country by population: Egypt 🇪🇬 (100M people) [behind Indonesia 🇮🇩 (269M people), Pakistan 🇵🇰 (221M), and Bangladesh 🇧🇩 (170M)]
Largest countries by GDP: Saudi Arabia 🇸🇦 ($0.68T GDP) and Turkey 🇹🇷 ($0.65T GDP), competing for regional domination with Iran 🇮🇷 ($0.61T GDP), the 3rd largest economy [behind Indonesia, $1T GDP]
Largest urban areas: Cairo 🇪🇬 (20M), Istanbul 🇹🇷 (15M), and Tehran 🇮🇷 (14M)
Most spoken native language: Turkish (82M native speakers) and Egyptian Arabic (70M native speakers) [behind Bengali with 228M native speakers]
Most spoken language, lingua franca, and prestige language: Modern Standard Arabic (MSA, 274M total speakers)
Common belief system and authoritative source: Sunni Islam (Quran)
Largest diaspora: Syrian diaspora
Total population: ~1B people
Total GDP: ~$1.8T
Largest country by population and GDP: Nigeria 🇳🇬 (206M people, $0.4T GDP)
Largest urban areas: Lagos 🇳🇬 (15M), Kinshasa 🇨🇩 (15M), and Johannesburg-Pretoria 🇿🇦 (14M)
Most spoken native language: Hausa (~75M speakers, inc. 48M native speakers)
Most spoken languages (first and second language), lingua franca, and prestige languages: French (~400M total speakers in Africa), English (?) and Swahili (~80M total speakers)
Common belief systems and authoritative sources: Catholicism (Bible), Non-denominational Islam (Quran), and traditional African religions (oral tradition)
Largest diaspora:? (Nigerian? Congolese?)
Total population: ~640M people
Total GDP: $5.8T
Largest country by population and GDP: Brazil 🇧🇷 (210 people, $1.4 GDP)
Largest urban areas: Sao Paulo 🇧🇷 (22M), Mexico City 🇲🇽 (22M), Buenos Aires 🇦🇷 (16M), and Rio de Janeiro 🇧🇷 (12M)
Most spoken native language: Spanish (spoken by about 60% of the population of Latin America)
Common belief systems and authoritative sources: Catholicism (Bible)
Largest diaspora: Mexican diaspora
Sources: Population, GDP, native speakers, total number of speakers, diaspora
I didn’t know how to classify the Philippines 🇵🇭. It is a deeply Catholic Asian country that was colonized by Spain for more than 4 centuries and then a US territory for almost 50 years. So it shares some traits with Latin America (the Catholic and Spanish colonial influence), the English-speaking world (the US influence), the Confucian and Indian worlds (its direct neighbors), and also the Islamic world (the proximity of Indonesia and the local Muslim minority).
In addition to these 9 cultural clusters, other important cultures are the Jewish culture and the cultures of the Pacific Ocean (Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia). These clusters are a simple mental model to understand the world, but this simplification has many issues. A map is not the territory…
I mentioned religious books because it’s also a good way to discover a culture.
The languages mentioned above are the 6 official languages of the United Nations (Modern Standard Arabic (MSA), Mandarin Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish) and German, Hindustani, Egyptian, Turkish, Hausa, and Swahili.
Cultures with large diasporas spread outside their original geography. If you live in a big city, you may often interact with people of Chinese, Indian, Russian, or Syrian descent. So knowing these cultures is important even if you don’t intend to go there.
Looking at this list, and as I already knew French, English, and Mandarin Chinese, I realized that I knew almost nothing about Russia and the post-Soviet world, even though it’s a major culture with amazing literature (I love Anna Karenina!). That’s why I decided to learn Russian a few months ago.
I wonder which language I should learn next. Good candidates are German, Hindi-Urdu, Arabic, Swahili, and Spanish.
I’d love to know Arabic. But no one “speaks” MSA as it is reserved for literature and formal discourse. You can’t speak it with your taxi driver or barber, making it useless to discover the local culture. Even though millions of people speak them, Arabic “dialects” (in reality languages) aren’t standardized and are rarely taught. There are some resources online for Egyptian (Masri) and Levantine (Syrian Arabic, Shami). These variants are well understood over the Arab world so that I may learn one of them. Unfortunately, because of the war, the Syrian diaspora is now huge. This also means you can find Levantine speakers everywhere. Because MSA is used in online news and social media, I’d have to learn it as well.
Hindustani is interesting, although most educated speakers of Hindi-Urdu also know English. I should know how to read Hindustani, so both Devanagari and Nastaliq, the pronunciation, and basic greetings.
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Germanic languages include English, Icelandic, Swedish, Danish and Norwegian (but not Finnish), so I don’t like the name “Germanic Europe” for Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria.