Translation and Interpreting in 150+ Languages
What is the Best Language to Learn?
May 7, 2012 - By: - In: Language - 78 comments

As if one language isn’t enough…

I like cocktails so much that I’ve learned to tolerate cocktail party conversation, especially after my third tequila sunrise. At least the conversation are similar enough sothat it’s easy to remember what to say. It starts like this: I tell people I’m in the translation business, then they ask how many languages I speak, then they tell me about all the languages they don’t speak, but intend to learn.

At least these confessions of personal failure are good for business, seeing as how these language failures will have to rely on translation until they get their act together.  This is why I am opposed to the study of second languages. But on the other hand, I’ve got a blog to write, and readers like this kind of stuff, so I’m going to write about it anyway. Call it the tyranny of the blinking cursor.

Editor Georgia Grimond, facing the same editorial challenge, asked that question of readers of Intelligent Life, a publication of the Economist, intended for especially smart people, or rather for those who think they are especially smart. The question of course: Which is the best language to learn?

And the answer is… Esperanto, with a 26% share of votes. This proves that you either you don’t have to be intelligent to read Intelligent Life, or that there is a vast conspiracy of Esperanto speakers lurking on the Web determined to shape public opinion to suit their own linguistic interests.

But I encourage people to learn Esperanto, since I have never been able to bill a nickel for translating in that language anyway. If folks spend their time learning Esperanto instead of paying languages, that’s a good thing, for me. But for students of the language, well, not really. As they don’t say in Esperanto, Lernado esperanto estas grandega perdo de tempo. 

At least with other made-up languages like Klingon, you can go to go Sci-Fi Cons and meet cosplay girls and talk Star Trek. That kind of Klingon contact is cute, unlike romantic encounters with real Klingons, which if you think about it, is technically an act of bestiality, which is illegal. Which makes me wonder about Captain Kirk. What was he thinking anyway, always hooking up with random space girls like he was in the Secret Service?

Anyway, Grimond of Intelligent Life quotes one of her poll respondents, on the desirability of mastery of  “inter-cultural” languages, those which “include native and proficient speakers with backgrounds in very diverse cultures.” Grimond writes that “the same aspiration drove the inventors of Esperanto in the late 19th century: they hoped it would transcend political, religious and national borders. Estimates of the number of people who speak it vary wildly, from 10,000 to 2m—but whatever the truth, a fair few of them have mobilised to vote. Esperanto’s supporters say it’s easy to learn and a gateway to other languages.”

A gateway language. I love that. Like a gateway drug, but instead of sitting around playing Xbox and eating pop tarts, you have to study intensively for 2000 hours or more. Talk about a buzz kill!

And now, back to the language races and the languages that also ran (I narrate here in rapid-fire race-track patter.) Brazilian Portuguese places at 16%, French and Portuguese show, neck and neck at 14%, Chinese close behind at 12%, Latin at 5%, Gaelic at 4%, and Arabic at 2%.”

These results strike me as ridiculously useless, but Intelligent Life got over 11,000 responses to this poll, so I’m going to do a poll too, and hopefully all those outraged Esperanto lovers will bring plenty of traffic to this blog, and send me hate mail in Esperanto, or worse, carefully crafted and thoughtful essays on the value and importance of Esperanto, which is much more annoying.

But for the rest of you, please be serious in your response, and let’s see if the results we come up with are a little closer to reality, since the readers of this blog are the very apex of intelligent life, in my book at least especially all of you who read this post to the end.

Here is the poll:

What is the best language  to learn?

Are you in favor of compulsory Chinese study for all students of dead or artificial languages?

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