During a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session earlier this year, Microsoft founder and prolific philanthropist Bill Gates said his biggest regret in life is that he speaks only English.
Not exactly what one would expect to hear from the billionaire founder of one of the largest tech corporations in the world.
Gates’s insightful admission comes on the heels of Mark Zuckerberg’s impressive demonstration of semi-fluent Chinese during a Q&A with Tsinghua University students in Beijing last October. By learning Chinese, Zuckerberg clearly demonstrated that mastering a local language is a key step toward developing deeper business relationships and winning the hearts and minds of target markets – and he’s right.
Here, the languages global-minded CEOs should be learning.
Of all the languages in the world, Spanish is the language our online translation agency works with the most, reflecting an enormous market the world over. Aside from the huge potential of almost all of South and Central America with emerging economic powerhouses such as Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela – not to mention the significant market in Spain itself – learning Spanish is worth it if only to reach the Hispanic speaking community in the U.S., whose purchasing power is already more than a trillion dollars and growing.
As opposed to its spoken dialects, Spanish written forms are more uniform than other languages which makes them simpler to learn. As a Romance language, with the same letters and roots as English, you’ll probably twist your tongue a lot less than when learning Chinese.
Portuguese has already become the fourth most-translated language at our company, reflecting an exponential rise in recent years. It’s obviously not Portugal we’ve got our eyes on here, but rather Brazil, which is quickly transforming from emerging market to one of the world’s richest nations. With a huge population, tons of natural resources and a growing tech community, learning Portuguese will go a long way to penetrating the intricacies of the local business culture. Plus, imagine the fun speaking the local tongue come Carnival time.
There are dozens of different languages and dialects spoken in China, and while Mandarin is by far the most widely spoken – in fact, it’s the most prevalent language in the world with 1.1 billion native speakers – other Chinese dialects are spoken by hundreds of millions of people.
Wu, for example, used in the financial hub of Shanghai, is spoken by more than 80 million people – that’s a potential market the size of Germany! Depending on what area of China you’re targeting and the fact that written dialects in the country are basically uniform, learning Wu, Jin, Min or Yue will certainly be worth the effort.
Related: How I Built a Startup While Traveling to 20 Countries
Russia has a market nearly 150 million strong, seemingly endless natural resources and a burgeoning IT sector. Plus, the language is also spoken to varying degrees in post-Soviet states (for almost 300 million speakers in all) – many important emerging economies themselves – making it number nine on our most-translated list. Knowing Russian will go a long way toward winning the trust of local business leaders. And you can read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in the original.
Hundreds of millions of people around the world speak Arabic – the fifth most-spoken language in the world – so it comes as no surprise that Arabic is number 10 on our list. The Arab world, with a growing online culture, doesn’t have its own Amazon or Alibaba, making it a market with huge potential, not to mention the deep petro-economies of the region. Executives who speak their language are going to have a leg up in this cross-continental market. The drawback? With dozens of distinct varieties of spoken Arabic, choosing the right one will be a daunting process.
German is the second most-translated language at our agency, reflecting the country’s status as Europe’s largest economy and one of strongest economies in the world. Enough said.
Learning a foreign language may be a major investment of time and energy, but speaking even a rudimentary level of a country’s native tongue goes a long way to breaking down walls.