The best languages to learn for your job, according to CEOs

best languages to learn
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg can speak more than one language -- and it's not just for love. Source: Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize/AFP

Knowing even the basics of the best languages to learn can get you far.

But with around 6,500 languages in the world, how do you know which to invest your time and effort in?

If you’re looking for the best languages to learn to succeed at work, then the top CEOs may just have the answers you seek.

Successful businesspeople in the US are increasingly becoming multilingual — and it’s not hard to understand why.

Reasons to master the best languages to learn

Numerous studies on bilingualism indicate that knowing a second language enhances the brain’s function. It improves your ability to stay focused and multitask well.

According to a study by Penn State, this is due to their ability to switch between languages in their minds, which improves their mental flexibility.

In this journey, you’ll build your self-esteem, a strong sense of identity and a deeper understanding of cultural diversity.

Being fluent in more than one language able to do this also sets you apart in countries where English is the official language as few are bilingual here.

The UK and Ireland, for example, have the lowest rates of multilingualism in the EU. Only around 11.5% of British adults are proficient in a foreign language.

Similarly, the US has a multilingualism rate of about 15.7%, and Australia’s rate is not far behind, with only 10% of students leaving school having knowledge of a second language. 

In these worlds, being fluent in the best languages to learn will:

  • make you stand out
  • make you a better communicator and thus a better manager and leader
  • help you impress more clients
  • boost your career trajectory

The climb to the C-suite is crowded, competitive and merciless.

You need every edge you can get — and according to the decades of experience of senior executives who have seen what it takes to get to the top, knowing the best languages to learn for business is one of them.

best languages to learn

Google Inc CEO Sundar Pichai (C) is fluent in English and Tamil. Source: Chandan Khanna/AFP

Why CEOs think knowing one language is not enough

According to the book “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons From CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” more than 70 chief executives and other leaders were found to share these five essential qualities for success:

  • Passionate curiosity
  • Battle-hardened confidence
  • Team smarts
  • A simple mind-set
  • Fearlessness

Learning a new language hones at least one of the traits above — which explains why many of the top CEOs and richest people in the world are multilingual.

For example, Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Facebook, picked up Mandarin in addition to his mother tongue.

And he doesn’t just have a basic understanding. Zuckerberg is able to give speeches and answer questions in the language. 

Mark Zuckerberg is fluent in Mandarin, which is one of the best languages to learn. Source: Molly Riley/AFP

Level up in your career when you choose one of the best languages to learn:

There is no denying that being bilingual or multilingual can advance your career — especially in the field of business.

Don’t just take our word for it. These are the best languages to learn, according to CEOs who have big companies and big bank accounts to match.

And remember though it’ll seem hard, it is never too late to master a new language.

best languages to learn

Mandarin is one of the best languages to learn for business. Source: Tao-Chuan Yeh/AFP

1. Mandarin 

Mandarin was seen as the top language in a business setting for many years. This is no surprise since China was the most populous country in the world until India surpassed it in April 2023.

It is the most widely spoken language in the world today, with 1.1 billion native speakers. 

The CEO of Facebook told students at Beijing’s Tsinghua University – in Mandarin – that he continues to study the language daily in order to communicate with the family of his wife, Priscilla Chan.

However, it is believed that he also learned the language for business reasons, such as potential negotiations with the Chinese government regarding its ban on Facebook.

Aside from Zuckerberg, the marketing director of Royce Leather, Billy Bauer is another entrepreneur who took up Mandarin to help his business. 

Bauer credits his success in China to taking the time to learn the language and says that he would have struggled had he spoken only English.

His ability to speak Mandarin allowed him to gain Chinese executives’ trust and carry out day-to-day business dealings in the country.

Tesla’s billionaire CEO Elon Musk can also speak Mandarin.

French is one of the best languages to learn to do business today, especially in Europe. Source: Sameer al-Doumy/AFP

2. French 

CEO of one of the largest retail pharmacies in the world, Walgreens Boots Alliance, picked up French to expand his business. 

Stefano Pessina is a native Italian speaker who picked up French and English, which gained him his spot on the Forbes Fortune 500 list. 

He notes that he decided to become trilingual after noticing that France was the country buying the second-most amount of his company’s products.

best languages to learn

Michael Bloomberg used Spanish to target the Latino community in New York. Source: Angela Weiss/AFP

3. Spanish 

CEO of Bloomberg, Michael Bloomberg’s Spanish knowledge helped him save the Latino community in New York during Hurricane Sandy. 

Though his Spanish isn’t perfect, Bloomberg wanted to make sure as many people as possible received the important news about the hurricane so that they would be informed about how to weather the storm.

The buying power of the Latino community in the U.S. is now estimated at $1.5 trillion and growing, making it more of a necessity than an advantage to learn Spanish for those in the business field. 

Some of the most successful tech companies have headquarters in Germany, the region’s economic powerhouse, making German one of the best languages to learn for business today. Source: Tobias Schwarz/AFP

4. German

Former CEO of SAP Hewlett Packard Leo Apotheker’s fluency in German definitely helped him while managing the German software multinational SAP. 

However, this polyglot can speak more than English and German. He is fluent in Dutch, French and Hebrew as well. His solid command of five languages and his multilingual resume offered him many job opportunities. 

In fact, this gained him the opportunity to be CEO at HP as the big multilingual company was looking for a global person to run its corporation. 

Similar to Apotheker, Nestle’s CEO, Paul Bulcke, rose to the top thanks to his mastery of six languages. 

Fluent in English, German, Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese, there is no denying his the perfect fit to be CEO of a company with such an international scope. 

Bulcke noted that “Being multilingual creates a stronger connection with peers, employees, and consumers, which is critical for a business like ours.”

Nothing impresses Swedish clients more than the ability to communicate with them in one of the best languages to learn in business today. Source: Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP

5. Swedish 

Mike Whaites, the former CEO of Finning’s, the world’s largest Caterpillar dealer, speaks fluent Swedish and native English.

After deciding to expand his business in Sweden, he took up the language and needed to make sense of the country’s bureaucracy and tax regulations. 

His determination made him proficient enough to communicate effectively with his Swedish clients in just four months.

Less conventional but still one of the best languages to learn

Tiffany Richards decided to take another route, unlike the other CEOs on this list.

The co-owner of Peaceful Warrior Martial Arts and Healing Center learned sign language to expand her yoga business to a wider audience. 

She claimed that learning sign language helped her communicate with a community of often neglected people and increased her company’s reach.