Imagine an alien landed on Earth wanting to interact with humans. Which language would afford them the best opportunities for interaction and success?
That’s the question Kai Chan asked himself when, as an associate fellow of Insead, he wrote his research paper “The Power Language Index”. Aiming to pinpoint the world’s most influential and powerful languages, Mr Chan used 20 indicators to measure five basic opportunities afforded by language – geography, economy, communication, knowledge and media, and diplomacy.
It might come as no surprise that English ranked in the top spot, with a score of 0.889 – more than double that of the No 2 ranking, the rising star Mandarin.
“This index is a snapshot in time and 16 years ago, Mandarin wouldn’t be anywhere close to where it is now,” says Mr Chan. “Going forwards, its numbers will surely increase.”
Mr Chan, 41, was born to a Chinese peasant family on the streets (his parents couldn’t afford a hospital birth) and discovered his love of languages at school in Canada, where his family emigrated when he was four. These days, he lives in Dubai’s Dubai International Financial Centre and is a self-confessed “language geek” – or polyglot – who speaks five languages fluently and one, Russian, slightly less confidently.
His native Cantonese (which is officially defined in China as a “dialect” as opposed to a “language”) doesn’t make his top five, but the official language of the UAE, Arabic, does scrape in over Russian at No 5. But Mr Chan admits that because of current regional economic turbulence, the path ahead is “less robust” for Arabic.
The findings that surprised him the most were the strength of French, in third place. “French only has 80 million native speakers, but it’s the most popular second language globally after English. In the elite policy circles, anyone who wants to seem educated or diplomatic learns French – probably a legacy of the empire.”
Although Mr Chan’s research was for Insead, it is also coming in handy in his day job as a senior government adviser. “We’ve explored how this research could be useful to the UAE for Expo 2020”, he says. “We need to know what languages our volunteers and staff will need to accommodate the world coming to Dubai.”
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