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Ask Molly: Language of the Future

June 26, 2020


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Dear Molly,

What language will be the greatest need in 20 years? I want to get my grandchildren started as early as possible!


~ Planning for the Future

* * * * *

Dear Planning for the Future,

Your grandchildren certainly are getting a generous head start, which is beneficial for learning languages. Studies show us that young children are not only more adept at learning new languages than adults, but they also pick up variations in accent that are crucial to native fluency. That is not to say, of course, that adults are incapable of learning new languages. In fact, adult language learners have proven to be better than children at understanding the more abstract principles of language (i.e., conjugations, subject/verb agreements, etc.). That is to say, language learning at different stages of life can yield different advantages. In general, however, younger language learners are more likely to develop fluency that can remain with them into adulthood with regular immersion and reinforcement.

But you didn’t come here to question the optimal age of language learning. In a way, I wish you had, because your actual question is a bit more difficult for me to pin down. To know what language will be in greatest demand for the CIA in 20 years would be like asking your local meteorologist what the weather will be in the same amount of time. They might be able to give you a general sense, but they most certainly couldn’t tell you to pack an umbrella.

Since its inception in 1947, CIA has and continues to seek candidates with a strong foreign language aptitude. After all, to pursue a global mission, you have to understand the world. Candidates who have pursued foreign languages will often, in addition to learning the language, develop a better understanding of that country and their culture. They join our workforce ready to drill-down on a problem set. They may need to brush up on some vocabulary related to their specific topic (economics, technologies, etc.), but generally they are ready to move. And at CIA, we need to move. Fast.

With that said, the specific language learned doesn’t concern us so much as someone’s ability to learn a language. Students of foreign languages can apply those same skill sets in pursuit of fluency in another language. At CIA, we have an incredibly talented cadre of language instructors that prepare Agency employees for their assignments. The student with language-learning experience would most certainly join with a leg up.

Deciding which language to pursue is a difficult choice. The world of intelligence is constantly evolving to face new threats. This means that certain languages that were once in low demand are now in incredibly high demand. At the moment, Arabic, Mandarin, Dari/Pashtu, Persian/Farsi, and Russian are in high demand, but this does not mean that CIA is uninterested in capable speakers of Spanish, French, Korean, German, and all other languages. The future of global affairs is demonstrably unpredictable, despite our best efforts to stay ahead of the curve. You never know when your language will be in high demand.

So, Planning for the Future, I can’t say exactly which language your grandchildren are best-suited to learn, but I most certainly encourage them to pursue foreign language study.

~ Molly

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