A Critical Introduction to the Critical Languages

This post is written by guest blogger Patrick Goodridge a linguist, language teacher, and writer based in Philadelphia, PA. Read more about Patrick below or on imagethe Career Linguist guest bloggers page where you can also learn about being a guest blogger for Career Linguist yourself!!


According to the US government, some languages are more important than others! These languages tend to be the hardest to learn, according to time-to-mastery rankings by the Foreign Service Institute, whose rankings tend to list the languages most different from English in morphology and phonology as taking the longest to learn. As a result of their difficulty, very few people speak these languages despite the country’s need for them. Hence, they are known as the “critical languages”, which makes it critical for linguists to learn them.

The concept of critical languages was originally introduced by the US State Department, the organization that still devotes the most scholarships, fellowships, and other funding to their learning by US citizens. These are the languages defined as most essential to meeting the current diplomatic, defense, and economic needs of the country. The operative word here is current; languages like German or Italian that would’ve been at the top of that list in 1942, or Vietnamese in the late 1960s, are now nowhere to be found. Likewise, languages thought to be crucial to US interests today (Arabic, Farsi, and Dari/Pashto) may one day be replaced by, say, the Slavic languages, reflecting the unrest in Ukraine and recent US-Russian political entanglements. Developments in the South China Sea would suggest that Chinese could also emerge as very crucial in the next century, and instability on the Korean peninsula could bring the North Korean dialect to the forefront of defense language strategy (The CIA’s creation of a Korea Mission Center to deal with North Korea supports this possibility). In fact, language needs are sometimes so variable that a single event or series of political developments can transform the language education landscape. For example, following the September 11th attacks, American student enrollment in Arabic language courses grew by 126.5% from 2002 to 2006 and then again by another 46.3% between 2006 and 2009. This variability suggests the importance of considering the global political context when deciding which critical language to pursue. Still, one should balance the necessity of learning a particular language’s necessity with your interest in doing so, since the more the language and the culture around it interest you, the more you’ll be motivated to learn.

The idea of critical languages can be interpreted broadly. As a result, the number of languages deemed critical varies widely; the National Security Education Program (NSEP) includes nearly FIFTY languages on its list, from Albanian, to Malay, to Yoruba, and all the languages in between of countries with which the United States has complex relations. Not all lists are as robust, however; the State Department’s own Critical Language Scholarship is much more conservative: Azerbaijani, Bangla, Hindi, Indonesian, Korean, Punjabi, Swahili, Turkish, Urdu, Arabic Persian, Chinese, Japanese, and Russian. It’s useful to further narrow this list by focusing on the languages that occur consistently across all sources: Arabic, Farsi, Mandarin Chinese, Russian, Korean (especially North Korean dialect), Dari, and Pashto.

A knowledge of a critical language can carry significant weight, opening doors to career advancement as well as personal growth. Along with considering which languages are most critical to the government or to corporations, however, also consider which language or languages are most critical to you yourself. I’ve personally found Russian to be the most appealing language to me, from the language’s beautiful literature to Russia’s tumultuous political past and how its values differ from my own culture’s. I’m fortunate enough to have the support of a number of government funding opportunities in my Russian studies, including the State Department’s Title VIII Fellowship for the Post-Soviet states and the Department of Education’s Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowship. I highly recommend pursuing particular education programs that offer such grants. I could not be happier with the response I’ve received from employers and colleagues because of my knowledge of Russian and other critical languages, like Turkish. Ultimately, choose the language that will not just be most critical to your country, but be most critical to your career, your personal life, and your future.

Applications for the 2017-2018 National Security Language Initiative for Youth are currently closed, but stay tuned in the Fall for the release of the 2018-2019 application. Interested students should also explore the Boren Award (which has a late January deadline), various Title VIII programs with Fall deadlines, and should see if FLAS funding is available from their institution for support of study abroad programs.