The pace of globalization is accelerating, to the extent that half of customers for U.S. businesses will come from overseas by 2025.

Meanwhile, three-quarters of internet users already speak a language other than English, and that percentage is expected to grow.

This reality could pose a stumbling block for some businesses. According to The Economist, nearly half of 572 senior executives interviewed said that misunderstandings and “messages lost in translation” have stalled major international business deals for their companies. More than 60 percent of these executives also said that poor communication skills have negatively affected their plans to expand internationally.

In a separate study, a quarter of U.S. employers said they have lost business recently because of a lack of language skills. This trend is bound to grow, given that 56 percent of American businesses say they expect their foreign language demand to increase in the next five years.

As organizations try to adapt to this new reality and optimize their language strategies, most are asking: Which business languages are the most important?

Here are five languages used in business that U.S. employers should consider prioritizing for 2020:

Chinese (Mandarin)

  • Number of native speakers: 1.2 billion
  • Percentage of total internet traffic: 19.3 percent

Ethnologue estimates the number of native speakers at almost 1.2 billion, roughly a billion of whom speak Mandarin. This makes it the most spoken language in the world, and the second-most utilized online behind English (25.4 percent).

The economic numbers coming out of China are staggering:

  • China will account for 35.2 percent of global real GDP growth between now and next year.
  • Since 1990, over 800 million Chinese citizens have been lifted out of extreme poverty.
  • By 2029, there will be more people in China’s middle class than there are total people in the United States.

There are nearly 2.9 million native Chinese speakers (including Mandarin and Cantonese) living in the U.S. today. Just 59 percent of this population is considered English proficient, meaning there is a large percentage of this audience that would prefer to conduct business in its native tongue.


  • Number of native speakers: 515 million
  • Percentage of total internet traffic: 8.1 percent

Several of the fastest-emerging economies in the world speak Spanish, including Mexico, Colombia, and Paraguay. More than 20 countries around the world use Spanish as their official language.

U.S. Hispanics account for 18 percent of the nation’s population. More than 13 percent of all U.S. residents speak Spanish at home. The economic impact of this segment is seismic, growing from $21 billion in 1990 to $1.7 trillion in 2017. This growth rate is expected to continue; Hispanics will represent almost 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2060.


  • Number of native speakers: 435 million
  • Percentage of total internet traffic: 5.3 percent

The gross domestic product of the Arab world exceeds $600 billion, making it one of the globe’s wealthiest regions. This area incorporates many of the world’s largest producers of oil and natural gas, including Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the city-state of Dubai.

With more than 1 million native speakers, Arabic is spoken at home in the U.S. more than Italian or Polish. This is a 71 percent increase from 2000, making it the country’s seventh-most spoken language and the fastest growing language in the U.S.


  • Number of native speakers: 412 million
  • Percentage of total internet traffic: 3.2 percent

At first glance, the total number of French speakers may seem inflated because the population of France is just 66.9 million. The excess can be attributed to many African countries speaking French as well. As a result of population growth in these regions, it is estimated that the number of French speakers will rise to more than 700 million by 2050.

French is like English in that it is taught as a foreign language in the education systems of most countries around the world. It is the second-most widely learned foreign language in the world, with almost 120 million students and 500,000 teachers. Just over 2 million U.S. residents speak French at home. Some data suggests French could be the “language of the future.”


  • Number of native speakers: 286 million
  • Percentage of total Internet traffic: 4.1 percent

Though less popular than Spanish, Portuguese is spoken by nearly 300 million people the world over. Most significantly, it is the official language of Brazil, which has the ninth largest economy in the world and is expected to account for 1.2 percent of all global growth next year.

More than 770,000 people speak Portuguese at home in the United States. With large bastions of speakers in the northeast, Portuguese is spoken more frequently in the U.S. than Italian or Japanese.

LanguageLine Can Help

For more than three decades, LanguageLine has played an essential role in the globalization strategy of many top companies, providing interpretation and translation in more than 240 languages. We invite you to contact us to discuss how LanguageLine can be of assistance to your organization.

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