Which language should I learn?
If you're not sure which language to study, here are some factors
Are materials and other resources available for the language you want
to learn? Are there classes in your area? For the popular languages,
like French, Spanish and German, this shouldn't be a issue, but it may
be difficult to find resources and/or classes for the lesser-studied languages.
If you want to learn a language with a large number of speakers and which is
spoken in many countries, the ones to choose in order of 'usefulness' are:
English, French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Chinese (Mandarin), German, Japanese,
Portuguese and Hindi/Urdu.
This list is based on the number of speakers, the number and population of
countries where the languages are spoken, the number of major fields using
the languages internationally, the economic power of countries using the
languages, and their socio-literary prestige.
For a breakdown of these factors see:
The languages with the most speakers are:
- Mandarin Chinese (720 million)
- English (480 million)
- Spanish (320 million)
- Russian (285 million)
- French (265 million)
- Hindi/Urdu (250 million)
- Indonesian/Malay (230 million)
- Arabic (221 million)
- Portuguese (188 million)
- Bengali (185 million)
- Japanese (133 million)
- German (109 million)
- This list includes first and second language speakers. The totals
are all estimates and each source gives a different figure. If you
include people who speak them as foreign languages, the total for
English would increase significantly.
Hindi and Urdu are closely related but separate languages. The formal
registers of these differ significantly, but there is high degree of
mutual intelligibility between them at an informal level. The situation
is similar for Indonesian and Malay.
There are many varieties of colloquial spoken Arabic which are not
all mutually intelligible. There is also a variety of Arabic known as
Modern Standard Arabic which is based on the Classical Arabic of the
Quran and is used as the main written form and Arabic, and to some
extent as a spoken lingua franca between Arabic speakers from different
regions and countries.
Spanish is the most widely spoken language in the USA after English, with
around 28 million speakers. The third most spoken language is Chinese - mainly
Cantonese, with over 2 million speakers. Other languages with over a million
speakers include French, German, Tagalog, Vietnamese and Italian.
Here's an illustration showing where the most spoken languages are spoken.
See a larger version of this image at:
Each language presents you with a different set of challenges. Languages
might have complex inflectional systems, complex writing systems,
irregular spelling systems, and/or complex phonology. Generally the
more a language differs from your L1 or other languages you know, the
harder it is to learn.
For lesser-studied languages it can be hard to find language learning
materials and courses. In some cases you might have to learn
another language first, e.g. when learning indigenous languages of Latin
America it helps if you know Spanish and/or Portuguese as most materials
and courses are likely to be in those languages. Many languages are
undocumented and have never been written, so training in field linguistics
is needed in order to acquire them.
For English speakers the least difficult languages are probably: Italian,
Spanish, French, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Norwegian,
Swedish and Danish.
Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Chinese are often considered among the most
challenging languages for English speakers, and speakers of other
Western languages, to learn. Learning to read and write Chinese
and Japanese is particulaly challenging, though the spoken languages
are less difficult. Some of the indigenous languages of the Americas
have complex grammar and phonology, for example Navajo verbs are all
Language Learning Difficulty for English speakers
Languages in demand by employers
If you want to learn a language in order to improve your employment/promotion
prospects then choose one that is in demand by employers. The list below gives
you an idea of which languages are in demand and is based on job ads posted on
recruitment sites. You can find links to the recruitment sites on the
Careers using languages page.
Note: languages are shown more or less in order of popularity with employers.
English, French, Swahili, Arabic, Portuguese
English, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Japanese
English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Malay/Indonesian, Spanish, Portuguese
English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian,
Portuguese, Finnish, Greek, Welsh, Russian, Japanese, Mandarin, Arabic
Language learning and translation software by Transparent Language