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If you're not sure which language to study, here are some factors to consider:
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:
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.
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.
For more details see: http://www.mla.org
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. Some languages have numerous verb conjugations, noun declensions and/or genders. Others might have irregular spelling systems, a variety of plural forms and/or uncommon phonemes or combinations of phonemes. Generally the more a language differs from your L1 or other languages you know, the harder it is to learn.
For English speakers the least difficult languages are probably: Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, Afrikaans, German, Portuguese, Romanian, Norwegian, Swedish and Danish.
The most difficult languages for English speakers, and indeed speakers of most other languages, are Arabic, Korean, Japanese and Chinese.
Language Learning Difficulty for English speakers
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
MLA Language Map Data Center - information based on census data about which languages are spoken in the USA: http://www.mla.org/map_data
10 Best Languages to Learn Right Now (i.e. in 2010 in the USA)
BBC Voices - details of the languages spoken in the UK, with numbers
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