The Most Popular Languages to Learn

Today we have a guest post by Taylor Tomita

Every year millions of people decide to learn a new language. Some do it as a hobby, while others brush up on their language skills before setting off on a travel adventure. And for many, learning a second tongue is the first step toward a brighter economic future.

So what are the most popular languages to learn? WordTips decided to find out. Its researchers created a map of the languages people are learning in every country across the globe. Here’s a closer look at their findings.

The most popular languages to learn around the world

You can find a large version of this map, and maps for each continent at: https://word.tips/multilingual-world/

North America
English and Spanish are among the most popular choices for second language learners in the USA. This is due to the USA’s large migrant population and its proximity to South America, where Spanish is widely spoken. But Japanese is the top choice for US and Canadian language learners. Japan has long-standing economic and cultural ties with both countries. North Americans account for 2.5% of all foreigners currently living in Japan.

South America
English is the top language to learn for people in six South American countries, including Brazil, Ecuador, and Columbia. People in Peru are more interested in learning Korean. It’s a strange choice, given the geographical distance and cultural disparities. But young Peruvians are crazy for K-Pop! Concert tours sell out within hours, and Korea’s biggest pop stars are welcomed by huge crowds whenever they step foot in the country.

Europe
English is the number one language to learn in over 30 European countries. In fact, it’s the top choice in all but seven European countries. The nations bucking the trend include Denmark and Slovenia, where German comes out on top. Portugal is a popular retirement destination for wealthy Scandinavians, explaining why so many Swedish people are learning to speak Portuguese.

Middle East and Central Asia
Learning English is especially popular among unemployed or poorly paid workers living in Middle Eastern and Central Asian countries. Speaking English proficiently is often a ticket to higher-paid jobs in the tourism industry. It’s also a vital skill for those who want to work in education, finance, or government. A recent survey found that English speakers from Iraq earn up to 200% more than those with no English language skills.

Asia and Oceania
English is the second language of choice for people living in Asian countries that attract a large number of western tourists, including Thailand and Vietnam. Oceania’s English-speaking countries (New Zealand and Australia) are interested in learning the native tongue of their closest neighbor, Japan.

Africa
Millions of Africans are increasing their economic opportunities by learning two of the world’s most important lingua francas, English and French. These languages are important for Africans who want to work in travel, tourism, or the booming tech sectors driving economic growth across the continent. The widespread adoption of European languages is a sign of Africa’s troubled colonial past. Thankfully, many Africans are ensuring their native languages are never forgotten. Zulu is the most popular language to learn in Malawi, while Swahili is the number choice for those living in Tanzania.

Learning a new language is fun and empowering. It also helps create a greater sense of global community. And that only can lead to better things for everyone.

Milestones

A Manx milestone

Yesterday I added details of a language called Akawaio (Ka’pon) to Omniglot. It’s a Cariban language spoken mainly in northern Guyana, and also in northern Brazil and eastern Venezuela, by about 6,380 people.

You may be wondering why I mention this. What’s so special about this language? Well, it just happens to be the 1,500th language I’ve written about on Omniglot, and it feels like a significant milestone to me. There are many more languages out there: 7,139, according to Ethnologue – so only another 5,639 to go! That should keep me busy for a while.

Of the languages on Omniglot, the majority (1,107) are written with the Latin alphabet. There are also 126 written with the Cyrillic alphabet, 75 written with the Arabic alphabet, 72 written with the Devanagari alphabet, and smaller numbers of languages written with other alphabets and writing systems. [More language and writing stats]

It’s becoming increasingly challenging to find information about languages that don’t yet appear on Omniglot. About 4,065 of the world’s languages have a written form, although many are rarely written, and the remaining 3,074 are probably unwritten [source]. There is little or no documentation for many languages, and what documentation there is can be difficult to find. Inspite of this, I will continue to add new language profiles to Omniglot, and appreciate any help you can offer.

An Omniglot minion

I’ve been working on Omniglot on my own since 1998 – there are no minions or other assistants to help me. However, many other people have contributed to Omniglot, by sending me corrections, new material, suggestions, donations and so on, and I am profoundly grateful to all of them.

This is the 3,414th post I’ve written on this blog since launching it in March 2006. At first I tried to write something every day, but soon realised that was too much. At the moment I aim to write two posts a week, plus the language quiz on Sundays.

In April 2007 I started uploading videos to YouTube. Some of the videos feature silly little conversations in languages I’m learning. Others involve music-related events I’ve taken part in, and tunes and songs I’ve written. In 2021 I started uploading videos more regularly, particularly videos about words and etymology, and some songs as well. As well as the Adventures in Etymology videos I upload on Sundays, I plan to make videos featuring alphabets, phrases, etc in a variety of languages. Here’s one I made of the Danish alphabet:

Since June 2018 I’ve made 42 episodes of the Radio Omniglot Podacast, and 5 episodes of Adventures in Etymology, a new series I started in March 2021. It started as a series of videos I made for Instagram and Facebook, then I posted them on Youtube as well, and decided to add them to the Radio Omniglot site. I have ideas for other series I could make for Radio Omniglot, and would welcome any suggestions you may have.

In September 2018 I launched the Celtiadur, a blog where I explore connections between Celtic languages. This is based the Celtic cognates part of Omniglot. So far I’ve written 227 posts, and add a new one every week.

Since 1998 I’ve become fluent in Welsh and Irish, regained my fluency in French, maintained my fluency in Mandarin Chinese, more or less, and have learned enough Esperanto, Scottish Gaelic, Manx, Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch to have at least basic conversations. I’ve also learnt quite a bit of Russian and Czech, and some Romanian, Cantonese, Slovak, Slovenian, Serbian, Icelandic, Faroese, British Sign Language, Breton and Cornish.

I’m currently concentrating on Spanish, Swedish, Danish and Dutch, while trying to maintain my other languages, particularly French and Welsh. For the past 4 years or so I’ve studied languages every day on Duolingo – my current streak reached 1,369 today. I’ve also been using Mondly and Memrise. [More about my language learning adventures].

While not working on Omniglot or learning languages, I like to sing, play musical instruments and write songs and tunes. My musical adventures started long before Omniglot, but for many years after leaving school I only really listened to music. In 2005 I started going to Ireland every summer to learn Irish language, and also Irish songs, tunes and dances. This inspired me to take up music again. Since then I’ve learnt to play the guitar, mandolin, ukulele, cavaquinho and harp, and started playing the recorder, piano and tin whistle again. I’ve learnt songs in many different languages, and written quite a few songs and tunes.

Here’s a song I wrote in 33 different languages:

Enough of this shameless self-promotion. What about you? Have you reached any significant milestones recently?

Best Countries for Language Learning

Preply image

According to research carried out by Preply, the countries with the best language learning environments are Luxembourg, Sweden, Cyprus, Malta, Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, Slovenia, Spain and Estonia.

Their Worldwide Language Index was compiled from analyzing data from 30 European countries, plus the USA, on such factors as the number of official languages, the degree of multilingualism, language learning in schools, the level of competence in foreign languages, access to language learning technology, and whether TV and films are subtitled or dubbed.

Overall, Luxembourg scored hightest, so if you grew up in Luxembourg, you are more likely to be successful in learning several languages. Are there any Luxembourgers reading this? Would you agree with this?

Luxembourg has three official languages: Luxembourgish, German and French, and education is in all three languages. English is also taught in schools, and students can choose to learn Italian, Spanish, Portuguese or Chinese. In addition, some classes are taught in Portuguese or English for the children of immigrants [source].

In terms of individual factors, Luxembourg, Cyprus, Malta, Spain, Austria, Hungary, France, Latvia, Poland, Italy, Sweden and Croatia all score highly for language learning in school. The countries with the highest level of command of the best known foreign languages include Luxembourg, Sweden and Malta.

The UK only scores highly in the Subtitles, Dubbing and Voiceover category, and the USA scores highly in language diversity.

What this study didn’t look at, as far as I can tell, is whether these countries are also good places to learn languages if you’re from elsewhere. It would be interesting to see how well each country teaches their local language(s) to immigrants or visitors interested in learning them.

Note: this post is sponsored by Preply, an online learning platform, connecting a global network of tens of thousands of active learners and 15,000 verified tutors to study and teach over 50 languages.

Procrastination Chariots

Do you tend to leave things to the last minute, and then scramble around frantically trying to get them done in time?

I certainly have been known to do this on occasion. For example, for nearly two years, I’ve been meeting with a few friends once a month to share songs we’re working on. During this time I’ve written a new song every month, and often do so in the few days before we meet. I may have various ideas for songs before then, but don’t usually do much with them until the last minute. In this case, I find that having the monthly deadline of our meetings helps.

Before this group started meeting, I wrote songs when I felt inspired – sometimes I’d write several in a month, and at other times I didn’t write anything for ages.

What I indulge in could be called a charet(te), or “a period of intense work, especially group work undertaken to meet a deadline” [source], a word that comes from the Old French charrete (chariot).

The sense of last-minute work apparently comes from the practice of students at the École de Beaux-Arts (School of Fine Arts) in Paris working together furiously at the last minute to finish their termly projects, which would be collected on a charette, a small wheeled chart. They were said to be working en charette (“in the chart”), and the night before the deadline was known as la nuit de charette (“charette night”). Any work not on the charette was not accepted for assessment. The word and concept was borrowed into English in the mid-19th century [source].

Vintage cart illustration

Do you find it helpful to have targets and deadlines, whether set by you or someone else?

I don’t usually set myself deadlines and targets when learning languages, unless I’m preparing for a particular trip, event or occasion.

Is VR ready for language learning?

Today we have a guest post by Ramon Brena of Avalinguo

When we see the acronym “VR”, we immediately think of headsets and gaming, as well as of fantasy dystopian worlds like in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, where everything, I mean everything, is done in VR.

Well, perhaps not everything in the real world, but could we learn to speak languages in VR? Now that travel is not possible because of COVID-19, could we engage in lively conversations with Parisians in a VR Montmartre pub?

Put like this, we have to answer “No”. To begin with, Paris is one of the worst places to practice French with the locals (as it was commented by Benny Lewis in the Language Hacking Podcast): if you want to speak French with the locals, you better go to a small town in France. Believe me on this, I lived for 6 years in France.

Then, a more basic question, Who are we going to talk to in VR? There are two broad answers to this question, and each of them takes a completely different approach to interaction in VR.

We call the first approach “simulation-based”. As you know, VR has been applied for educational purposes using the VR capabilities for simulating a world, could it be the bloodstream inside arteries in the body, or the working of complex mechanical contraptions, or… the situation inside a taxi in a foreign city.

The cab example was taken from the Mondly-VR app (headset plug-in for the Mondly app), which I bought for my Oculus. They use the synthetic worlds construction capabilities of VR to show you very compelling city views taken from inside the cab. The cab driver turns to you like expecting to have your instructions.

After that, things become a bit awkward. You have to interact with the driver using one of the options written for you on-screen and… Wait a moment, do you have to answer using predefined scripts? Here the magic starts to vanish. Dialogs are not natural, speech recognition leaves a lot to desire, and in general, the interaction doesn’t feel at all like a human conversation where only you know what you want to talk about.

To be fair, Mondly does a good job at the virtual scenario construction, but the interaction engagement wears off very quickly as the novelty fades out. Mondly-VR is available for several VR headsets and builds on top of its popular smartphone app. You can learn the language lessons on the smartphone alone, but of course, in the little cellphone screen, Mondly graphics look far less impressive than with the headset.

We call the second approach for language practice with VR “interaction-based” and it consists of putting in a virtual world the avatars of several humans. In this case, the language practice aspect is taken care of completely by those humans, who converse as they want. In this approach, the interaction is, of course, more natural just because it is done by humans, but then other less obvious problems arise.

There are several general VR platforms that can be used to have language practice conversations, like Mozilla Hubs (web browser-based), High Fidelity (audio only, I have used it for Meetup language gatherings), AltspaceVR (acquired by Microsoft some years ago), and others, which are not specifically intended to be used for language learning, but to some extent could.

I’m rather going to take as an example of this second approach the app Avalinguo, which is specifically intended for language learning (disclaimer: I’m the CEO of Avalinguo). I know, you are going to ask: In which headsets can I run Avalinguo? Right now in none. Avalinguo is a cellphone app.

Screenshot of the Avalinguo app

The value of VR in Avalinguo is, first of all, to replace the face and body of the participants by avatars in order to give privacy. You know, talking is the most stressful language learning activity, and research studies have found that many self-conscious or shy people find it difficult to deal with. Some beginners feel judged or stupid when babbling in the language they are starting to learn. Linguists such as Luca Lampariello have proposed to change the attitude and embrace making mistakes, which is a good idea, but we propose to reduce the stress of the situation in the first place, by using avatars instead of showing your babbling face.

Another advantage of VR in Avalinguo (not yet currently released) is that role-playing games, which is one of the best language-learning practice activities, is greatly enhanced by the use of avatars already using a costume like a nurse, travel agent, bell boy, you name it. Other mini-game props such as roulette can be easily implemented, and there are hundreds of ready-to-use graphic resources to plugin.

Now, the distinction between the “simulation” approach and the “interaction” one is not clear cut, because, for instance, the use of costumed-avatars and props is a form of simulation. There is plenty of room for “simulation-interactive” hybrid approaches. The tricky aspect is to build it in such a way that it makes sense from an educational point of view, while at the same time making it entertaining and coherent.

So, in the end, the question is not if VR is ready for language-learning, but rather if language-learning is ready for VR, isn’t it?

What do you do?

What do you do?

Language courses usually have lessons that explain how to talk about your job / profession / work. The examples they give might include jobs like doctor, nurse, teacher, secretary, engineer, architect, writer, ninja, etc. These are all mentioned in lessons I’ve done on Duolingo (and other apps).

If you tell someone you’re a teacher or a doctor, they probably have at least some idea of what that entails. However, there are many jobs and other ways to make a living that are more difficult to define and explain, even in your native language. I’ve never come across a language lesson that includes unusual or difficult-to-define jobs like influencer, game tester, snuggler, bounty hunter or youtuber, for example.

Yesterday I was talking to a friend and he asked how my business is doing. I’ve told him what I do before, and have shown him Omniglot and explained what the site is about, but he thinks that it involves translation in some way. He’s not the only one to think this.

I wouldn’t usually call myself a translator or interpreter, although I did do a bit of translating and interpreting many years ago, mainly between Mandarin and English. These days I sometimes translate mysterious inscriptions and other bits of writing sent to me by Omniglot visitors, and occasionally help friends with translations, mainly between English and Welsh.

Sometimes I say that I’m a linguist. This usually leads to questions about which languages I speak and/or teach. I might try to explain what linguistics is all about and what I mean by linguist, but often I don’t bother. It depends on the situation.

I did teach English for a short while in Taiwan, and occasionally I teach people juggling and other circus skills. Does that make me a teacher? I don’t think so – I have no teaching qualifications, and only limited experience.

Sometimes I say that I’m a writer, and when they hear this, people assume that I write books and ask where they can find them. Maybe one day I will write books, but in the meantime I have written about more than 1,800 languages and writing systems, over 3,500 blog posts, and some silly dialogues and a short story that I’ve made into videos.

I could call myself a musician, singer-songwriter, composer and/or arranger as I have written 80+ songs and tunes. I do this because I enjoy it, and don’t earn anything from it. I share my songs and tunes online and with my friends, and occasionally perform in public.

Sometimes I say that I run my own company, or that I run a language-related business. This is true, but the company consists of just me. I am the director, secretary, marketing and sales department, and everything else.

On Twitter I call myself a Wordherder, Tunesmith and Gravityweaver.

When trying to explain this in other languages, I might just say that I’m a linguist, writer, translator, depending on which of these words I know in the relevant language. If I’m asked for more details, I direct people to Omniglot.

In case you’re not sure what I do, and how I make a living from it, you can read about it here, and/or listen to my podcast about it.

Do you have a difficult-to-define or unusual job or way to make a living?

Double Dutch

This week I finally finished the Russian course I’ve been working through on Memrise, and am giving Russian a break for now. I may go back to it at some point, and try to get a better grip on the grammar, which I still find hard, even after three years of studying a little every day.

I promised myself that I’d start learning a different language once I’d finished the Russian lessons, and have decided to learn some more Dutch. I know a little already, and can understand it to some extent thanks to my knowledge of English, German and related languages. So it’s easier for me than Russian. I’m just learning it on Duolingo at the moment, and may try other apps as well.

I like the weird and wonderful phrases that come up on Duolingo, and expect there’ll be plenty in Dutch. A couple of very useful phrases that came up today were:

Pardon, ik ben een appel
Excuse me, I am an apple

Nee, je bent geen appel
No, you are not an apple

Perhaps a good way to start a conversation.

I’m collecting these on Omniglot, of course.

Holding Up

When faced with long words in languages like Russian, one thing that helps me remember them is to break them down into their constistuent parts and find out what each part means.

For example, a Russian word that came up in my lessons recently was поддерживать (podderživát’) [pɐˈdʲːerʐɨvətʲ], which means to support, keep up or maintain [source].

It comes from поддержать (podderžát’) – to support, help up, & -ивать (-ivat’) – a verb suffix.

поддержать comes from под- (pod-) – under, by, near, & держать (deržát’) – to keep, to hold. So you could see that you’re ‘underholding’ something or someone when you support them in Russian [source].

Related words include:

  • поддержка = support (financial, etc)
  • поддержание = maintenance, sustenance
  • поддерживаться = to be supported / maintained
  • поддерживающий = backer, supporting, supportive

There are many more words that have the prefix под-.

How do you remember words in languages you’re learning?

Upload a language straight to your brain

Have you ever tried to learn a language?

Maybe you’ve struggled with a language for years and never really got the hang of it.

Ever wished you could simply wave a magic wand and be able to speak another language fluently?

The lingoboffins at the secret Omniglot laboratory have been working on this problem for a long time, and believe that they have finally found a solution that will work for everybody.

It was announced today that a revolutionary new app will soon be available that will enable you to upload a whole new language directly into your brain.

apps

No more spending years learning vocabulary, trying to get to grips with grammar, and fumbling with the pronunciation. All you need to do is download the app, tune it to your brain, and upload a language. Then you will be able to understand and speak* that language almost immediately**.

*This app does not give you the ability to read and write in another language. We are working on another app which will do that.

**The actually time it takes to tune the app to your brain, and for the language to settle in, may vary from a few hours to several months, or even years.

Terms and conditions apply. This app is not currently available anywhere, but keep checking back, and one day it might be.

New Year

It seems that a new year, and indeed a new decade has started, so Happy New Year / Decade!

I’ve noticed that some people are looking back at what they’ve done / achieved, etc over the past decade, so I thought I’d do something similar.

Back in 2009 I was studying for an MA in Linguistics at Bangor University, while working on Omniglot in my spare time, and writing for a couple of other websites. I finished my course in September of that year, though didn’t officially graduate until the following year, and have been working full-time on Omniglot since then.

Over the past decade Omniglot has grown quite a bit – I add something new, or make improvements, almost every day. The site now contains:

… and much more.

Since 2009 Omniglot has been visited by 176 million people, who have made 234 milion visits and viewed 407 million pages. There have been visitors every single country and territory, even Antarctica and North Korea. The top ten countries vistors come from are USA, India, UK, Canada, Philippines, Australia, Germany, Malaysia, Singapore and South Africa. The most spoken languages of visitors are: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese (Brazilian), Dutch, Russian, Chinese and Polish.

Over the past decade I’ve studied and dabbled with a few languages, including: Breton, BSL, Cornish, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Esperanto, Icelandic, Irish, Latin, Manx, Romanian, Russian, Scots, Scottish Gaelic, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, Spanish, Swedish and Toki Pona. I also started creating my own language: Laala, and made some con-scripts such as Crymeddau and Curvetic.

I joined a French conversation group back in 2009, and have been going almost every week since then. This has really helped to improve my French and I feel a lot more confident about using it now. When I can, I also go to a Welsh conversation group, and for a while I tried to run a polyglot conversation group.

Every summer I’ve been to Ireland to do courses in Irish language, traditional Irish songs, harp and/or bodhrán playing. I’ve also been to Scotland quite a few times to do courses in Scottish Gaelic songs.

In 2012 I started writing songs and tunes, and have written quite a few since then, especially in 2019, when I wrote a new song almost every month and several new tunes. I also started to write out the music for my tunes and songs, and to make new arrangements of them.

The first song I wrote was The Elephant Song, which came to me after going to a poetry writing workshop.

I haven’t made a good recording of my most recent song, but here’s one I wrote in November / December 2019:

Since 2014 I’ve been to a number of polyglot events, including the Polyglot Gathering and the Polyglot Conference. At most of these I’ve given talks or run workshops.

Polyglottery

In 2018 I started the Radio Omniglot Podcast, and have made 27 episodes so far. I try to make two episodes per month, but don’t always manage it.

In 2018 I also launched the Celtiadur, a collection of Celtic cognates, where I explore links between modern and ancient Celtic languages. This is an extension of the Celtic Cognates section on Omniglot.

Wow! Putting it together like this makes me realise that I haven’t been entirely idle.