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:

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.

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.

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.

Polyglot Conference – Day 1

The Polyglot Conference officially started today. There were talks and workshops all day on all sorts of interesting topics. I went to talks on Slovenian, linguistic relavtivity, Romani, the Cathars, and audiolinguistics. They were all interesting, especially the linguistic ones.

There was plenty of time between the talks to talk to other participants, and I managed to make some recordings in quite a variety of languages for the next episode of my podcast. I hope to make more recordings tomorrow.

I had conversations in English, Welsh, French, Irish, German, Russian, Mandarin, Japanese, and tried to speak a few other languages.

They are preparing Ljubljana for the Ljubljana Marathon tomorrow, and quite a few streets are being lined with barriers. I hope I’ll be able to get to the conference venue tomorrow.

Sounds good to me

Have you ever learnt a language just because you like the way it sounds?

This is one of the reasons for learning a language discussed by John McWhorter is this TED talk:

He talks about the joys of getting your tongue round the sounds of other languages, and mentions Khmer, with its large inventory of vowels.

Which languages sound good to you?

Are there any particular sounds or combinations of sounds that really appeal to you (in any language)?

I like listening to languages with clicks, such as Xhosa and Zulu, and also to ones with ejectives, such as Georgian. I also like listening to and speaking tonal languages, like Mandarin and Cantonese.

At the moment, my favourite language in terms of sounds, is Swedish.

Other sound favourites include Japanese, Finnish, Italian, Icelandic and Swahili.

Star sailors and children of the sky

A sailing ship in space

Did you know that the word astronaut means “star sailor”?

This is something I learnt from an interesting Allusionist podcast on Technobabble.

Astronaut comes from the Ancient Greek ἄστρον (ástron – star) and ναύτης (naútēs – sailor). It first appeared as the name of a space craft in Across the Zodiac, a story written by Percy Greg in the 1880. It was used in the 1920s in writing about the possiblity of space travel, and in the U.S. space program from the 1960s [source].

Some other space-related words have a nautical roots as well, including (space)ship, mast, batton and sail.

Other words for star sailors include:

cosmonaut, from the Russian космона́вт (kosmonávt), from the Ancient Greek κόσμος (kósmos – universe) &+ -naut [source]
taikonaut, from the Chinese 太空 (tàikōng – space) +‎ -naut [source]
spationaut, from spatio (space) + -naut [source]

Many other languages use one or other of these words. Here are some exceptions:

– In Chinese an astronaut is either 太空人 (tài​kōng​rén – “space person”), 航天員 (háng​tiān​yuán – “boat sky personnel”), or 宇航员 [宇航員] (yǔhángyuán – “universe boat personnel”) [source].

– In Icelandic an astronaut is a geimfari, from geimur (space) + -fari (traveler) [source].

– In Welsh an astronaut is a gofodwr, from gofod (space) + gŵr (man).

– In Swahili an astronaut is a mwanaanga, from mwana (child) +‎ anga (sky) [source]

Are there interesting words for astronauts in other languages?


In the Bangor Community Choir last night we started learning a new song entitled Jenga by Juliet Russell. We were told that the song uses made-up words that don’t mean anything in particular, and it has no connection to the game of Jenga.

One of my friends thought the word jenga might mean something like ‘to build’ in Swahili, so I thought I’d investigate.

Jenga does indeed mean to construct or build in Swahili [source], and the as the inventor of the game, Leslie Scott, grew up in East Africa speaking English and Swahili, it is likely that the name of the game comes from that Swahili word.

Related words include:

– jengo = building
– mjenzi = builder
– ujenzi = architecture; construction, installation

Source: Online Swahili – English Dictionary