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.

Pronunciation is fun

The other day I realised that one reason I like languages is because I enjoy just saying foreign words and phrases, especially ones that contain sounds and combinations of sounds not used in English. I imitate native speakers as best I can – not just the sounds of the words, but the intonation, and even pitch of their voices as well.

At the moment I’m learning Swedish, Danish, Russian and Slovenian. I started learning Swedish out of interest in the language, and because I like the sound of it, and have fun pronouncing it. I started learning Danish and Slovenian in preparation for trips to Denmark and Slovenia, but also enjoy pronouncing them. I’ve been learning Russian on and off for years for various reasons, and enjoy pronouncing it.

Maybe I’ll learn some other languages just to have fun pronouncing them. Languages with clicks, like Zulu and Xhosa, or with ejectives, like Georgian. I already know some songs in these languages, so it would be quite useful to know a bit more about them. It would also be interesting to visit places where they’re spoken, and to use them, but that would not be a priority.

If I do this, I would search for the most interesting-sounding words and phrases, and also tongue twisters, rather than focusing on the most common words and grammatical patterns. I probably wouldn’t learn to speak and understand the languages, but would have fun anyway.

Here are some tongue twisters to play with:

And here’s a tongue twister in Xhosa:

Have you learnt, or are you learning, any languages because you like the sound of them and enjoy pronouncing them?

International Mother Language Day

International Mother Language Day Poster

As you might know, today is International Mother Language Day. The theme this year is “Linguistic diversity and multilingualism: keystones of sustainability and peace”.

To do my bit for multilinguism, I’m currently learning Swedish, Russian, Romanian and Slovak, and practising other languages, especially French and Welsh. So far today I’ve learnt a bit more Romanian and Russian, listened to some Welsh language radio, and read a bit of Swedish.

Tonight I studied some Swedish and Slovak, spoke English and Laala, read in English, Latin and Scots, and sang in English, Welsh, French, Zulu and Church Slavonic.

What languages have you spoken, read, heard, written, sung and/or studied today?

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.

Obrigados / Obrigadas

According to someone who wrote to me today, the words obrigados/obrigadas are only used in Portuguese to mean ‘obligated’, and are not used to thank more than one person. However, according to João Rosa, who wrote the article Obrigado – how to express your gratitude in Portuguese, these words are used to mean ‘thank you’ when talking to groups of people.

Can anybody throw any light on this?

In the Gaelic languages there are different versions of thank you for singular and plural:

Irish: go raibh maith agat (sg), go raibh maith agaibh (pl)
Manx: gura mie ayd (sg), gura mie eu (pl)
Scottish Gaelic: tapadh leat (sg), tapadh leibh (pl)

The plural forms in Manx and Scottish Gaelic are also used when thank one stranger.

Zulu, Swahili and related languages have different forms of thank you for singular and plural, e.g. Ngiyabonga kakhulu (sg) Siyabonga (pl) – Zulu.

Do other languages have different forms of thank you that change depending on who you’re thanking?

Zulu songs

In the Bangor Comunity Choir we often sing songs from southern Africa in languages like Xhosa and Zulu. I don’t speak these languages, yet, and neither does anybody in the choir, so we’re never entirely sure how to pronounce the words. We usually have a rough translation of the words, so we at least know what they mean.

At the moment we’re learning a Zulu song called “Sesizo Hamba Kancane” which apparently means ‘Walk Gracefully (you people of modern days)’. Here are the words we’re singing:

Sesizo hamba kancane nje nge si manje
Sizo hamba kancane nge hoshimamma

This isn’t the whole song, but these are words are repeated in various combinations throughout.

I thought it would be interesting to find out what they all mean and how to pronounce them.

– sesizo – not sure what this means
– hamba [ˈhaːmba] = to go, walk, ride, travel – often appears in Zulu songs
– kancane [ɠaˈn͡ǀaːne] = a bit; a little; slightly; softly; slowly; gradually; tenderly; barely; scarcely – not an easy word to pronounce what with the implosive g and the dental click.
– nje [nʤe] = (suffix) merely; only; just
– nge [ŋge] = (prefix) not
– si [si] = we
– manje [ˈmaːnʤe] = now; at present

I’m not sure about the rest of it. We were told that it’s something about driving our mother’s car carefully. Does anyone know the song, or speak Zulu?


This is one of the songs we’ll be singing with lots of other choirs in London on Sunday 9th September this year at Sing for Water London. If you happen to be in London at that time, please come along a listen.


One of the songs we’ve been singing in the Bangor Community Choir recently is a Zulu one from South Africa called eGalile. The words are:

eGalile, eGalile
sohlangana eGalile

washo uJesu
kuba fundi bakhe
sohlangana eGalile

My knowledge of Zulu is very limited and I’m not sure all the words are written correctly, but with help from online Zulu dictionary, I cobbled together the following translation:

In Galilee, In Galilee
I say we will meet in Galilee

Jesus said
To his assembled disciples
We will meet in Galilee

As far as I can tell, this is based on a passage from the Bible (Matthew, 28:10) – “Then said Jesus unto them, Be not afraid: go tell my brethren that they go into Galilee, and there shall they see me.”

Can any of you provide a better translation, or other information about this song?

Here’s a recording of the song from YouTube

The first part isn’t quite the same as we sing in the community choir, but the rest is.