“What language should I learn?” you’re asking yourself. That’s a fair question. After all, with thousands of languages spoken in the world (an estimated 6,500), you’ve got options.
But you’re probably not thinking about learning Igbo, Hmong, or Cree—though it would be admirable if you did. Instead, you’ve probably got some more familiar languages in mind as possible answers to the question What language should I learn? You could start with one of the most widely spoken languages in the world.
To get right to the good stuff, click on a language below to find out more about it. (Languages are presented alphabetically.) Or see what question you should ask before you decide on a language to learn.
Disclaimer 1: I’m writing from an Anglo-American perspective. I’m a native English speaker and I was born and raised in the United States. So although I operate a translation agency, speak French, and work with dozens of nonnative English speakers, my writing is inextricably tied to my language and culture. Hopefully that will minimize the hate mail chastising me for not giving equal airtime to Latvian, Samoan, or Hausa.
Disclaimer 2: I’m writing for an Anglo-American audience. I’m assuming that most people who read this post are native English speakers. (The post is in English, after all.)
So the language you’re thinking of learning may not be listed here, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy endeavor. I support the learning of any language, because few human endeavors bring us as close to other cultures and other ways of thinking as language learning does.
But from a practical standpoint—by which I mean actually using the language one day to communicate—it makes more sense for the average American to learn Spanish than, say, Fwâi. (Fwâi is spoken by only about 2,000 people in New Caledonia.)
A better question to ask than What language should I learn?, however, is What are my goals? In other words, what are you trying to achieve? Why do you want to learn another language?
Do you want to learn a foreign language because you want to travel to or live in the country where it’s spoken? Does your company have nonnative English speakers who you’d like to communicate with? Do you want to work in the intelligence community? Or are you simply trying to stand out among other college applicants?
As soon as you figure out your goals, choosing what language to learn will be easier.
- Number of people who speak it: 242 million
- Where it’s spoken: 60 countries, including Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Syria, and Tunisia
- Why you should learn it: Arabic may be the most “controversial” language out there due to its factual but unfortunate connection to Islamic terrorism. As a result, the U.S. intelligence community welcomes fluent Arabic speakers. But working for the government is not your only option if you study Arabic. Anthropologists, historians, and archaeologists can benefit from a knowledge of the language. And considering the wide geographic spread of Arabic, learning it gives you a linguistic passport to a huge, under-visited (by Americans) region of the world.
- Fun fact: Arabic is considered a macrolanguage, which is a language with widely divergent dialects. Egyptian Arabic, Iraqi Arabic, and Levantine Arabic are all different in spoken form. (The written form, Modern Standard Arabic, is universal in official and academic settings.)
- Number of people who speak it: 80 million
- Where it’s spoken: 51 countries, including Belgium, Canada, France, Luxembourg, and Switzerland
- Why you should learn it: Parents, if you want your kid to get a great SAT verbal score, tell her to study French. English gets as much as one third of its vocabulary from French. In addition, learning French opens the door to studying many other fields, from art and history to medicine and technology.
- Fun fact: European French uses 14 vowel sounds, while Québecois French uses 19.
- Number of people who speak it: 78 million
- Where it’s spoken: 18 countries, including Austria, Germany, Hungary, Liechtenstein, Poland, and Switzerland
- Why you should learn it: English is a Germanic language, so English speakers will have an easier time learning German than, say, Arabic or Chinese. Germany is also an economic powerhouse. Five of the 20 largest European companies (by revenue) are German: Volkswagen, E.ON, Daimler, Allianz, and Siemens.
- Fun fact: One of the German language’s features is the ability to put words together to form new compound words. As a result, some German words can get sehr, sehr long. For example, consider the 63-letter German word Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz (“the law for the delegation of monitoring beef labeling”).
- Number of people who speak it: 64 million
- Where it’s spoken: 11 countries, including Italy, Monaco, France, and Switzerland
- Why you should learn it: Italian is a Romance language. (By “Romance,” I mean a language that derives from Vulgar Latin, not what you’re seeking on your solo trip to Venice.) As such, it shares a lot of vocabulary with English (much of which is from French, another Romance language). So from a word-recognition standpoint, Italian will be easier to learn than Mandarin. (Much easier.) In addition, learning Italian is a good idea for any serious foodie, art historian, or architecture student.
- Fun fact: Known as having a “sing-song” intonation, Italian is relatively easy to pronounce because it’s read as it’s written. All vowels are clearly enunciated.
- Number of people who speak it: 128 million
- Where it’s spoken: Japan
- Why you should learn it: Japan is the world’s third largest economy, and proficiency in Japanese would make sealing your business deal (or at least being well received in meetings) that much easier.
- Fun fact: Japanese car company Toyota started in 1936 as Toyoda (with a d). Writing the character for the family name Toyoda in Japanese requires 10 brush strokes, while Toyota requires only 8. In Japanese culture, 8 is a lucky number while 10 is not. Toyota with a t stuck.
- Number of people who speak it: 77 million
- Where it’s spoken: 5 countries, including North Korea and South Korea
- Why you should learn it: South Korea is a major ally and trading partner of the U.S., while North Korea is an economic backwater that the U.S. is constantly keeping an eye on. Knowledge of Korean could land you a position with an international firm or with the federal government, depending upon your ambitions.
- Fun fact: Korean uses honorifics, which are words or word endings used to show deference to someone superior in position (a teacher, a supervisor, an older relative, etc.).
- Number of people who speak it: 848 million
- Where it’s spoken: 12 countries, including China, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Taiwan
- Why you should learn it: American businesses are working more and more with Chinese companies to bring products to market. (If it weren’t for inexpensive Chinese labor, your iPhone would cost even more than it already does.) A language spoken by almost one billion people is nothing to sneeze at. U.S. universities have been offering Chinese as a major in greater numbers, so it’s now possible to begin your Chinese language learning journey in the classroom.
- Fun fact: Mandarin is a tonal language—that is, the meaning of a word changes based on the tone with which it’s pronounced. The classic example is the syllable ma. Depending upon whether the speaker’s pitch contour is high level, high rising, low falling-rising, or high falling, ma can mean “mother,” “hemp,” “horse,” or “scold,” respectively.
- Number of people who speak it: 203 million
- Where it’s spoken: Brazil, Portugal, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, India, Mozambique, and São Tomé and Príncipe
- Why you should learn it: Portuguese is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and anyone who wants to do business in Brazil would be well served in learning the language.
- Fun fact: Portuguese speakers are known as Lusophones, which comes from Lusitania, the area that became modern Portugal.
- Number of people who speak it: 166 million
- Where it’s spoken: 16 countries, including Russia, Estonia, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan
- Why you should learn it: Despite its communist past, Russia is home to a growing class of entrepreneurs, which bodes well for the nation’s economy. With the Cold War over, the need to study Russian for national security interests has decreased, but the language is one for which there is a rich body of art and literature. Ever hear of Война и мир? (I bet you have. It’s War and Peace.)
- Fun fact: Russian uses case endings to convey meaning. As a result, word order doesn’t really matter. Russian words are thus “marked” for case (how a word functions in a sentence). In English, the word dog is the spelled the same whether we say The dog is barking, I like Rob’s dog, Give the dog some food, The dog’s collar is broken, etc. Not so in Russian. Each dog would be spelled differently!
- Number of people who speak it: 400 million
- Where it’s spoken: 31 countries, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Spain, the United States, Uruguay, and Venezuela
- Why you should learn it: Spanish is huge in the U.S. With 34 million people who speak it (that’s 10% of the population), Spanish is still the most frequently studied foreign language among American students (51% of all language learners).
- Fun fact: Because the Spanish j is pronounced like an English h, Spanish speakers use jejeje or jajaja when writing out sounds of laughter.
What Language Should I Learn? | Conclusion
No one can decide what language you should learn except you. But I hope the above information is helpful as you do your research.
Language study is an endeavor that lasts years. (Don’t believe anyone who says you can be “fluent” in a matter of weeks or months.) It’s an incredibly rewarding journey, and I would recommend it to anyone. (Except maybe my four-year-old, who gets mad at me anytime I speak to him in French.)
Looking for more resources on what language you should learn? Take this seven-question quiz from the Washington Post.