What Language Should I Learn?

What language should I learn? That’s a fair question. After all, with about 6,500 languages spoken in the world, you’ve got options.

But you’re probably not thinking about learning Igbo, Hmong, or Cree. 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 appear in alphabetical order.)

Or see what question you should ask before you decide on a language to learn. After your read this post, check out our tips and more than 50 resources for learning a second language.

One last thing: if you want to learn a language quickly, then you should work or study abroad.

What Language Should I Learn After English?

girl thinking "what language should i 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 U.S. So although I operate a translation agency, speak French, and work with dozens of nonnative English speakers, my writing stems unavoidably from my language and culture. In fact, when I first thought about a good answer to the question What language should I learn?, I pictured getting irate emails from fans of Latvian, Samoan, and Hausa for not giving them equal airtime.

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 talk to with other people—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.)

Goals

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?

Before asking yourself What language should I learn?, ask yourself what your goals are. What would you like to do or accomplish?

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 talk 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.

Note: Languages appear in alphabetical order. Population numbers are for L1 (native) speakers.

Arabic

  • Number of people who speak it: 242 million
  • Countries: 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 needs 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 given 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 a macrolanguage, which is a language with many different 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.)

French

  • Number of speakers: 80 million
  • Countries: 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.

German

  • Number of people who speak it: 78 million
  • Countries: 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”).

Italian

  • Number of speakers: 64 million
  • Countries: 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. You can also read our interview with a real live Italian translator.
  • Fun fact: Italian has a “sing-song” quality and words are relatively easy to pronounce. (What you see is what you say.) All vowels are clearly enunciated.

Japanese

  • Number of people who speak it: 128 million
  • Countries: 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.

Korean

  • Number of speakers: 77 million
  • Countries: 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. keeps a wary 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 that show deference to someone superior in position (a teacher, a supervisor, an older relative, etc.).

Mandarin Chinese

  • Number of people who speak it: 848 million
  • Countries: 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 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 and immersion programs are popping up all the time, so now you can begin your Chinese language learning journey in the classroom. (Note: If you’re basing your decision purely on numbers, then Chinese is the answer to the question What language should I learn?)
  • Fun fact: Mandarin is a tonal language—that is, the meaning of a word changes based on the tone with which it’s pronounced. One 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.

Portuguese

Russian

  • Number of people who speak it: 166 million
  • Countries: 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 declined a bit, but the language has 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 works 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 have a different spelling!

Spanish

  • Number of speakers: 400 million
  • Countries: 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 sounds like an English h, Spanish speakers use jejeje or jajaja when writing out sounds of laughter.

Seriously, What Language Should I Learn?

I hope that after reading this post you’re a bit closer to figuring out what language you should learn. No one can decide what language that should be except you. But I hope the above helps as you do your research.

Language study is an endeavor that lasts years. 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.)

If you’re still asking yourself What language should I learn?, then take this fun quiz from the Washington Post.

Sources:
Ethnologue, multiple pages.
“Chinese language,” Wikipedia.
“Korean language,” Wikipedia.

If you liked the tidbits in the language sections above, then check out these 9 amazing facts about language.

You can also read about a new type of language barrier—the lack of online content in a person’s native language.