Which language should I learn?

If you want to learn a new language but aren’t sure which to choose, there are two ways you could make up your mind. The first is to choose a language which is going to be easy to learn. That depends on what languages you already speak, but some languages are definitely harder than others.

The other way is to look at which language will be most useful to you in the future. Some languages aren’t much use outside their native country; others are spoken by millions worldwide.

Fluent Every Year recently posted about this from the point of view of a world traveller, concluding that with eight languages you can travel and be understood in most of the world.


Credit

Randy, who writes Fluent Every Year, is on a mission to learn a lot of languages. Most of us aren’t going to learn eight languages. So, if you are only going to learn three or four languages (still an ambitious target) which should they be?

To answer this I looked at which languages are important now, and which ones are on the way up. Here are the strongest candidates:

English

English is still the second language of choice in most of the world. If you’re reading this (untranslated) you can already speak English, so you already have a good advantage.

English Next, a study on the status of global English, found that:

English … is an increasingly urban language, associated with growing middle classes, metropolitan workplaces and city lifestyles

Urbanisation and a growing middle class, both global trends, contribute to the continuing role of English as the world’s second language.

Chinese (Mandarin)

Mandarin is the most widely spoken language in the world, although for now most Mandarin speakers live in China.

But there are several reasons why Chinese will be increasingly important outside China. The Chinese economy is growing fast. According to some estimates, China’s average income per person will catch up with the USA and the UK in 2014.

Chinese on the Internet is growing even faster. The latest numbers from Internet World Stats show that there are now almost as many Chinese speakers as English speakers online. And they are growing more than four times faster. Since all Chinese is written the same way, learning Mandarin means you can understand all of the Chinese Internet.

The Chinese government actively supports Chinese learners in other parts of the world. It’s estimated that 40 million people worldwide are currently studying Mandarin.

Spanish

Spanish is spoken in Spain, throughout South and Central America, and as a second language in much of the USA. There are now as many native Spanish speakers as English speakers in the world.

Moreover, the high numbers of young Spanish speakers (as opposed to ageing English and Chinese speakers) mean this language is on the rise.

On the Internet, Spanish speakers have increased by a massive 669% over the last eight years. Only Portuguese, Chinese and Arabic are growing faster.

Arabic

As a group, Arabic speakers are even younger than Spanish speakers – more than half of them are under 25. A recent study predicted that the number of Arabic speakers on the internet will increase 50% in the next 3 years.

Although MSA (Modern Standard Arabic) is the same throughout the Arab world, spoken versions can differ from country to country. But the rise of pan-Arabic media such as Al Jazeera may help spoken versions of Arabic to converge in the coming years.

The dynamic between Arabic and French is very interesting. Whilst France laments the fall of its language on the world stage, some Arab countries complain that speaking French is becoming more fashionable than speaking Arabic properly.

Whilst English is likely to keep its position as the world’s second language for some time, Mandarin, Spanish and Arabic speakers are increasing both online and in the real world. If you learn one of these languages who knows where it will take you?

Read more:
The most difficult languages in the world
So you want to learn Chinese?
The future of Arabic and its dialects

About the author

Lucy (Liz) Chatburn
Lucy is English and first ventured out of the UK she was 19. Since then she has lived in 4 different countries and tried to see as much of the world as possible. She loves learning languages, learning about different cultures and hearing different points of view.
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11 Comments

  • I speak two out of the four languages mentioned in this post… not bad! LOL!

    Mandarin and Arabic seem to me to be very difficult, perhaps because one has to learn a new set of symbols as well as the sounds, lexis, grammar and so on.

    Or perhaps because I can’t find anything in common with the languages I already speak. It’s a lot easier for me to learn, say, Italian or Portuguese because I am a native speaker of Spanish and these are all romance languages (derived from Latin). So Asian languages seem daunting (at least to me.)

    So hats off to all those who learn Mandarin and Arabic with ease!

  • Well, I’m struggling with Arabic. The different characters do make things slower. But at least there are only 28 of them. Chinese is a whole other thing…

  • I love this piece! There’s so much great information here.I always regret my loss of Spanish and French since secondary when I was quite fluent. These days my life seems full of Asian languages, which I love but my brain doesn’t absorb things as quickly as it did when I was at school.

  • Now, This really made me strongly consider studying Spanish. Thank you for this article!

  • Si, Bryan, estudia castellano! Muy bien! :)

  • great article, thanks for the info! i’ve actually studied/speak 3 of the above langauges (eng, arabic, mando), my next endeavour is russian :)

  • How did I never notice this post before? :)
    Thanks for the link!

  • Xavier

    I’m a man of many languages. I know Italian,German,English(1st language),Spanish,French,Japanese,Chinese, and Sign Language. I’m only fluent in English,Spanish and Sign Language. I want to go to a certain school where they teach many languages such as Russian, but I’m growing strong interest in Arabic and German. Realy don’t know which to choose though. Ummmm…..anyways go with Japanese.

  • deedee

    i’m a native Arabic speaker and i master English and french, i’m actually opting to learn Chinese,
    my experience with Spanish was a disaster :P
    but for the people who are already learning Arabic it gets much easier once you learn the basics. good luck for everyone

  • Great article! Language skills are an increasing advantage in this world – and fore some people, learning a new language is a lot of fun too!

    Bryan, I support your idea. My first language is Spanish and I interact all the time with people who speak Spanish but not English, so it would be a great advantage. I perfectioned my English here http://www.soloidiomas.com/ and it really worked for me. They teach Spanish too! You should try it.

    Xavier…. you will always have my envy xD