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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
About the authorLucy