The Top 10 Languages Everyone Should Consider Learning
Are you thinking of learning a new language?
We’ve written a great deal about learning languages in the past, especially English, from how to revise for a language exam to how to learn English faster. Learning a language is compulsory in most school systems and there are remarkable claims for the benefits of bilingualism, up to and including the suggestion that it helps fight off Alzheimer’s disease.
The average person in the UK speaks just one language, compared to the multilingual Danes and Slovenians, who each speak an average of three. The current Guinness Book of World Records holder of the most languages spoken by a single person is Ziad Fazah, who speaks a total of 59 languages. Most of us, however, will only have the chance to learn a handful of languages, and it’s unlikely we’ll ever pick up more than one or two besides our mother tongue. So we should choose carefully which ones we take the time to learn. Here are our suggestions for the top ten languages you should learn, and why.
We’ve looked at the top reasons to learn English before and offered up reasons to love the language. English makes you more employable, allows you to communicate all over the world and lets you access classics of literature – as well as Hollywood movies with the subtitles off. If you know enough English to understand this article, you’ve probably experienced it for yourself – all over the world, provisions for tourists are usually in English, and conversations between speakers of two different languages occur more often in English than any other lingua franca.
If your English level is good, rest assured that there are still things that you can learn. We don’t just mean the complicated world of idioms and other means of sounding like a native speaker. Once you get very good at English, one thing that will be increasingly worth learning is how best to communicate with non-native speakers. After all, those who speak English as a second, third or even fourth language significantly outnumber those who speak it as a first language. Anecdotally, it’s a common occurrence for international meetings to take place using English, where the non-native speakers understand one another perfectly but the native English speakers struggle to communicate. Practising your English with EFL students can be beneficial to both parties.
Mandarin is a very difficult language for many native English speakers to learn. While some aspects of its grammar are much simpler than English, such as the expression of tenses, others are much more challenging. One example is that Mandarin is a tonal language, which means subtle differences in pronunciation and sounds that are tricky for some English speakers to hear, let alone reproduce.
However, if you’re up for the challenge, Mandarin is probably the most marketable language to learn for the coming decades. The Chinese economic slowdown means that Western firms might not be working themselves up into quite the fever pitch of excitement that they were a few short months ago, but if you want a language for business in emerging markets, Mandarin is still the best choice – in part because in other significant emerging markets like India and Nigeria, English is widely spoken, whereas less than 1% of the population of China speaks English.
There are 45 countries around the world where more than 50% of the population speaks English. There are another 21 countries where Spanish is the majority language, and there is no overlap between the two lists.
So, while learning Mandarin lets you speak to most of the population of the world’s most populous country, learning Spanish gives you access to a huge number of countries. It’s spoken in more countries than any language other than English, French and Arabic. Furthermore, if you allow for the fact that a good Spanish speaker has a decent chance of getting by in Italian and Portuguese as well (to the extent of understanding menus, if not making themselves popular), then you can add another 18 countries to the list and Spanish comes second only to English. If your goal in learning a language is to make your life easier as a tourist, and seeing as much of the world as possible is your aim, Spanish is your best option.
From languages with hundreds of millions of speakers, to a language with less than a million speakers: learning Welsh will not help you as a tourist or boost your job prospects outside of a very small number of jobs within Wales. However, it can be fascinating all the same. Welsh is one of the oldest languages spoken in the UK, and learning Welsh brings you together with a diverse group of international Welsh speakers: those who have learned it as a native language, or in school; those who have learned it as a hobby; and even a small group of 25,000 Welsh speakers in Argentina, who are descended from Welsh people encouraged to emigrate there in the 19th century. As a minority language, there is a true community of Welsh speakers in a way that English speakers don’t get the chance to experience.
Aside from belonging to a community of speakers, learning Welsh is also handy if you have a friend learning with you with whom you want to be able to communicate secretly, as outside of Wales (and certainly outside of the UK), you’re very unlikely to encounter another Welsh speaker. Welsh has even been used in encoded transmissions in warfare, with both its rarity and its lack of closely related languages making it harder to understand.
If Welsh just seemed that little bit too widely spoken, then how about Cornish? Less than a thousand people speak Cornish as their main language, and it had been classified as extinct until revival efforts gathered pace in the last few decades. If you think that a language has intrinsic value – that allowing a language to go extinct represents a loss to the world – then learning Cornish allows you to become part of a movement to keep one going, like becoming a sponsor of a linguistic Giant Panda.
Despite the small number of Cornish speakers, there are resources out there to help you learn, from textbooks to music and children’s books (which can be a fun way to engage with a language as a beginner). It can be hard to practise a language of this kind, when all fluent speakers are bilingual in English, and so an easier alternative to forcing yourself to practise is always available. Be that as it may, the upside to learning Cornish is that no one learns this language without being at least a little evangelistic about it; so you’re sure to get a lot of support and encouragement from the Cornish language community.
There’s not much point to learning Frisian. Only about half a million people speak it, and as they live across the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark, more than two-thirds of them will be able to speak good English anyway. It doesn’t give you great access to literature, culture or business, there’s very little by the way of teaching materials in Frisian, and though Frisian speakers are likely to be very impressed that you learned their language, even they might wonder why you bothered when you could have learned something similar but more widely spoken like Dutch, German or Danish.
The reason to learn Frisian is this: it’s the closest living language to English, and as such is very straightforward to learn. If you have any kind of a knack for learning languages (and especially if you have also studied any of Dutch, German or Danish), you’re likely to pick up Frisian very easily. It’s like learning languages with cheat codes available. “Wat is jo namme?” is the Frisian for “What is your name?” The Frisian for cheese is the wonderful “tsiis” – try saying it out loud and you’ll see the fun you could have learning Frisian.
Arabic is featured remarkably little on many people’s bucket lists of languages: beyond the standard list of French, German and Spanish, they might consider Mandarin for the career benefits, but Arabic gets ignored. This is an odd omission when you consider that Arabic is spoken in nearly as many countries as French (26 to French’s 28, and the latter includes tiny countries like Monaco and the Seychelles), has a wealth of literature available for learners to enjoy and is hugely in demand by employers, particularly in sectors like politics and international relations, where the need for people who can communicate in Arabic seems likely only to rise.
It’s true that the Arabic alphabet is terrifying at first. Arabic’s alphabet, grammar and pronunciation are all highly challenging – it’s not the sort of language in which you can gain fluency fast. But it’s also for this reason that your language abilities will be in high demand, making Arabic a profitable language to learn if you can master it.
It seems surprising that learning German still offers a competitive advantage. 64% of Germans speak some English, and Germany ranks very highly on the English Proficiency Index. Basic English words – please, sorry, thank you – will be understood by nearly everyone in Germany, thanks to the proliferation of English-language music, films and even advertising taglines there. The same is true for the other six countries in which German is spoken by a significant portion of the population.
All the same, German continues to score highly among employers. After all, while many British businesses might like to be trading with China or Brazil, they are trading with Germany right now; the country takes nearly 10% of British exports, second only to the United States, and while China’s economic boom is slowing, Germany’s economic dominance looks firm. At the same time, the number of students taking A-level German – and carrying on to study it at degree level – is falling rapidly. Anyone learning German, then, gives themselves a concrete advantage in their career – and it’s a relatively easy language for native English speakers to learn as well.
It doesn’t occur to many English speakers to learn Romanian, yet perhaps it should. One reason is that there’s an ongoing debate about whether Latin should be taught more widely in British secondary schools, with a reason often cited that learning Latin makes it easier to learn other European languages. Romanian is the closest living language to Latin: it offers all the advantages of learning Latin in terms of increased intelligibility of other languages, while also having living native speakers you can practise with. And if you do want to learn Latin further down the line, it will be a lot easier.
Similarly, a reason often cited for learning French, Italian and sometimes Spanish is that these languages are particularly pleasing to the ear – as another Romance language, Romanian is similarly mellifluous. It’s a good example of a language people won’t think of learning, but that is worth considering all the same.
Only about a third of a million people speak Icelandic. While most speakers of a language are welcoming to those trying to learn (Arabic and German speakers have a particularly good reputation in this respect), Icelandic speakers are usually relatively unwelcoming of people with imperfect Icelandic, and will switch into English as quickly as possible.
If you don’t let this put you off, Icelandic can be a very rewarding language to learn. Like Welsh, it’s a gateway into a culture that’s shared by a relatively small community. Although learning Icelandic to a standard that would be acceptable to Icelandic speakers is very hard, starting to learn Icelandic is only a little harder than learning a language like German. The additional difficulty is caused mostly by Icelandic resistance to incorporating loanwords – so while in German you might work at “ein Computer”, in Icelandic you would use your “tölva”. Icelandic also hasn’t changed much in the past thousand years, so there’s a wealth of literature dating back to Viking times that is intelligible to students of Icelandic. Plus, like Romanian, it sounds lovely.
Which languages do you think students should learn?