You loved that band before they hit it big.
You were a regular at that bar before the hipsters found it.
It’s great to be ahead of the curve.
But sometimes going mainstream is underrated.
Take language learning. While it can be very rewarding to study lesser known languages, there are also definite benefits to jumping on a big ol’ bandwagon.
If you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” choosing a well-studied language may just be your answer.
Sit back, take a sip of that kombucha you knew about before Whole Foods started carrying it, and we’ll walk you through seven of the world’s most studied languages and what makes them so valuable for their many students.
How Do Some Languages Get So Popular?
There’s a correlation between a language’s popularity and the number of countries where it’s spoken. It makes perfect sense—the more widespread a language is, the more potential opportunities it offers to language learners.
Then there are languages that offer specific advantages to their speakers. For example, some languages can open up career opportunities or broaden your professional connections across the global economy. Others are great for travel and become favorites of anyone with wanderlust. Some are needed for educational requirements or just personal goals (crossing items off a bucket list is always a plus!).
It’s Good to Be Popular! 7 of the World’s Most Studied Languages
If one of these languages interests you, immersive learning (surrounding yourself with the written and spoken language) is the fastest way to join its community of students. Of course, if you aren’t currently located in an area where it’s spoken, immersion’s a lot harder to achieve. FluentU is a great way to mimic the immersion experience no matter where you are.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
Each video comes with interactive captions, flashcards and exercises, so you’re actively building your vocabulary while you absorb the native sounds of the language. FluentU also keeps track of your learning and suggests more videos that’ll suit your level and goals. Better yet, you can take this personalized and immersive language practice anywhere with the FluentU mobile app.
FluentU has programs for the popular languages that we’ll cover below, including Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, German, French, Italian and English, among others.
Throughout this post, we’ll be using statistics about language study and speaker populations from this Washington Post article, unless indicated otherwise.
Number of learners: 82 million
French is the only language other than English that’s spoken on five continents! Total, more than 220 million people speak French, making it the sixth most widely spoken language in the world.
Many language learners are interested in French because it’s a smart investment. French is one of the fastest growing languages in the world, with 750 million people expected to speak it by 2050.
According to the Financial Times, French is also one of the languages that’s in demand among businesses in the U.K., so this is a great option if you’re located there and want to expand your professional opportunities without moving.
Fun fact: When the French Revolution took place, not all French citizens spoke the nation’s mother tongue. In fact, 75 percent spoke something other than French. And until the 1800s people in Holland and Germany spoke more French than people living in some parts of France did. Pretty amazing, isn’t it? But the language made up for all that, with French speakers tripling since 1945.
The surge in popularity looks poised for even further expansion!
Number of learners: 30 million
16 percent of the global population—or 1.39 billion people—speak Chinese as a native or additional language. It’s no wonder that number’s so high, considering China is the most populous nation in existence, with more than 1.3 billion citizens.
Chinese has a reputation as being difficult for English speakers to learn, but that may be a misconception. Because Chinese has no verb tenses and no gender rules to memorize, among other elements, it’s actually a great option if you want to learn a new language without tearing your hair out over grammar.
You probably won’t be surprised that Chinese also carries significant potential in the business world. (Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, is a Chinese language learner!) China is home to one of the world’s oldest continuous cultures, yet it’s jettisoned itself into position as a global economic powerhouse. The Great Wall is the backdrop to newly-emerging business opportunities.
Fun fact: There are over 50,000 written Chinese characters! When I was in China I spent a lot of time admiring the characters and photographing them. I didn’t understand a word but they were still highly intriguing.
Number of learners: 14.5 million
There are 389 million total Spanish speakers. Spanish is the official language of 21 nations.
But you don’t need to be located in Spain or Latin America for the language to be useful to you. Did you know the U.S. actually has more Spanish speakers than Spain does—and is projected to be the country with the most Spanish speakers anywhere by the year 2050?
These facts make Spanish an especially popular language for residents of the U.S. looking for employment opportunities or those who just want to be able to communicate with more of their neighbors.
But how about if you want to expand your communication abilities beyond physical boundaries? Spanish is the third most widely used language on the internet behind English and Chinese!
Many English speakers also choose Spanish because it’s considered one of the less difficult or time consuming to learn. The FSI (Foreign Service Institute) ranks it as a Category 1 language—easy to learn with only 600 hours of study time needed to achieve proficiency.
Fun fact: It’s helpful to know that Spanish is called both Español (Spanish) and Castellano (Castilian). A language that needs two names? Definitely noteworthy!
Number of speakers: 14.5 million
There are 132 million native German speakers and 95 percent of Germany’s population speaks German as their first language.
Many business sectors involve German companies. BMW, Adidas, Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz, among others, are German-owned so people who’re thinking of working for some of these economic biggies often consider the language behind the companies to be useful.
German is also a vocabulary-lover’s dream! There are several amazingly long words in the language—they’re probably not easily pronounced by beginning learners but are loads of fun to learn, regardless.
Fun fact: Rechtsschutzversicherungsgesellschaften (an insurance company providing legal protection) is considered German’s longest word, even though it’s not actually in the dictionary. Let’s just hope we never get that one on a spelling test!
Number of learners: 8 million
Italian has 67 million total speakers. Italy’s thriving economy and its place as a solid market for U.S. exports make this beautiful language a contender among internationally-minded learners as well as academics and culture-lovers.
We all realize that Italy’s famous for its art and culture. That’s been the case since the Roman Empire. But present-day Italy melds both the old-world treasures (Michelangelo, anyone?) with economic openings that anyone with a working fluency of the language could find life-changing.
Fun fact: If you’re wondering how this language spread across Italy and Europe, wonder no more. Dante’s famous “Divine Comedy” is widely credited for the spread of the Italian language. Today, 15 percent of the Italian words in use can be traced back to the man some consider “the father of the Italian language.”
Number of speakers: 3 million
Across the world, 123 million people speak Japanese as a native or additional language.
There are many factors that motivate learners to undertake Japanese. Some reasons are fairly basic, and range from employment opportunities to educational exchange programs—popular organizations like the JET Programme make it possible for English speakers to live and work within Japanese communities while improving their language skills.
Another motivation that fuels many language learners is the desire to understand Japanese anime in its original language.
Fun fact: There are two major dialects of this melodic language, Eastern Japanese and Western Japanese.
Number of learners: 1.5 billion
English is the most-studied language. It’s the only language that tallies more than a billion students.
Across the globe, more than 520 million speak English as a native or additional language, and it’s the official language of more than 50 countries.
It’s no surprise that English is so popular or heavily studied. In many nations, global content—think news, politics and entertainment—is often initially reported in English. And since it’s one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, it facilitates global communication—even in countries where it isn’t necessarily the official language.
Numerous international organizations and companies use English as the language of choice when conducting business, so English speakers have a leg up in many employment situations. English is one of the working languages of the United Nations and is the official language of the World Bank.
Fun fact: As a speaker of English, you can amuse your friends with the popular pangram (a sentence that uses every letter of the alphabet), “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Say that three times, fast!
So there you have it, a breakdown of the world’s most studied languages. As you can clearly see, languages become widely studied for many reasons.
Now that all the facts are laid out, are you ready to become one of millions of language learners? Are you ready to add one of these popular languages to your repertoire?
You can’t go wrong choosing a language from this list. And you’ve got everything to gain and nothing to lose—so why not go for it? Good luck!