The Polyglot’s (or Future Polyglot’s) Guide to the 10 Most Useful Languages
Learning a language can cast a spell on you.
But while it’s fun and exciting to learn any language, not all languages are equally useful for every learner.
So if you’re asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” or deciding which second (or third, or fourth…) language to learn and you value practicality, look into the crystal ball to see your future with these 10 useful languages!
- What Makes a Language “Useful?”
- Practical Language Magic: The 10 Most Useful Languages for Any Learner
- How to Get Started Learning
What Makes a Language “Useful?”
The “usefulness” of a language depends on several factors, including personal goals and preferences. Here are some key things to take into account when deciding which language is most useful for you.
Number of Speakers
The most common languages are often among the most useful languages for the simple reason that they’re widely spoken. Learning a language that a lot of people speak opens up more possibilities to use and/or need the language.
However, even some languages that aren’t as widely spoken by native speakers may still be incredibly useful because they’re frequently used in international contexts. For instance, the official U.N. languages are often used in political, business and nonprofit contexts.
Additionally, it’s important to consider what second languages people across the world are learning. For example, French is a widely spoken second language, increasing its number of total speakers massively beyond the number of native speakers.
Another important factor to consider is where a language is spoken.
European languages are frequently popular due to travel and business interests. However, each geographic region has a different appeal for a wide variety of reasons.
That being said, it’s important to consider your own interests and goals when assessing the geographic region where a language is spoken. For example, even if a language is widely spoken in a certain region but you have no intention of traveling there, this language will be less useful for you than a language from a region you hope to visit often. If you practically live on the beach and hate cold whether, Spanish will probably be a lot more useful for you than Norwegian.
Sometimes, you don’t really know what you’ll want to use a language for. In that case, you’ll want to pay particular attention to a language’s versatility.
Widely spoken languages and languages spoken in the U.S. are usually the most versatile, because you could use them at home or abroad. Languages like Mandarin Chinese or French are versatile because they’re used in a wide range of professional fields, from business to politics to art. Choosing a versatile language can ensure you get something out of all your studying.
Language skills are highly desirable in virtually any career field. However, which language is most useful is based largely on your individual career field.
For instance, if you work in the U.S. in nearly any field (medicine, law, customer service, education, etc.) Spanish will probably come in handy.
However, if you work in international business, you might also benefit from Mandarin, Japanese, German, etc.
Each career field is unique, so the best way to determine what language will be most useful for your career is to look at job listings. Find postings of jobs that look ideal to you. What language skills do these jobs require? Developing these skills will help ensure you’re qualified for the positions you want.
How exactly is “usability” different from “usefulness?” Usability refers to how often you’ll actually be speaking the language. Mandarin Chinese might be widely spoken in your field, but if you personally only use it twice a year at industry conferences, it has less usability for you.
If you have travel plans, you might choose a language you’ll use abroad. If you have family members who speak another language, this would also increase its usability for you.
Usability also involves some of the factors we’ve discussed above, like number of speakers, geographic location and versatility, since they can influence how and/or when you might need a language.
Regardless, languages you use more often are inherently more useful. Plus, the more you use a language, the better you’ll get at it!
Practical Language Magic: The 10 Most Useful Languages for Any Learner
In the list below, information about which languages are most widely spoken comes from Ethnologue’s list of languages by size, while speaker counts come from the dedicated Ethnologue page for each language. Unless otherwise noted, information on the sizes of different economies comes from the CIA World Factbook, while information on the U.S.’s top trading partners comes from the U.S. Census Bureau.
If you want to learn a language that’s spoken by hundreds of millions of people and can help set you apart from other job applicants, look no further than Arabic!
Arabic is spoken by over 290 million people, making it the fourth most widely spoken first language in the world. It’s the official language in over 20 countries, so there are plenty of places where your Arabic skills will come in handy. Arabic is also an official language of the U.N.
Additionally, Arabic skills are in hot demand. Arabic has been identified as a “critical language” for national security. This means learners can apply for the Critical Language Scholarship Program. But beyond government jobs, Arabic speakers can also find work in international NGOs, journalism and more.
Since Arabic is widely spoken in many of the world’s wealthiest nations, Arabic speakers might also find work in science, engineering, architecture, business and more.
Mutual intelligibility, the degree to which speakers of one language/dialect can understand speakers of another language/dialect, varies among the dialects of Arabic. While Arabic includes several dialects that aren’t mutually intelligible, studying Arabic can open doors to learning whatever dialects you hope to specialize in.
Want to be able to communicate with a billion more people? Learning Chinese can increase your ability to communicate with a massive chunk of the world’s population.
That’s because Mandarin Chinese is the most widely spoken language in the world. While other dialects that aren’t always mutually intelligible are often grouped together as “Chinese,” Mandarin Chinese alone has over a billion speakers around the world. For the record, the World Population Clock estimates that there are about 7.6 billion people in the world, meaning more than 13 percent of the world’s population speaks Mandarin Chinese.
If that’s not enough to convince you of its usefulness, Chinese is also one of the six official languages of the U.N.
And since China has a huge population, it also has huge buying power. China has one of the largest economies in the world. For anyone who learns Chinese, the booming Chinese economy can be a boon in their career.
In fact, American Express lists Mandarin Chinese as one of the most essential languages for business. China is the top trading partner of the U.S. International business positions are likely to demand Chinese skills more and more, opening up job opportunities.
But business isn’t the only career option for Chinese speakers! There’s also a good deal of demand for native English speakers to teach in China. Speaking Chinese can help set applicants apart from the crowd when trying to snag a position.
This former titan of international communication may’ve been knocked down a peg by English, but French still has a strong grip on the world.
There are about 280 million-plus French speakers in the world. Of these, only about 76 million are native speakers, making it the 14th most common first language. The other 200 million speak French as a second language.
Plus, French isn’t only an official language of the U.N., it’s also the official language of 29 countries on five continents. But don’t think French is spoken in only 29 countries! The Organsation internationale de la Francophonie, an international organization comprised of countries in which French is widely spoken, has 84 member states—that’s a lot of potential opportunities to use your French skills!
Perhaps because it’s so widespread, French is also widely used in international nonprofits and diplomacy, so it’s particularly useful for those wanting a career in the nonprofit or diplomatic realms and/or development. French is useful in the business world as well, since CNN reports France has the fifth largest economy.
French is also particularly useful in an academic context. In particular, since French has long been a major world player, learning French may be beneficial to aspiring historians.
And since a lot of English-language words have French roots, French is actually useful for anyone looking to study the English language in more depth.
When it comes to usefulness, German is most certainly not the wurst.
It’s estimated that 130 million people in the world speak German. Plus, it’s the 13th most common first language in the world.
Not only is German the most widely spoken native language in the European Union, but Germany is also strong economically. It has the fourth largest economy, according to the previously noted CNN report. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that Germany is the fifth top trading partner of the U.S.
This creates business opportunities for those who speak German. Plus, Germany has a strong track record in academia and innovation, so anyone interested in pursuing a forward-thinking field could benefit from learning German.
Sometimes called Hindi-Urdu, Hindustani is a name that groups together the mutually intelligible languages of Hindi and Urdu. These languages are grouped together due to history, grammar and vocabulary, though they can also be classified separately due to their different scripts and cultural associations. Hindustani is spoken in Northern India and Pakistan.
There are an estimated 260 million native speakers of Hindi. Additionally, another 69 million people speak Urdu natively.
If Hindustani isn’t on your radar yet, it should be—especially if you’re learning a new language for professional regions. India is projected to have the world’s fastest growing large-scale economy, so learning Hindustani can put you ahead of the curve in your industry.
While it may not be as widely spoken as other languages on this list, Italian can still be useful.
There are an estimated 65 million Italian speakers in the world, making it the 21st most common first language.
While that might not seem like much compared to other languages in this list, learning Italian still has its place. After all, Italy has long been associated with art and culture. Ancient Rome greatly shaped Western culture and Italy was the epicenter of the Renaissance. While the Latin language of early Romans may be dead, the Italian language was based on Latin, and the Italian language was used in many Renaissance texts.
If you work in the humanities, speaking Italian will give you some serious cred by allowing you to conduct research with authentic texts.
Plus, speaking Italian would allow you to enjoy a plethora of contemporary research on these eras and learn more about significant sites and history. In fact, Italy has over 50 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Because of Italy’s strong association with culture, Italian is particularly useful for anyone interested in art, fashion, food, history and/or music.
Learning Japanese is useful for so much more than just watching your favorite anime (but that’s cool, too)!
It’s estimated that 128 million people speak Japanese, making it the ninth most common first language.
Japan is also a business hub. CNN reports that Japan has the third largest economy. Plus, Japan is the fourth top trading partner of the U.S. That means that anyone considering a career in international business might benefit from brushing up on their Japanese.
What’s more, Japan is known for innovation, so Japanese might be beneficial to technology aficionados, whether you want to work in the field or just stay abreast of the latest inventions. Tech giants like Canon, Sony, Panasonic, Nintendo, Toshiba and so many more started in Japan. Some of the most innovative products and ideas, like mind-reading AI, are still coming out of Japan, so speaking Japanese will allow you to read all about these products before they ever hit American markets.
There are nearly 230 million people who speak Portuguese, making it the seventh most common first language. Plus, the Portuguese language is gaining speakers.
Portuguese is also spoken in geographically diverse regions. It has official status in nine countries in Europe, South America, Africa and Asia.
Plus, Portuguese has plenty of professional uses. Portuguese is included on the American Express list of the most essential languages for business, which makes sense since Brazil has the ninth largest economy.
Additionally, Brazil is home to the Amazon rainforest, so biologists and other scientists may benefit from speaking Portuguese in order to study the region.
If you play your cards right, learning Russian can split open to reveal its usefulness—like a matryoshka doll of opportunities.
There are an estimated 268 million Russian speakers in the world. This includes over 153 million native speakers and over 113 million people who speak it as a second language, making it the eighth most common first language in the world. Russian is also one of the six official languages of the U.N.
Because of Soviet influence in the region, Russian is common throughout Eastern Europe, the Baltic states, the Caucasus and Central Asia. This makes Russian a particularly useful language for anyone interested in a huge span of Europe and Asia. While not everyone will speak Russian, many people will understand it to some extent. Since there are dozens of native languages in the region and you’re unlikely to be able to learn all of them, knowing Russian can provide you with a valuable tool to communicate across cultures.
Russian is useful to professionals across multiple fields. American Express includes Russian on the list of essential languages for business. Plus, Russia’s economy is expected to grow. Due to Russia’s size and power, Russian is also important in international politics.
Since Russian literature is often considered among the finest, Russian is also a useful language for avid readers and literary scholars.
If you live in the U.S. and want to learn a language you’ll use regularly, Spanish is a leading contender.
There are more than 500 million Spanish speakers in the world, making it the second most widely spoken first language in the world. Spanish has official status in 20 countries in North America, South America, Europe and Africa. Spanish is also an official language of the U.N.
Plus, if you’re looking to learn an essential language for business, American Express puts Spanish on its list. Spanish speaking countries also do a lot of business with the U.S. Mexico is its third top trading partner.
But beyond that, Spanish is a particularly useful language for Americans to learn because it’s widely spoken in the U.S. There are an estimated 52.6 million Spanish speakers in the U.S., meaning the U.S. Spanish-speaking population is larger than those of Spain and Colombia. So even if you don’t intend to travel or work in an international setting, Spanish may very well be useful in your day-to-day life.
Whether you’re using Spanish in the business world, the medical field or you’re just chatting with someone in line at the grocery store, in many parts of the U.S., you won’t lack for opportunities to use your Spanish skills.
How to Get Started Learning
If you’re all set to learn any of these languages, the first step I recommend is to download an app or two to get you started. Grab an app to help you learn the most common words and phrases, and find another resource to start learning the grammar.
Once you’ve done that, the fastest way to get started in any language is immersive learning (in other words, surrounding yourself with the written and spoken language). Of course, if you don’t currently live in an area where your target language is spoken, that’s a lot harder to achieve. Luckily, there are language learning programs that can help you achieve immersion from home.
FluentU is a program that aims to mimic the immersion no matter where you are through authentic videos with learning features. It builds your vocabulary while you absorb the native sounds of the language with interactive captions, flashcards and a video dictionary.
FluentU has programs for many of the useful languages that we covered above, including Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, Japanese, Russian and French.
So if you want to learn a type of magic more practical than herbology and potions combined, look no further than these 10 useful languages!