According to Ethnologue, there are over 7,000 languages spoken around the world today.
More than half the population speaks one of the top 23 languages, and 40% of the world’s languages are considered endangered, having less than 1,000 active speakers.
Further, learning a language is an investment, often of time, effort and money. In fact, the most successful language learners spend years mastering their chosen language on the path to fluency.
And while everyone’s language learning journey is different, each one has the same beginning: a choice.
So, how do you choose what language you should learn?
Let’s find out!
- Finding Your Why: Deciding What Language to Learn
- Learning an Easy Language
- Learning a Difficult Language
- Learning a Commonly Spoken Language
- Learning an Obscure Language
- Learning a Language for Travel
- Learning a Language for Work Opportunities
- Learning a Language for Immigration or International Study
- Learning a Third, Fourth or Fifth Language: Building on What You Know
- Getting Started: Your First Steps to Learning a Language
Finding Your Why: Deciding What Language to Learn
Do you know the best way to learn a language? Is it a textbook, an online course or at-home immersion?
Believe it or not, the best way to learn a new language is to understand your “why.” Without a “why,” or one or two reasons to learn a foreign language, it’ll be very hard to progress in a language.
Therefore, when asking yourself “which language should I learn?” your “why” will guide the way.
That’s because a “why” gives you an attainable goal. In other words, it gives you something to work toward. When studying gets tough and it feels like you aren’t making any progress, having a “why” will help keep you motivated and on track.
Finding your “why” may not be easy, and in fact, you may have multiple reasons to learn a second language. To figure it out, you should ask yourself questions.
For example, are you learning for a language for fun? Are you learning a language because you want to watch a specific TV show or movie or listen to a specific type of music? Are you learning for work, study or immigration? Are you simply entranced by the language and culture?
It’s also important to think about what kind of language you want to learn. Are you looking to test yourself with a difficult language that’s different from anything you’ve ever learned before? Maybe you’re looking to get the most “bang for your buck” by learning one of the world’s most commonly spoken languages?
Once you find out your “why,” choosing a language should be easy.
Something to keep in mind, though: when deciding which language you want to learn, you should determine how difficult a language you want to learn. The more difficult the language, the more challenges you’ll face and time commitment you’ll need. We’ll have more on this later, but it’s best to determine at the beginning how easy (or hard!) you want your language learning journey to be.
If you’re still wondering what your “why” is, try an online what language should I learn quiz.
If you’re already there, read on for more specifics on how to choose a language.
Learning an Easy Language
Why Learn an Easy Language?
In the age of the internet, we all know that we enjoy instant gratification. Why not choose instant gratification when you’re trying to learn a new language?
In fact, when choosing which second language to learn, many people choose an “easy language” because they think they’ll get results fast: learners want to make progress quickly in a language, so an easy language is a good choice.
Further, many language learners may choose an easy language because they want to make the most of their limited study time. Got a busy schedule complete with school, work, family and social time? With a couple hours a week, you may be able to make meaningful progress in an easy language.
If you’re a native English speaker, you have many options for “easy languages” since English borrows a lot from other languages.
Easy Languages for English Speakers to Learn
If an easy language is what you imagine for you language learning journey, then you’ll have more choices that you might think.
In fact, determining what the easiest language to learn is depends entirely on your previous language experience.
Don’t have any previous language experience? Well, of course you do! Everyone has a native language they started learning at birth.
The easiest second language for English speakers is one in the same language family as English. That means that another Germanic language such as Dutch, Afrikaans, German or the Scandinavian languages is an “easy language” choice for you. This is because these languages are linguistically close to English, and they share many vocabulary and grammatical features. This can make learning easy because they have so much in common with English.
Other languages may be “easy” because English has borrowed a lot of vocabulary from them. For example, this includes languages like French, Italian and Spanish. English has borrowed a lot of words from these languages, making these words virtually the same between them. This is an easy way for English speakers to learn a lot of words very quickly in a new language.
Lastly, some learners may choose to learn one of the most logical languages. A logical language is one that follows rules and there aren’t many exceptions to these rules. These languages can be “natural” or “constructed.” A “constructed language” means that someone or a group of people have created it.
Learning a Difficult Language
Why Learn a Difficult Language?
Remember instant gratification? Well, maybe delayed gratification is more your style.
Some language learners choose a language for a challenge, and thus pick a hard language. In fact, choosing a difficult language can be extremely fulfilling, even if there’s a long (and complicated) journey along the way.
While progress can be slow and these languages can be tricky, they’re often the most worthwhile. That means that in light of endless grammatical declensions, irregular verbs and complex writing systems, nothing beats the feeling of having a great conversation in the language.
Keep in mind, though, that with a difficult language, it’s key not to get discouraged: keep the rewards constant, the motivation high and don’t let yourself fret over mistakes. It’ll take time!
Difficult Languages for English Speakers to Learn
There are many definitions of what makes a language a difficult language, but generally the hardest languages to learn also depend on your native language.
For example, if your native language is English, languages that are linguistically “further away” from English and the Germanic language family are “harder.” Examples of these include languages like Arabic, Hebrew and Hungarian which aren’t even Indo-European languages at all.
Additionally, languages that are highly inflected have a lot of grammar to tackle. This means there are lots of verb endings to memorize and a lot of noun case changes. This is challenging as well since English has a relatively simple grammar. Languages that fall into this category are ones like Russian or Finnish.
Aside from grammar, some languages’ writing systems or tonal systems make them complicated and difficult. For example, tonal languages such as Vietnamese, Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese are among the hardest languages to learn for English speakers.
Mandarin Chinese and Cantonese also have complicated writing systems that increase the time it takes to learn a language. Other languages with tough writing systems are Thai and Japanese.
Learning a Commonly Spoken Language
Why Learn a Commonly Spoken Language?
If you’re interested in whether a language is easy or difficult, you may choose to learn one of the most common languages that’s spoken by a lot of people.
There’s a clear benefit to learning a common language: these languages can act as a “lingua franca” for travel, study or work. This means that people who speak different languages may use this common “lingua franca” to communicate with each other.
You can use this to your benefit by learning a common language. In fact, common languages can also open you up to more opportunities for work, study or relationships because they’re the most used languages in the world.
Most Common Languages to Learn
Common languages can be broken into two categories. In the first category, we have the most spoken languages by native speakers (as in, the most people who speak the language from birth). The most spoken languages by native speakers include Mandarin Chinese, Spanish, English, Hindi and Bengali.
In the second category, we have the most spoken languages by total number of speakers. These are generally the most studied languages and the fastest growing languages because they include people who speak the language from birth as well as those who learned the language later. The most spoken languages by total number of speakers include English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and French.
Choosing a common language may also depend on where you want to live, work or travel. For example, even though Chinese is the most spoken language by number of native speakers, it won’t get you far in Sub-Saharan Africa or even many parts of North America and Europe.
For this reason, here are some regional recommendations:
- For languages spoken in the USA, you should learn English and/or Spanish.
- For languages spoken in Europe, English is widely spoken in Western Europe in addition to French and German. In Eastern Europe, try Russian or try learning Slavic languages.
- For languages spoken in Africa, French and English are your best options.
- You may also choose to learn an Asian language. In East Asia, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese and Korean are best. In South Asia (India), Hindi would be the most useful. In the Middle East, Arabic is the most common.
Learning an Obscure Language
Learning an endangered language, or one that doesn’t have many speakers and may become extinct, may be done for many reasons.
To start, someone may want to learn endangered languages to connect with their roots. If you have, let’s say, Samoan ancestry, you may want to learn Samoan. Other examples include North Americans wanting to learn Scottish Gaelic or Irish because their ancestors are from Scotland or Ireland.
Further, if you’re in North America or another colonized place around the world, you may want to learn a particular type of endangered language: the indigenous language of your region. An “indigenous language” is one that was spoken in a place before that place got taken over by another group of people. For example, American learners may consider learning Navajo or Hawaiian to learn more about the colonized land they live on.
Keep in mind, however, that endangered and obscure languages may prove tricky since they may be lacking resources. I recommend finding a community of fellow learners online. This is a great way to create a learning plan and access resources!
Learning a Language for Travel
Why Learn a Language for Travel?
If you plan to travel short-term, meaning that your trip will be a couple of weeks or so, it’s good to know a “survival level” of that language.
That means that you’ll use this level of language for ordering food, arranging transportation and getting help in an emergency. There are many travel phrasebooks, short textbooks and YouTube tutorials for attaining a “survival level” in almost all spoken languages.
If you plan on traveling long-term, meaning your trip will last longer than a month, learning beyond the “survival level” of the language would be beneficial. This level may be determined by what you plan to do while traveling: if you plan to work or study, you’ll need a higher level of fluency than if you’re simply vacationing.
Getting a higher level in your target language will allow you to really connect with a place, its culture and its people. You might even make some good friends! I suggest following an in-depth online or offline course and getting a language partner before you leave on your trip to help you learn faster.
The Best Languages for Travelers to Learn
What are the best languages for travelers?
When determining which foreign language to learn, traveling is a great way to narrow it down. In love with a certain place? Then learn the language from there!
If you have a travel destination in mind, learn the language of the place you plan to travel to. For example, learn French to go to France or Thai to go to Thailand.
But what if you want to travel all around the world? For starters, English is a good all-around travel language. Most places with a tourism industry have a basic level of English, so that may be enough for many travel destinations around the world.
If you plan to travel to a region and not necessarily a specific country, try to learn a language that’s common in the region. For example, English or Spanish would be the most useful languages in North and South America. Russian would be most useful in the former Soviet countries. French is useful in Africa, and Chinese is useful in East Asia.
Learning a Language for Work Opportunities
What are the best languages for business?
Well, the answer depends.
A good language for work is one that’s widely spoken or one that’s spoken in the place where you want to find a job.
English is a good all-around business language since many international businesses use English to work across country borders. You could also learn one of the official UN languages since they’re from the biggest economies around the world. Other most useful languages for business include Spanish in North and South America, German in Europe, French in Europe and Africa and Chinese in East Asia and worldwide.
Many people also work jobs that require a second language or are interested in the most useful languages to learn for medicine. In these cases, English is often one of the leading languages, but depending on where to travel to practice medicine, you may find French and Spanish very useful.
There are also those who move to other countries to teach English. In these places, it’s useful to know some of the native language. These languages often include Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Thai.
Further, there are many jobs for language majors such as in teaching or translation. You can teach virtually any language in a place where there’s a need. The most profitable language to learn for translation often includes English as well as other critical languages such as Chinese, Russian, French, German or Spanish.
Learning a Language for Immigration or International Study
In a constantly moving world, studying in a different country or moving to a different country altogether isn’t as uncommon as it was 50 years ago.
When moving to another country, learning the language of that country is always a great idea. Further, you may be faced with the challenge of “what language should I take in college?” with the option to study that language on location later on.
If you have a destination in mind, you should research what language is spoken there and learn at least a little bit of it. While a “survival level” of that language may be okay, I recommend having a higher level of that language if you want to immigrate or study in a new country.
Further, some say that English is the best international language to learn. Even if you don’t learn the language of the place where you’ll go, knowing some English is always helpful.
In fact, many countries have English as an official language. Even countries that don’t have English as an official language use it as a working language or the language of academic institutions such as academies and universities.
Other useful languages of common immigration or study hotspots include French, German, Italian, Russian, Chinese and Japanese. These languages are used in their respective country as well as countries nearby.
Learning a Third, Fourth or Fifth Language: Building on What You Know
Many readers of this blog aren’t monolingual English speakers or native English speakers. That means that you may speak another language that’s not English and you may not even speak English as your first language. That’s a good thing!
In fact, you should use what you know to help you learn another language. This may mean finding similar languages to the other language or languages you already know. In other words, the best language to learn after Spanish may be French, Italian or Portuguese because then you’d be learning romance languages. Further, if you already speak Russian, try Serbian or Croatian; if you already speak Arabic, try Hebrew.
Next, you might want to re-learn a language you studied before. Perhaps you studied a language as a child or in school. The journey for how to remember a language you forgot isn’t as tricky as you may think because pieces of that language are amazingly still there somewhere in your brain!
Building on what you already know is particularly useful for learning multiple languages at once. This is because you can save time and energy by using what you’ve already mastered to push you forward in a language.
A cool trick for learning multiple languages is choosing mutually intelligible languages. Mutually intelligible languages are those that are so similar that you can understand one by learning the other. For example, if you learn Norwegian, you can understand Danish and Swedish. If you learn Serbian, you can understand Croatian and even some Montenegrin and Bosnian.
Getting Started: Your First Steps to Learning a Language
Once you decide on a language, what comes next is the most exciting: learning! One of the best ways to learn from home is online immersion, and FluentU is a program just for that.
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
You can use interactive subtitles to understand exactly what’s going on, and then you can turn those subtitles into flashcards. Each flashcard comes with a progress bar so you know exactly how well you know a word. The program is a good way to learn your target language as it’s actually spoken.
FluentU offers a free trial if you want to give it a shot before you commit.
How do you choose a language to learn from a world of choice? While there’s no wrong answer to that question, I hope this guide has inspired you, and gotten you ready to start exploring a whole new world!