One of the great thrills of language learning is just in choosing a new system of culture, symbols and meaning to tackle.
Often, the choice is not made in the head, but in the heart:
We’re in love with Brazilian music, and so we learn Portuguese.
We’re in love with a Catalan girl, and so we learn Catalan.
Or we’re in love with cheese and cinema, and so we learn French.
But when those sorts of adventures are conquered or run aground, we might next want to pick from among the world’s 6,000 languages based on some actual foresight and pondering of the evidence.
Now maybe you prefer the obscure, but if you find it most practical to consider one of the major world languages—which are generally defined as languages that get some use and respect beyond their own cultural/geographical group—then here’s a closer look at eight of the big ones.
How and Why to Pick a World Language to Learn
Since high school, I have taken on six languages in which I eventually became fluent, but I have also spent a significant amount of time (more than a year total) on completely failing to learn three more. Languages are intoxicating, alluring temptresses. It is fun to grab a textbook and jump in.
But before I had poured so much time and effort into those three failures, I wish I had more carefully weighed their benefits, and the costs and practical issues that would eventually drag me down and cause my motivation to flag. Here’s what I have found to be the top considerations to make before taking the plunge in terms of world languages and their practicality for you.
- Travel: How will this language enrich or enable travel experiences?
- Business: In my line of work, what opportunities could this language open up?
- Personal: Does this enrich my personal, social, family or romantic possibilities?
- Cultural: What music, literature, film, theater, television, etc. can I enjoy or create in this language? What activities (dance, martial arts, sports, etc.) can I take part in with it?
- Difficulty: How far removed is this from the languages that I know? What special challenges does this language present in terms of grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation and writing systems?
- Linguistic appeal: What are the wild and interesting thrills that this language’s grammar and vocabulary may open up as ways to experience and reflect on the world’s events and emotions?
A Closer Look: 8 Major World Languages That’ll Steal Your Heart
Here are the major world languages to consider, and a look at their selling points for the language-learning addict.
If you’re reading this, you of course probably already speak English. But for the purposes of comparison with those to follow, consider that this is the world’s lingua franca in just about every domain. One larger estimate puts the total number of (native, fluent and attempted) speakers at 2 billion, or roughly one-third of the world’s population. There are so many enriching thrills to be had in speaking other languages, but this is the single most practical language you can speak.
That said, consider that another two-thirds of the planet don’t speak English, and that many (well, most) of those who do speak it do so pretty badly. You’re going to have more interesting adventures in human communication if you can master one or more of the other major world languages below.
Spanish is spoken in Spain and in a large swath of the Americas, both of which are very appealing areas in which to live and travel. Instituto Cervantes puts the total number of native speakers at 470 million, and the total number of speakers worldwide at 559 million.
Spanish also has an outsized cultural presence in the world thanks in particular to its contributions to music, film, literature and television. I’ve met a number of people in my travels in Eastern Europe and Brazil, for instance, who have picked up Spanish simply because they enjoy dancing tango or watching telenovelas (soap operas).
Many learners find this to be a relatively “easy” language to tackle, though any such judgement is of course subjective based in particular on your experience with languages close to it. But, if you’ve studied Latin, French or other Romance languages, you will of course find this approachable.
It also shares a lot of words with English, particularly those which in English are descended from Latin.
Pronunciation for many learners can be quite easy to approach, since there are only five base vowels to deal with and they are quite separate from each other; even if you don’t hit them exactly you’re still going to be understood. The writing system is also quite simple to learn, with very nearly one sound for each letter of the alphabet.
The French government tells us that there are 220 million French speakers on the planet, including those who speak it “partially.” It is, after English, the most taught language on the planet, and an important language for diplomacy. It is one of six working languages for the U.N., one of three procedural languages for the E.U., and the sole language for deliberations of the Court of Justice of the European Union.
The language can be relatively easy to understand for English speakers because it shares a lot of cognates with English, thanks to the two languages’ intertwined histories. On the other hand, it has up to 17 vowels, depending on what you count, which can make pronunciation a bit difficult, and the spelling system, while better than that of English, is not exactly straightforward.
The Chinese government insists that “Chinese” is one single language, but since there are quite a number of not particularly mutually intelligible “varieties” under that umbrella, as a language learner you’re going to have to start with just one. And in terms of practicality as a world language, your best choice is Mandarin, which has 897 million native speakers.
Even Mandarin has a wide range of variation, but the standard version is a lingua franca in China, and can be used by Mandarin speakers from various dialects to communicate.
For those coming from a tone-free, Latin-script-using language like English, Mandarin can certainly appear frightening, and it is indeed a challenge. It is difficult for adult learners to get used to using tones as part of communication and memorizing the 4,000 characters known to an average educated Chinese person is daunting.
One blogger points out the many challenges, including cultural factors that can be discouraging as well, including a Chinese propensity to laugh at any mispronounced phrase. On the other hand, Chinese has no cases, declensions or genders, and the tense system is relatively straightforward. If you have a personal desire to learn Chinese, you can rise to the challenge!
As with Chinese, Arabic is considered a single language, but from the point of view of a language learner it is a variety of not-mutually-intelligible, um, “dialects,” and you will have to pick one. There are 267 million total Arabic speakers in the world, and no one “dialect” is dominant, so you’ll have to pick based on which region or culture interests you the most.
There is also the literary version of the language, Modern Standard Arabic. It is used in most written documents and in news broadcasts, and spoken as a second language by educated people throughout the Arab world. It is one of the six official languages of the United Nations, and it is related to Classical Arabic, which is the language of the Quran.
However, from the point of view of a language learner it can be quite frustrating to have the purely spoken dialect used by people in conversations and the written form to learn as well, with little overlap between them. This means that a decision to “learn Arabic” generally means learning two “languages.”
The writing system is from right to left, and the cursive (connection of an entire word) can make it difficult to approach at first. But there is at least much more consistency between spelling and pronunciation than one finds in English, and so reading and writing can be mastered rather quickly. The language uses three cases, eight noun declensions, and lots of other inflections that can be challenging.
Native Russian speakers number 171 million according to one count, and the language is important on the world stage, with second-language speakers located particularly in the former Soviet republics. One count puts total speakers at 260 million.
This gives you a huge range of lands that you could travel over and make use of the language, and these are places where often it can be harder to find people with passable English skills.
The spelling system is not as scary as it looks. The 33 letters indicate mostly regular pronunciation patterns (though stress and what it does to vowels can be hard for learners to predict). The grammar on the other hand is duly frightening; cases are complex and there are many irregularities.
The same is true for verb conjugations, though the use of perfective and imperfective aspects to indicate the degree to which something is finished can be rather new and fun.
Portuguese counts some 202 million native speakers in the world, and one of the main appeals is that the language provides the best music on the planet. For me, listening to music was an unending source of motivation in learning the language.
Most learners will decide between the European or Brazilian varieties, which are written similarly, particularly since the recent standardization, but have quite different pronunciations and vocabularies.
Like Spanish and French, this is a Romance language, so if you speak either one of those languages or Latin, this will be a relatively easy project. Pronunciation of some sounds, particularly open and closed vowel sounds, can be difficult for language learners.
In terms of grammar it could be considered a bit more complex than other Romance languages, as Portuguese has more total ways to inflect verbs, although in practice many of these are not used so much, particularly in the Northeast of Brazil and among less-educated speakers.
Hindi has some 260 million native speakers, is the official language of a number of Indian states and is used at the national level as well by many non-native speakers. It is written in the Devanagari script, from left to right, and the pronunciation is phonetic and regular.
Hindi is an Indo-European language, and that coupled with British colonization has left some cognates between English and Hindi. Tenses are straightforward but do not of course correspond exactly to English tenses, which can make choosing the right one a bit of a challenge.
Which is the best language for you? I can’t tell you that, of course, but I hope that this has given you a few clues as to where you might want to head.
While this post focused on world languages, you definitely may also want to consider smaller, regional languages. While they can be less useful in a practical sense, there is a real joy in being able to speak a bit of Quechua or Catalan with a native speaker, who will often be surprised and quite grateful for your efforts.
So whether you go for one of the big world languages or a lesser-known dialect, I hope you enjoy the journey!
Mose Hayward blogs about language learning, dating and failure at TipsyPilgrim.com.
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