There are many reasons to learn a new language, ranging from general interest and traveling to increasing your job prospects. Maybe you want to do well on the SAT. Studies suggest that learning another language may even change how you think. Whatever your reason, people from all over the world are interacting with one another more. This means there’s increasing demand for people who know multiple languages. In fact, 96 percent of business managers and executives in a Strategy + Business survey “thought language skills are either “very important” or “somewhat important” for professional success in the current business environment.” While there are many lovely languages – more than 6,909, actually – not all provide the same benefits.
When choosing a new language, there are many things to consider: your interest in the language, your potential future career, the difficulty of the language, and more. Naturally, learning any language will provide more opportunities than you had before and will open your world to a new culture, new knowledge, and new destinations for travel. All languages have these things in common, though, so I will skip mentioning this again. Your reasons for learning a language will greatly impact which languages are best suited for you, but there are a few major languages that are great choices for anyone to learn. Below, I have ranked some languages by usefulness and difficulty to an American student who is a native English speaker.
Spanish (Study Time: 575 – 600 Hours)
Spanish is the second-most spoken language in the United States. According to the U.S. Census, about 12.9% of Americans speak Spanish at home, and that number is steadily rising. Around the world, there are over 30 countries with major Spanish-speaking populations and over 437 million native speakers, which is more than English. Many of those countries, in Latin and South America, are our neighbors. The U.S. Hispanic population reached 57 million in 2015 and made up 54% of the U.S.’s population growth in the last decade. As a result, there are many industries who want workers who can speak Spanish, ranging from Nursing to Construction to Media. At home, Hispanic Americans control more than $1.3 Trillion in buying power. Abroad, companies like Pepsico are investing billions in Latin America. It’s no wonder that 79% of job recruiters and hiring managers say that Spanish is the most demanded second language.
More countries speak French than you think. French is right behind English and Arabic with 53 countries having major French-speaking populations. That adds up to a total of 76.1 million native French speakers and roughly 220 worldwide. French is the only language besides English that is taught in every country around the world as France operates the largest international network of culture institutes. Learn French and you will be able to communicate on any continent, from Louisiana or Canada in North America to Vietnam, Cambodia, and more in Asia. French is used as the language of business in many countries and is an official language of many major organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, and The International Red Cross.
Like in any major language, there are many varieties of Chinese, but Mandarin is the most widely spoken by far. Mandarin has the largest native-speaking population, with 898 million speakers. In total, there are approximately 1.05 billion Mandarin speakers around the world. China is a major player in world politics and economics, and it has a vital relationship with the United States. It is the second largest economy in the world, and it is the U.S.’s largest trading partner. As a result, many companies see China as a key market, and they are making long-term investments in the country.
In recent years, China has been opening up more to the West. As that happens, there will be more and more opportunities to make use of this language professionally. Chinese also isn’t as hard as you think. Even though the language may have thousands of characters, only a small portion of them are used in everyday conversation, and the characters are organized pretty logically. The grammar can also be easier to learn than some European languages which have different forms for things such as gender and the singular/plural.
German (Study Time: 750 Hours)
If you are a native English speaker, German is a relatively easy language to pick up. That’s because English is a Germanic language, and much of its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax is similar to its mother language. Germany is a very important player in Europe, affecting policies regionally and globally. Additionally, many opportunities await in all fields for those who want to learn German. It’s common knowledge that many business opportunities exist for German speakers as many German companies such as Daimler AG (Mercedes), Adidas, Soundcloud, Bosch, T-Mobile, Siemens Group, Volkswagen Group, BMW, and more consider the U.S. to be an important market. Germany has the fourth-largest economy in the world, and it is the largest one in Europe.
A lesser-discussed benefit is that German seems to be the language of innovators. Germany is right behind the U.S. and U.K. in the total number of Nobel Peace Prize recipients, touting over 100 winners. That puts it at number three in the world. If you count countries that have large German-speaking populations, that number jumps to over 150. German can be a gateway to a world-class education too; the quality of its universities are internationally recognized (and it doesn’t hurt that Germany has many low-cost or free schools too)! German is widely used in academia, and it is one of the most published languages. A better question is why haven’t you started learning German?
Japanese (Study Time: 2200 Hours)
Even though Japan is a small country with only 127 million people, it has the third largest economy in the world. Japan is a key trading partner of the U.S. and one of our closest allies. As a result, we are becoming more exposed to Japanese culture, and Japanese companies such as Sony, Toshiba, Toyota, Canon, Mitsubishi, Honda, and Hitachi are household names. Because of this, learning Japanese increases your job opportunities as many large American companies have a presence in Japan (and vice versa). Japan is also having trouble managing its shrinking population. As a result, there are two openings for every job applicant in Tokyo, and employers are starting to look to foreigners to fill those positions.
Arabic (Study Time: 2200 Hours)
Arabic is the fifth-most spoken language in the world with 295 million native speakers (in 57 countries) and 420 million in all worldwide. You may not have known that many things we take for granted in the western world have roots in the Arab world. Universities and hospitals as we know them today, to name a few, began in the Arab world. If you like to have a cup of coffee in the morning, you can thank Arabs for that too. There is a lot of fascinating classical and present-day knowledge that has come from the Arab countries, and this language is your gateway to it. It’s no secret that many of these countries are in the news a lot lately – learning Arabic could be beneficial just to understand this part of the world a bit better.
There are many professional reasons to learn Arabic too. There is a very high demand for westerners who speak the language, and there are very few people that are able to meet this need. Even though Western governments will be more than happy to recruit you if you speak the language (or pay to train you), there are opportunities outside of government work too. Arabic translators and teachers make good money, and the Arab world is primed for development.
Arab countries have pretty sizeable economies – some are among the richest countries in the world, and if you combined the economies of all the countries in the Arab League, it would be number five in the world, right behind Germany. Business opportunities exist as well for those who are willing to move abroad. In the United Arab Emirates, for example, it is estimated that as much as 90% of the population is made up of foreign workers. These countries are growing fast, so there will likely be more opportunities appearing for Arabic-speakers in the future.
Russian (Study Time: 1100 Hours)
Russia continues to pop up in the news for one reason or another. The country still has a lot of influence in the world and tends to disagree with the U.S. on many levels. The need for Russian speakers (along with Chinese, Japanese, Hindi, and Arabic speakers, to name a few) is considered to be essential to the U.S.’s national security. As a result, there are many scholarships, study abroad, and training opportunities through various government agencies, colleges, NGOs, and more for students who wish to learn the language and study Russian culture.
Like English, Spanish, French, Chinese, and Arabic, it is also an official language of the UN (and other international organizations). Russia also has many speakers worldwide (154 million native speakers and 220 million overall), though it’s not in the top five. The country has a very large economy too, so there are opportunities abroad for those who are interested in teaching or doing business in Russia.
Hindi (Study Time: 1100 Hours)
Hindi is a language that is largely spoken in India and the surrounding areas. India has the world’s second-largest population with 1.3 billion people (only 100 million less than China), and Hindi speakers make up about 40% of that population. There are roughly 260 million native Hindi speakers and 490 million worldwide. Depending on the source, this puts Hindi as the second- or third-most spoken language in the world, neck-in-neck with English.
Besides having a large population, India is becoming more of an economic powerhouse. It currently has the seventh largest economy in the world and one of the fastest growing economies at that. There are companies that are already starting to invest more in India, and it wouldn’t be unusual if more opportunities keep arising. In the future, Hindi speakers will be in demand more and more as India becomes richer and more powerful.
Worth noting: Latin
If you want to improve your command of the English language and understanding of Western culture, I highly recommend learning Latin. We have already talked before about the many benefits of learning Latin, so I will state my personal highlights. About 60% of the English language has some root in Latin, making up much of our common words and phrases. Latin is the mother/cousin of many languages, too, so it makes many of the languages on this list – such as Spanish, French, and German – easier to learn. It even shares some grammatical elements with Arabic and Russian.
Because the language is inflected, it takes practice to understand it well, increasing your analytical abilities in the process. That’s why it helps you do better on tests like the SAT and LSAT. It’s also incredibly fun – the Latin-learning community is thriving through organizations such as the American Classical League and Junior Classical League, providing many opportunities to learn, engage, and have fun with other Latinists.
Learning any of these languages can give you an advantage in life as there is a lot of demand for speakers in all of them. The time commitment isn’t that great either. You can easily learn many of these by practicing 30 minutes to an hour every day using an app like Duolingo or Drops. Apps like these aren’t the best for everyone, though. Some people don’t get other languages naturally. Perhaps you need a little accountability. Whatever the case, we’re happy to help you achieve your language goals with our personalized, one-on-one tutoring. Get in touch!
Ralston is the CEO and owner of Strive Academics. He has personal experience with seven languages (most of the ones on this list). Ralston is a lifelong learner and began tutoring in 2011 to share his love of learning with others and help students achieve their academic goals. Ralston especially loves teaching Latin and Arabic to students and has a personal goal of becoming fluent in 10-20 languages.