Augustine once said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only a page.” Learning a language is a way to facilitate travel; not only can you equip yourself with the skills to communicate with people from and in other countries, learning a second language can be a way to traverse the diverse cultural landscape without ever leaving home. If you’re the type of person who knows that they want to learn a language, but can’t seem to settle on just one, it can be hard to get started.
If you want to know, “which language should I learn?”, have no fear! There are a number of ways to decide which language (or languages!) to learn when you take a look at a couple of different factors. For instance, we will explore which languages are spoken by the most people, which are in demand by employers or for economical reasons, which languages are easier to pick up depending on your first language, and which will provide a satisfying challenge, if you are up for it. Like travel, you can liken deciding which language to opening a good book. All you have to do is turn the page.
Thing To Consider
Before you learn any language, there are a number of things that you should consider. After all, learning a new language can sometimes take an entire lifetime! As you’re wondering, “what language should I learn?” take some of the following things into consideration:
- Your Learning Style
Knowing your learning style is a wonderful way to narrow down your field of language learning options. Certain languages, like American Sign Language, will appear to visual learners, while languages with a lot of inflection and tonal nuance, like Mandarin, will be a great choice for auditory learners.
- Availability of Resources
Will you be able to access the resources that you need? Learning a new language doesn’t mean that you need to drown in rote memorization and long, boring textbooks, but you will need to have access to your language of choice. You can check your local library. Besides there being a number of textual resources (obviously!) a lot of them now have language learning software on their computers. Additionally, you should look at what kind of multilingual radio and television programming is available in your area. Areas with higher concentrations of Spanish speakers, for instance, will have multiple television channels and shows that you can use to immerse yourself in the language, but there are plenty of other programming options available as well. Some satellite providers even offer entire Hindi or Korean programming packages! Take a look and see what language resources will be available to you.
- Practice Opportunities
The key to success when it comes to acquiring any new skill will depend on how often you practice. Language learning, in particular, comes much more easily when you can speak with fluent or native speakers in your target language. What kind of opportunities will you have to do this? Take a look at local colleges, online meet up groups, or scheduled community cultural festivals to get an idea of how you can immerse yourself in your target language.
Commonly Spoken Languages
Sometimes the easiest way to decide which language you should learn is to begin by considering which languages have the most speakers. When you’re approaching language learning–especially if you plan on teaching the language to yourself, it help to know which ones you are most likely to encounter as you go out into the world. We’ve compiled a list of the top five most common languages–that is, which languages have the most speakers worldwide. These numbers include people who speak the language as a second language, but exclude English, even though it is the third most prevalent language in the world, since chances are that if you’re reading this, you already know it!
- Mandarin Chinese-Mandarin Chinese is spoken by a whopping 955 million people worldwide, which comprises 14.4 percent of the global population.
- Spanish-Spanish is spoken by 6.15 percent of the population and like English, it is a common lingua franca–a language that is spoken by two people with differing mother tongues, making a bridge between two speakers so that they may find common ground.
- Hindi-Hindi is unique because it is spoken as a common second language, primarily in India, where many of its speakers have a different mother tongue. It is mutually intelligible with Urdu, and shares a phonetic alphabet–Devanagari–with many of the other languages on the Indian subcontinent.
- Arabic- with 293 million speakers, Arabic is the fifth most prevalant language in the entire world, and like Hindi, many of its subsequent dialects are mutually intelligible with Arabic.
- Portuguese-Portuguese is very widespread, and is the official or co-official language of 10 countries on 3 different continents. It shares a lot of its vocabulary with Spanish, though it is a unique and vibrant language all its own.
Languages Employers Love
Another thing to take under review when you’re deciding what language to learn is how it might benefit you in the workplace. Obviously, bi-and tri-lingual candidates are very attractive to employers no matter what language they speak, but there are a few languages that are in increasingly high demand when it comes to the job market.
In America those languages are consistently:
And that’s just the private sector! If you are considering a military career, there are a shortage of translators and interpreters in:
Speaking of the interpretation and translation field, if you are looking to find a job that focuses wholly on either of those two things, Spanish, Mandarin, and American Sign Language are the three languages that are most in demand in that respect. In fact, many schools for the deaf require all of their staff to have at least a beginner’s knowledge of sign language, even if they are not in teaching or administrative positions.
Learning a language is beneficial in a lot of ways, but understanding what employers look for when they want to hire a bilingual candidate can be a great way to narrow down your options when you are wondering what language you should learn. There are also a great number of resources out there for jobs that hire with a primary focus on the languages themselves, if you are looking to really extend your reach once you’ve become fluent–and we know you will become fluent!
Language Learning By Ease or Difficulty
To answer the question, “What language should I learn?” you might wish to take the relative difficulty of those languages into consideration. If you are hoping to learn a language pretty quickly, you might want to stick to the languages in Category I, which denote the languages that are most easily learned by native English speakers because they share similarities. If you’re up for a challenge, you may want to consider learning a language in Category V, which are considered to have few linguistic similarities. We’ll look at just a few of the languages in each category, which was compiled by the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Services Institute.
- Category I
- Category II
- Category III
- Category IV (This is the largest category, with over 42 languages!)
- Persian (Farsi, Dar, Tajik)
- Category V
- Cantonese Chinese
- Mandarin Chinese
Obviously, some of these languages will prove to be more difficult or spoken with more ease depending on you, the language learner. Some of the other factors to include when considering language learning difficulty include whether or not you have had some practice in the language before, how often you will be able to practice, and your ability to memorize a language’s vocabulary, grammar, and syntax.
Making Your Final Decision
Hopefully now you have a better idea of where to start. The best part about deciding what language to learn is that it isn’t really a final, set in stone answer. You could begin with something that hits every category on the list, and choosing something that is prevalent, can help you to get a job, and is relatively easy to pick up, like Spanish. You can also grab the things that interest you. If you already have an interest in Japanese culture, then you shouldn’t let the relative difficulty of learning that language discourage you at all! But all languages, as well as the global marketplace and landscape, are dynamic, constantly changing. Once you’ve picked one language up, you can learn another more easily, according to studies. You can even learn two languages simultaneously, if you’re up for a challenge. Above all, don’t limit yourself! If the world is a book with many pages, you don’t have to stop when you reached the end. Just learn to read it in another language.