• Loie Favre

Which is the best language to learn?

Updated: Apr 26, 2020

Though English is the language of the world in many ways, this hasn’t always been the case and it might not be the case forever. And in addition, you might want to consider learning another language as it opens the door to more job opportunities and digital careers. Chances are you will be safe just knowing English, but adding a second or third one will make you quite the asset. But which is the best language to learn?

International, multilingual work space
Choosing a language to learn? There are many factors that come into play.

The answer to this question can be affected by multiple factors. There are personal and career reasons that can play a large role, in addition to which languages might come easier to you over others.

Career value

Career plays a large part in why people learn a second or third language. The more languages you master, the better your CV, the better your chances are of landing a great job. These linguistic skills are like a gateway for employers to tap into more markets. It’s great for all careers in Sales, Marketing, PR, Translation, Interpretation, Tourism, Hotel Management, Trade, Education and more. Knowing which area of work and which market you want to work in will help you decide. If possible, determine early on in your education which type of work you plan on doing, and check which languages would make sense in this field, in order to make sure you attain a good level of fluency by the time your career does start.

People in a classroom
Understanding which languages are commonly used in your field is a good factor to consider.

Which languages are spoken the most in the world

You can also take into account which languages are spoken the most worldwide, and which ones will give you that edge. We can look at this from two perspectives; by the number of native speakers and by the total number of speakers overall.

Top languages by number of native speakers

  1. Chinese

  2. Spanish

  3. English

  4. Hindi

  5. Arabic

  6. Bengali

  7. Portuguese

  8. Russian

  9. Japanese

  10. Lahnda

To languages by numbers of speakers

  1. English

  2. Mandarin Chinese

  3. Hindi

  4. Spanish

  5. French

  6. Standard Arabic

  7. Bengali

  8. Russian

  9. Portuguese

  10. Indonesian

With this taken into consideration, good languages to learn for your career would be Chinese, Spanish, French, Arabic, Russian, Hindi and Portuguese, if you consider the sheer amount of people who speak them. But there is yet another factor to consider and that is which countries or which regions are having an economic upturn.

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The language to learn also depends on which continent you live in. If you live in Europe, German is really one of the top languages you need to know, followed by English, French, Dutch and Spanish. Some of the top paying jobs in the UK go to those who speak German, Arabic, French and Dutch. And in North America, it’s English, Spanish, Portuguese, French and Japanese.

In any case, you need to know English, there’s no arguing that. Personally speaking, I would learn Chinese or Russian, because there have been multiple times where these two would have come in handy.

Chinese has always been an interesting language for me, but so far from any of the languages I know.

Similar root languages

Learning a language as an adult is hard, though it isn’t impossible. One trick to begin learning another language, if you don’t already know two (usually when you know two, you have it easier picking up a third. It’s like your brain is wired differently.), is to stick to one that has the same root language as your own. For example, if you speak French, then Italian or Spanish would be easier ones to master. If you speak German, then try your hand at Dutch, Swedish or Norwegian. For those who speak a Slavic language, you won’t have difficulty taking up Serbian, Macedonian or even Russian. It still takes time, but you are sort of in the fast-track lane at this point.

On a personal note, I found German to be easy for two reasons: first, a lot of words sounded very similar to English, it being of course a Germanic language by origin, having morphed over time to incorporate all sorts of international vocab. Secondly, I studied Latin as a teenager and I loved all the cases (Nominative, Accusative, Dative, etc.). This helped me understand the grammar behind German, much more than an anglophone that was never in touch with these types of grammar rules.

The Eiffel tower in Paris, where French is spoken.
Decide the Language by difficulty to learn. Latin languages are similar, therefore it's easier to pick up more than one.

Cultural pull and personal interest

You may not have an actual super pragmatic reason for learning another language - it may be solely because you, well, just like it! And not just that, you like the culture behind it! I have been in total awe sometimes when I, on very rare occasions, have met someone who speaks some other language totally different than their native one. A lot of the time, this has to do with an interest in the culture more than the language itself. Many of my friends speak Spanish, and though they don’t even use it on a daily basis, they picked it up quickly, and went on to travel to South America or Spain for some great cultural experiences. Learning the language will make travelling a lot easier, especially if you go off the beaten path. In this case, you don't need to be master it, just learn it on a conversational level and for necessities. And you'll improve when you are in the respective country.

Relocation: have to vs. need to

This is the main reason for a lot of people, and it ties a lot into the career factor. People either relocate between they want to or have to. I was fortunate to have immigrated to Germany, then Montenegro, for the sole reason that I wanted to (granted I learned just a small amount of Serbian, the motivation just wasn’t there). And this is the case with Millennials and younger, we can move where we want because of our globalized mindset, thanks to consuming the same types of media and receiving similar educations. On the other hand, there are people who need to relocate because of other more pressing factors: the need for employment because of a failed economy, war, oppression, natural disasters - the world can be a tough place. In this case, they travel, and in order to integrate into the culture where they arrive, try to pick up the language as soon as possible. I have been so impressed in Berlin by Syrian refugees who learned German in just months. And this is more than can be said for some friends there who spent years and years and can hardly muster more than a simple sentence (no offence, my friends!).

A woman moving abroad.
Relocating will automatically force your decision as to which language you have to learn, and actually learning it when you get there is also important for proper integration.

If you are on the side where you can move by choice and want to have an international experience for either career or education, this will help you of course choose the language you wish to learn.

Which level of a language do you need to have and why?

In addition to knowing which language you want to learn, another thing to consider is how well you will need to speak that language. For things like travel and finding the culture interesting, you would be able to pass by having a beginner to intermediate level, but for professionals, it really only makes sense to have intermediate to advanced or fluent. And you will have to master both writing and talking. In most cases, learning to write error-free is a lot harder than talking, where you can get by with a lot more than the unforgiving written word. Learning your grammar is just as important as learning how to order a beer.

I agree that being able to order a beer is important, but you need more than that if you want to make languages a part of your professional portfolio.

What is the CEFR?

For schools and jobs, you will know which level of a language is needed as they will likely make reference to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), where language proficiency is broken down to an alphanumeric chart, from A1, A2, A3, and the same for B and C. The highest is C2, which stands for mastery. Each country has its own institutes to test language level and appoint you with a grade. It is great to achieve a B2 or C1 when it comes to your profession. An A2 or B1 would suffice for travel or if language is needed only on occasion.

How to learn the language you have chosen?

In my other article, I mention tips on how to learn a second language, but there are some other ways that I did not list there. Now in the time of COVID-19, where we are all staying at home, taking an online language course is a great idea. There are many online German, French, Spanish Italian courses, you name it, that you can take, with the likes of Babbel and Duolinguo. There has been a huge spike in language learning apps, like Duolingo, that incorporate gamification to keep you motivated. Check out Udemy and Coursera for free or inexpensive online courses as well. In addition, look up your local language institute to find recognized language schools if you want to be serious about it.

So, what are you going to do?

In conclusion, I can’t really tell you which language to learn, but I have hopefully given you some things to consider in making your decision. Have you thought about learning a new language and which one is it?